City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra - Principal Timpanist
Teacher at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Wells Cathedral School.
Matt Hardy is a Timpanist, Percussionist and dedicated teacher who performs with a great variety of ensembles across the UK and internationally. Matt is the Principal Timpanist of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, having previously held the position of Principal Timpani and Percussion with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Originally from Bath, Matt started playing a variety of instruments before studying under Chris Stock, Steve Barnard and Phil Girling at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Matt has continued to maintain a busy freelance career working all over the world with many of the UK’s finest ensembles including the LSO, RPO, Philharmonia, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the Aurora Orchestra amongst many others. Aside from performing Matt is a busy educator working at Wells Cathedral School, Birmingham Conservatoire and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. He has tutored for a variety of ensembles in England, Scotland and Wales including NYO GB and has devised and led workshops with both adults and young people of all ages and abilities.
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
I started having piano lessons from a very young age (with the old lady in church!) and trumpet lessons when I was 7. Drum kit came a little later on in life in secondary school. I played trumpet in the county wind band - one year there were too many trumpets, and not enough percussion, so I started exploring that avenue and it went from there. I think it’s fair to say most percussionists started on other instruments and migrated!
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
I started exploring myself initially before having lessons with Mark Bradbury who taught in my county (Bath). He was brilliant, and managed to persuade the county to buy a marimba which meant we could start a little percussion ensemble!
What instruments/resources did you have?
At home I had a drum kit and a variety of pillows!! Later on my parents very generously bought a small xylophone for me. That was it! When I was slightly older I got invited on a residential course with our five county wind band based in Bristol. I remember getting off the bus and walking into a room packed full of instruments, most of which i'd never seen before! It was some experience.
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
1. EXPLORE!!! The world has changed now and the amount of resources available at the touch of a button is insane. YouTube is a game changer! My absolute favourite pupils from age 3 upwards are the ones who come in with a piece or question about something they have seen and want to learn it. Listen to your favourite players, and get excited about what you want to play.
2. I could talk for hours about practice techniques, but my number one tip for many reasons is - little and often is so much better than a big chucks of irregular playing.
3. Perform as much as possible….to your parents, friends and if you are lucky in formal settings. Use technology often - Film or record yourself on your phone and watch it back! When I do this I always end up thinking “Do I really do that?!?!"
With your knowledge and experience now, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young percussionists to engage with?
Engage with whatever is available to you. Any ensemble playing is amazing and the perk (no pun intended!) or our instrument is the vast variety of ensembles we can join. Orchestras, Wind Bands, Brass Bands, Percussion Ensembles…Pop/Rock/Jazz/Country/Folk/Classical…its all awesome. Playing with other people is why we do what we do! When it comes to solo opportunities - some people are comfortable aged 4 playing in-front of lots of people and for some of us (me included!) it takes a little longer to build up the confidence. It's good to push yourself but just make sure the no.1 thing is that you are enjoying yourself.
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
I wasn’t too sure even half way through college! I had a place to study Physics/Acoustics on the Tonmeister course at Surry University but decided that I owed it to myself to try being on the other side of the glass. I always knew in the back of my mind that I loved teaching so a Primary PGCE was (and still is!) on the cards. I was incredibly lucky to have the trust and support of some amazing people at Welsh College and it sort of happened for me.
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
I took at place at the mighty Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. It was the perfect place for me to be. I learned with Chris Stock, Steve Barnard and Phil Girling amongst others. They are great friends now and I feel incredibly blessed to have had, and continue to have their care and support.
At what point did you decide to specialise in Timpani and why?
In one of my first lessons with Steve he told me he didn’t have a local extra. I think I told him I loved playing the timps and I’d be up for that (as a joke of course!). He said “great…work hard for me then”. And I did! I specialised for a few reasons…It's a wonderful instrument. You get to play in far more repertoire and your roll in the orchestra is crazy! Sometimes you are a bass, sometimes you are just rhythm, sometimes you are a soloist, sometimes you are a third trumpet and very often you and the leader are solely responsible for the whole ensemble (especially in earlier music). It is often terrifying. I still play percussion but do feel more at home behind the tubs!
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
I think every gig you get paid for in any capacity is a professional engagement and should be treated equally. With this is mind I don’t remember (!), but it was probably one of about 30+ Carmina Burana's I must have done with every choir in wales at some point or other!!! As far as with a full time outfit it was Second Timps with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales playing Symphonie Fantastique, and then on my own doing the Bill Bailey’s Guide to the Orchestra. I don't remember much of either of them as i was too terrified!
