Freelance Percussionist & Composer
Jan Bradley is a freelance percussionist based in Manchester UK. He plays for various orchestras including the Hallé, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Opera North, BBC Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony orchestra and Manchester Camerata. As well as performing regularly as an orchestral percussionist, he is also known for his work with 4-MALITY Percussion Quartet. Jan has been part of the quartet since it was formed in 1999. The quartet have performed extensively around the UK and also in Ireland, Finland, Germany, Belgium, France, Turkey, Spain, Australia and Taiwan. He is also a composer and arranger, primarily for percussion, although he has also written for trumpet, voice, string quartet, saxophone and a percussion concerto with full orchestra. This year he featured as a multi-percussionist on the album/DVD, When the Sky Came Down (Live at The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester) by Gary Numan.
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
I first had percussion lessons when I was 8 years old. I’d been learning violin since I was 4, but had always been keen on drums. Somewhere there is a picture of me “accompanying” my older sister (now a professional violinist) on an East African drum. I was about 2 years old in that picture.
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
At the time, there just were not a whole load of people out there teaching drums or percussion. My parents had been looking for a teacher for a couple of years. I was spectacularly fortunate that Sheila Russell moved to the area and took a job teaching percussion at the local music centre. Sheila had studied at the RNCM and had a great playing career that included orchestral work, touring shows and TV sessions. I was there like a shot and studied with Sheila until I left home to go to music college. We started with snare drum. After the first lesson we were told to come back with a pair of sticks and Buddy Rich's Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments … . I had a practice pad - then later a snare drum. For the first couple of years we largely focused on snare drum technique - working our way through the early grades of the brand new Guildhall School of Music Percussion syllabus. As I got older I was gradually introduced to timpani and tuned percussion. I also started to have drum kit lessons with Christine Barron (https://christine-barron.com/).
What instruments/resources did you have?
To start with just a pair of sticks and a pad. When it looked like I was really keen, my family bought me a really cheap snare drum. (My advice to parents, - get quality second hand rather than cheap glossy and new!) I actually think at the beginning, my lack of access to a drum kit was a huge bonus! I had a good chunk of time when I was young just developing a solid stick technique which has served me really well. It's actually very hard to persuade someone who has the option of hitting all the sounds on a drum kit to just focus on one drum and build up good wrist/hand/finger control. The game changer came when my parents found me a very old xylophone. It had very thin bars, but was nearly in tune. I found tuned percussion spectacularly hard. I was so bad at reading notes on a stave that I was taken to the optician to see if my problem might be that I couldn’t see the dots. My eyes were not the problem - must be a brain issue! The xylophone was important because one day I found I could play short piece to a small audience (I think my sister accompanied me on the piano) and it would be appreciated. Unless you have absolutely knockout chops (I didn’t and still don’t) it’s quite hard to do that on a snare drum or set of timps.
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
Some people really need a definite goal to aim for when practicing. This is where graded exams can be really useful. The actual bits of paper are of almost no practical use but the deadline of having to be able to do something specific on a specific day can be a great motivator. I would always encourage young percussionists to grab any opportunity to perform. School orchestra/band, local music service, rock band in the garage, choir. Say yes to everything, create your own opportunities. If you end up taking too much on? What a great position to be in! Now you can choose.
With your knowledge and experience now, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young percussionists to engage with?
Forming a Percussion Duo (with my good friend Stephen Whibley) just after I left college was a really important part of my development as a player. I remember being shocked at how little time there was available for personal practice during my 4 years at music college, and this was the first time I had to experiment and actually work on all the the ideas I had been exposed to over the previous 4 years. My technique improved dramatically, my abilities as a chamber musician were really starting to grow, and the incentive to get stuff right so as to not let the other half of the team down was really a great driving force.
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
From a fairly young age, 6 or 7, my parents would take me to orchestral concerts, both professional and amateur. I’m sure that was where I got the idea. I was about 14 when I decided to do everything I could to make it happen. I remember feeling that I didn’t know if it was possible to have a career in music with my level of talent (I wasn’t sure it was enough since I knew plenty of people my age who found some of it much easier than I did) but that I was going to go for it anyway.
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
I studied at the RNCM for 4 years with Ian Wright, Liz Gilliver, Paul Patrick, Graham C. Johns , Nick Petrella and numerous visiting guests.
Why did you decide this pathway?
At the time I was looking to study, the other major music colleges in the country had a far narrower approach to percussion than the RNCM. The line was very much “if you come here, we will teach you what you need to play in an orchestra - if you go to the Northern they will have you messing around on marimbas and learning to play the surdo. Stick with us and you are more likely to get an orchestral job (we’ve got the stats to prove it)”. I’m not kidding! This is what they told me. I did think about this seriously because playing orchestral music was really what I wanted to do. I decided to go with the RNCM because I was interested in keeping my options open, and fortunately, I've been playing for orchestras constantly since I left. In fact this outlook (from the other colleges) changed rapidly while I was studying. By the time I left, all the other colleges had moved to a far broader percussion curriculum.
