West End Percussionist for the 'Phantom of the Opera' 

Matthew Dickinson

Matt Dickinson turned professional in 1996 and, since then, has enjoyed a busy career as both performer and teacher.  As well as long-standing associations with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, he has worked on numerous West End productions and became the percussionist for The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre in 2018.  Formally Head of Percussion at the Junior Dept of the Royal Academy of Music, he is now Head of Wind, Brass and Percussion at St. Paul's Girls' School. He uses Sabian cymbals and triangles. 

 

Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?

I was six years old living in Hull.  I was in a music shop one day and nagged my parents to buy me a pair of drum sticks.  I annoyed them so much by hitting the floor with them they bought me a little snare drum for Christmas and organised lessons for me through the local music service.  I had already started piano but had a bit of a love/hate relationship with that. Drumming, however, excited me and I felt like I had some sort of connection with it.

Who was your first teacher and where did you start?

 

I started on the snare drum with Freddy Ashworth who worked for Hull Music Service.  He was a bit of a grumpy so-and-so but, looking back, he taught me the basics thoroughly and soon got me involved with a local training orchestra which was an amazing experience.  I'm very grateful to him and the Music Service, which my brother now runs funnily enough, for that early encouragement.
 

What instruments/resources did you have? 

 

At home I had that snare drum and then was lucky enough to get my first drum kit when I was ten.  
 

Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education? 

 

Take the opportunities when they come and don't be afraid to try new instruments.  Just because you might think of yourself as a kit player or a timpanist it doesn't mean you can't try your hand at other percussion instruments.  In our line of work versatility is key so have a go!  If you're given an opportunity to play in an ensemble take it.  You will learn so much from doing so. Practising regularly is obviously very important and don't be afraid to practise slowly and methodically.  Exams can be an incredibly useful way of practising with focus while giving you performance experience.  They are not the be all and end all however.  Percussion exams are still a relatively new thing so many of the finest players in the country never even had the opportunity to take one and it didn't do them any harm!  There are many different ways of approaching learning an instrument and, in my opinion, good teachers will always find a way for a pupil to develop. There isn't one set method.

With your knowledge and experience now, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young percussionists to engage with?

 

Percussion is primarily an ensemble instrument so try and play in as many different ensembles as is practical:  play kit in a jazz band or rock band, play timps in an orchestra, have a go at tuned percussion in a percussion ensemble etc.  The more you play the more confidence grows and then solo repertoire will follow.

 

At what point did you decide this was the profession for you? 

 

It was probably during university which I loved (I met my wife there!) but, for all the good that did me it made me appreciate that the area of music I was probably best at was playing.  I then went to the Guildhall as a post-graduate and it developed from there.

After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?

 

I read music at Nottingham University and was lucky enough to stay with my teacher from Junior RCM, Keith Bartlett and also the late, great Janos Keszei who had been teaching me timps during my sixth form.  At Guildhall I learnt with David Corkhill, Richard Benjafield and Mike Skinner who I went on to work with a lot at the Royal Opera House.

Why did you decide this pathway?

It was a little bit of a toss-up between university and music college but, at the time of applying, I was a bit undecided about what I wanted to do so my parents suggested university would give me a broader education knowing that a post-grad at music college could be a possibility.

 

What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it? 

While I was a second year at university Roger Blair, who had been one of my tutors at the National Youth Orchestra and the timpanist with the Guildford Phil broke his arm and rang me up to ask whether I would like to cover the rest of the season for him.  While this had logistical challenges I leapt at it and am so glad I did.  I played some fantastic repertoire for the first time like the War Requiem and a number of Tchaikovsky and Brahms symphonies and got to know some wonderful players like Nigel Shipway, James Holland and Nick Ormrod among many others all of whom came along to join the percussionist, Chris Nall, in the section.

What happened next?

 