What happened next?
I carried on freelancing and teaching around Cardiff for the next 4/5 years. I taught for the county’s two music services (at one point full time) and had one day in a private school. I went into Wells Cathedral School to cover illness (we had a placement scheme when I was at RWCMD) and eventually started teaching there also. I did six very unsuccessful auditions (one of which I fell off my stool!!) and then I managed to get a trial with Scottish Chamber Orchestra. I eventually got that job (even though i’m sure they regretted it!!!), and moved to Edinburgh to start an amazing period of my life. I learned so much from that job, and really grew in many ways.
You are the Principal Timpanist for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, what's this like?
Are there any challenges?
When you have a position there is always politics to deal with which can get a bit annoying (!), but I’d say the biggest challenge is my own mind. As a timpanist/percussionist you are always playing your own part and mostly sit at the back of the orchestra with binoculars! You have to play with the upmost confidence which is tricky when you have 80 musicians in front of you relying on your pulse and direction. In Birmingham we have quite a large turnover of repertoire (in normal times!) so one week could be three days of something big, plus an education show and then a Friday night film evening on three hours rehearsal. Being able to be properly prepared for this can be a challenge. I am always trying to adapt and learn, which I feel is crucial in any professional, but especially ours.
What was the process to getting this job?
If you are lucky enough to get a trial you then are offered patches of work where you come in and play with the orchestra. It's tricky as you are never sure how to play, but ultimately as the process develops you pick up feedback and confidence. It's a very strange vibe but aside from the playing you just also have to fit in socially, and be a good person! The only thing you are in control of is your own product….the rest is out of your hands.
You also teach at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and the specialist music school, Wells Cathedral School, what's this like?
I feel very lucky to be working at such forward thinking institutions. It's a privilege to be working with students who care about their instrument so much. In this day and age (especially at primary/secondary school) it is rare for any student to have 1:1 time with another person which is why it is such a great position. Not only do you impart your musical/technical knowledge but you often end up being a support to other areas of life too! It's a very special job.
When and why did you start teaching?
Ultimately because I like it! In reality all musicians need a portfolio career nowadays (unless you are very lucky) and I happen to love it. At the moment i’m really missing working with the really younger ages like I used too in my Cardiff County days. Younger primary age children are like sponges…..you just have to enthuse them about music, and the instrument, and they soak it up. My highlight was the county’s Junior Schools Orchestra which had over 300 members including 15 percussionists. We had a lot of fun!
Does teaching help your performing career?
100%, I learn so much from working with students. The process of trying to explain something throws up many questions about your own development, but also simply “But why are you doing it like that Matt?”…….ummmm……good question! Teaching should be a two way relationship, where you learn together. Especially as I’m quite early on in my career I do feel its really important to pass on what you have learned (or are still learning) in your own experiences.
What is your career highlight so far?
I have been incredibly lucky to work all over the world with incredible ensembles and musicians, and it’s very hard to pick a highlight. If we're to be greedy and pick two…..
1) My first ever prom with BBC NOW performing Balshazzars feast (hashing my way through the tambourine part) is an amazing memory for me (the piece still gives me goosebumps!)
2) Conducting the Llandaff Primary School orchestra (of 22 pupils including 7 saxophones) on the Symphony Hall stage in the finals of Music for Youth was special for many reasons.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
Every week is different, and you get to meet and hang out with some of the best people on the planet.
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist/timpanist thinking about a career in music? The hardest question on here…..
1. Don’t think like a percussionist, think like a flute/trumpet/cello etc...our parts are so literal sometimes! Be as musical as you can possibly be and even if the material is technically simple (like it is a lot of the time) try and get beneath it. Listen as much as possible.
2. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes! How we deal with the mistakes we make can inform our whole musical future. Learn from them and use them to get better and better. Take (calculated) risks in performance. I’d rather aim for something really special, and maybe make a mistake along the way, rather than playing everything really safe.
3. Practice regularly and always remember to concentrate! It sounds silly but sometimes we can just go through the motions with no real attention to what we are doing.
(4. Always turn up early to set up…get the teas in…and make sure you help to pack down afterwards…..or you will never be booked again!)
If you would like to find out more about Matt, check out the links below:
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire bcu.ac.uk/conservatoire
Wells Cathedral School wells.cathedral.school/percussion/