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
In the 2 years before I got to music college I was fortunate enough to have access to a set of timpani (and a Dad who was happy to borrow the school van and drive me to gigs!) I picked up quite a lot of work playing for amateur orchestras - often in cold churches with local choral societies.
What happened next?
By the time I got to music college I had more experience as a timpanist than many undergraduates. My timpani tutor (Ian Wright) recognised this, and started to recommend me for timp gigs he had been offered but was too busy to fulfil. I don’t remember all of these gigs, but the standout one was a touring opera production of Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’. I travelled all around the country (about 25 dates). A fantastic opportunity (Thank you Ian!!)
You are a founding member of 4-MALITY percussion quartet, what do you enjoy about chamber performance?
Performing chamber music is a really different experience to playing with an orchestra. Often with an orchestra, the role of percussionist is to add icing to the cake. With chamber music you get to do the cake and the icing, which is pretty satisfying. There is also a great feeling of camaraderie with your fellow musicians. In addition, you have far more responsibility for the artistic decisions.
4-Mailty have toured extensively, what is this like and are there any challenges?
I love to travel, so touring for me is pretty much the perfect existence - getting paid to do two of the things I love. There are times when it can be completely exhausting but that’s never something I would complain about.
You have performed with many orchestras, ensembles and artists. What do you enjoy about the ‘portfolio career’ of a percussionist?
The eclectic mix of ensembles I get to play with is probably the key to why I always enjoy every bit of work I have. If I only ever worked with the same group of musicians, it’s not hard to imagine becoming a little jaded. After a spell working with 4-MALITY it can be really nice to work for an orchestra where I just do what I’m told.
You are also a prominent composer for percussion, how and when did you start composing?
I first started arranging and composing for the percussion ensemble my teacher started running when I was about 14. There was not a whole lot of ensemble music to choose from and my thought process at the time was “Even I can probably do better than some of this stuff!” I got the impression that my music was enjoyed by both players and audience. That was such a great feeling, I kept doing it.
What is it like to have your compositions featured at events such as the BBC Proms and BBC Young Musician of the Year?
I used to go to the The Proms when I was so small that the Promenaders (the 1000 or so people who stand in the middle of the Albert Hall to watch these gigs) would let me through to the front so I had a chance to see something more than just a sea of legs. So it is pretty special to go there and find my name on the posters outside the venue! The BBC Young Musicians competition has had a pretty big impact on my career as a composer. It’s hard to image 4-MALITY being as successful as it is without the major kick start we had at the beginning because Adrian Spillett (the only percussionist to ever win the competition) was in the group. I love to watching people perform my works on TV, I’ve even had a number of people commission me to write music specifically for the competition.
Does composing compliment your performing career?
On one level, it is great to have something to be working on for those times when I don’t have enough playing engagements - a problem all freelancers suffer from at times. On another level it really has helped my playing career because I’ve been able to write music tailored to the musicians and audiences I’m working with. It also helps me to keep practicing. No better motivation to practice than writing something really tricky and then wanting to hear what it sounds like.
What is your career highlight so far?
There was a 4-MALITY concert we played in Berlin one time where everything just came together really well. Fantastic hall, really responsive crowd, a slight air of danger surrounding some of the pieces (the same show had been slightly unsuccessful in the UK the week before). The final item on the program was one of my pieces and had gone down a storm. It it was my job to say thank you to the audience and announce the encore (which was also one of mine). Those few seconds of talking to audience and then taking my place for the next piece. That was pretty awesome.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
Getting paid for doing something you love is really fantastic. But (as a fantastically successful conductor once whispered to me conspiratorially) - “Don’t tell the management, but this is so much fun I would be more than happy doing it for free.”
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist thinking about a career in music?
1) Don't be too concerned if there is some element of playing that you seem to find much more difficult than everyone around you; a) If you keep working at it, you will get better; b) Percussion is a broad church. There will be an area where you have strengths that other people don't.
2) Some people who make it in this profession appear to be just spectacularly talented and find everything easy. While this is definitely true of some musicians, many who appear like this are just normal human beings who have done a lot of practice!
3) Being in the right place at the right time is an (often unacknowledged) important factor in how a career can pan out. While there is obviously an element of luck going on here, luck is far more likely to fall on someone who is getting out there, making friends and connections, taking part, and being easy to work with.
If you would like to find out more about Jan, check out his website:
Jan on Instagram