I went to Guildhall which really cemented my desire to pursue percussion as a career and then, once I left, started to pick up bits of freelance work here and there often thanks to my teachers.  Keith Bartlett always encouraged me to teach saying it would compliment my playing work while also being an additional source of income.  My first teaching job was at Latymer Upper School and then, thanks to Keith, I also started at St. Paul's School in Barnes.  Running alongside this I was also doing some editing work for my old tutor at university, John Tyrrell, who had become the editor of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.  While we both knew this wasn't necessarily the direction I wanted to take, it was another source of income which, in those early years, was invaluable. My big break, if you can call it that, came when I was asked by Nigel Bates, the then principal percussionist of the Royal Opera House, to come and play in a production of Turandot.  This was the start of a long and happy association with this orchestra which, covid-permitting, is still the case today.  I've played in over 150 productions usually as a section player but occasionally on-stage, off-stage, principal and even soloist on one occasion.  I've met and worked with so many different percussionists and, as a result, started to work in the West End.  Myself and a seasoned West End percussionist, Julian Poole, were two of the twelve players required to play the off-stage anvils in Wagner's Das Rheingold.  During these rehearsals he asked whether I would like to come and sit-in with him on the show he was working on at the time, Andrew Lloyd-Webber's 'The Woman in White'.  This was another new experience which I found eye-opening.  Julian had lots of instruments to play ranging from timpani and xylophone to bongos and washboard.  If ever I needed a reason for trying out so many new instruments as a young boy this was it!  Many of them were right there in front of me and had to be played.  The sheer number of instruments one player had to play set it apart from most of the other professional playing I had done up to that point.  After the show Julian and I parted company and I didn't hear from him again until about six months later when he rang up out of the blue needing a new dep to start on the show the following week.  I could have made my excuses saying I needed more time to learn the show but I suppressed that urge and said yes and proceeded to get on with learning the show and sitting in again.  It was a fabulous experience and, since then, the West End has been a very important part of my career.  I've depped on many shows and had long associations with shows such as Lion King for Chris Baron and Wicked for Markus Gruett.  Then came Phantom....

You are the Principal Percussionist for the West End show The Phantom of the Opera, what's this like?

 

You flatter me!  I'm the only percussionist on Phantom or, at least, I was before the Pandemic. It is/was the most amazing experience.   To be part of a show steeped in history like Phantom and to be working in such an historical theatre fills me with tremendous pride.  When you join a show like that you're becoming part of a big family all of whom are working together day in day out to make that day's performance as special as possible.  I think you also become a lot more aware of the part everyone has to play in making that show a success and you have time to get to know them.  It is genuinely heartbreaking to think we might not be returning.

 

Are there any challenges?

 

You have to be very disciplined.  You must remember members of the audience are seeing your show for the first time and you must, therefore, give it your all even if you're feeling tired or distracted by other things going on in your life.  You might have played the show seven times already that week but you must push yourself to try and make the eighth as fresh as the first.

 

What would your advice be to a young percussionist aiming for a career in musical theatre?

 

Strange though it might seem I would say rather than aim for a career in musical theatre, aim for a career in music in general.  There is only so much forward planning you can do with professional playing so remain open-minded about the music you play and embrace the opportunities when they come.  Afterall, my way into musical theatre was through a Wagner opera!

You also regularly perform at the Royal Opera House, what's this like and does it differ from your West End work?

 

It's a terrific institution with an illustrious past.  In many ways it is still musical theatre albeit with a bigger pit! The orchestra is bigger and has to cope with a wider variety of rep.  You can be rehearsing one thing in the afternoon and performing something different in the evening which requires a different type of concentration to the West End.  

You have performed with many orchestras, ensembles and theatre productions, what do you enjoy about the 'portfolio career' of a percussionist?

 

I suppose when you look back you can feel satisfied you had a go at everything. As I said earlier, I've tried to allow my career to follow a fairly fluid path where I've been open to trying new things.  I suppose a 'portfolio' career comes out of that.  I have been very lucky and am extremely grateful for the work I have been offered.

You were the Head of Percussion at the Royal Academy of Music Junior Department and hold teaching positions at top London schools, when and why did you start teaching?

 

My teacher, Keith Bartlett, always recommended I did some teaching and that has been a constant throughout my career.  I'm Head of Wind, Brass and Percussion at St. Paul's Girls' School which is a terrific job largely because it is such a music-loving school.  I enjoyed my time at Junior RAM very much but with four children and working most Saturdays I had to give it up in the end.  I had some wonderful pupils there some of whom are now in the business.  I hope I contributed to that happening a little bit.

Does teaching compliment your performing career?

 

Very much so.

 

What is your career highlight so far?

 

There have been many performances of which I've been proud. To perform with the likes of Placido Domingo or Lorin Maazel was memorable; recording at Abbey Road is always special (particularly for a big Beatles fan!) and being a named artist on a recording of Britten radio plays which was subsequently nominated for a Grammy Award in 2013 was very exciting even if we didn't go on to win! My career highlight, however, would have to be getting the job at Phantom. 

What is the best thing about being a musician?

 

The people.  Musicians are among the cleverest, funniest and nicest people I know.

What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist thinking about a career in music?

 

1. Be open-minded.  Try your hand at everything.

2. Within reason, say yes and then deal with the consequences.  If you've never played a particular instrument before or have been asked to play something very difficult that doesn't mean you can't do it.  You might just have been handed the excuse to practise!

3. Be yourself.  Once you reach a certain level, people will ask you to do things because you're a nice person and they like having you around.

 

Any last thoughts?

 

Music is a wonderful but potentially insecure career. This year has reminded us of that. It never hurts, therefore, to have a plan B just in case.

Thanks Matt! 

His twitter feed is:  

@mcdperc_matt