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West End Percussionist for 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie'

Matthew West

Matthew is a percussionist, drummer, teacher and composer. After studying for five years at the Royal College of Music he graduated with a BMus in percussion and an MMus in composition. Playing in a wide variety of genres he has performed around the world, including Argentina, Hong Kong, Japan, Russia, Switzerland, Ireland and Essex. He has spent the past ten years working in the theatre both on tour and in the West End of London. Shows include Singin’ in the Rain, In the Heights, The Lion KingLes Miserables and Miss Saigon. He is currently the percussionist on Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre. A passion for percussion from around the world has led him to make a particular study of Cuban folkloric music alongside a myriad of other styles and instruments, which he collects like a magpie. Matthew has taught drums, percussion and music theory for almost twenty years in various schools and institutions and currently holds posts at Queens College London and the London Oratory School.


Who was your first teacher and where did you start?


I was about ten when we went to see my sister play in an end of year concert by Havering Music School at the Queens Theatre in Hornchurch. There was a young drummer there called Brian Goldspink who played with all the big ensembles and got a special mention for doing so. He was so good, so cool! "That’s what I want to do" I told my mum. So I started at Havering Music School on a Saturday morning. Percussion lessons with Pat Bilborough and Simon Hill on Drums (later Martin Johnson). I joined the Percussion Ensemble and the Junior Wind Band. My first performance was Jingle Bell Rock at the Christmas concert back at the Queens Theatre Hornchurch. 


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


Everyone’s journey is different and there is nothing you must do. The best thing advice I can give is play as much as possible; on your own, with friends, with your parents, with ensembles, with bands; listen to as much as possible and listen to yourself without judgement. And join a choir. The musical training singing gives you is essential to all musicians, percussionists included. 


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


Take everything you can but always do it with enjoyment. Playing with orchestras is an exhilarating experience and if you have the opportunity audition for a county orchestra where you can meet musicians from all over the area. But forming a band with your friends and playing any music is equally beneficial to a growing percussionist. 


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


I had a good year when I was about 15. I passed my grade 8, got into the Junior Department of the Royal Academy of Music and successfully auditioned for the London Schools Symphony Orchestra. I can do this I thought to myself, perhaps foolishly!


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


After my A-levels I took a gap year before starting at the Royal College of Music. I studied Percussion with Michael Skinner and Kevin Hathway, Timpani with Andrew Smith and Janos Keszei, and Composition with Edwin Roxburgh and Ken Hesketh. But I also learned so much from my academic teachers, various conductors and perhaps most importantly, my fellow students. 

Why did you decide this pathway? 


Going to a conservatoire gave me the opportunity to learn and play percussion, something that many universities are not so set up for. Clearly there is the need for a vast array of quality instruments and a conservatoire can provide that.


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


I honestly can’t remember. I remember the first performance I got paid for was with my school Dance Band when we played for an afternoon tea dance somewhere. I remember Stompin’ at the Savoy and American Patrol was on the set list and we were paid £5 each. I used to play with lots of amateur orchestras, choirs and theatre groups. At some point I started to get paid for them.

You're the percussionist for the West End show Everybody's Talking About Jamie and have played on shows such as Singin' in the Rain, In the Heights and The Lion King, what's it like working on a show?


Working on a show is a regular, daily performance schedule. Each one the same and each one different. The dots don’t change but so much else does; what’s happening on stage, who’s on stage, who’s in the band for that performance, each of those aspects will make a difference to how you perform the music that day. At times it’s a hard slog, at times it’s utterly brilliant, and you get a round of applause at the end of every day’s work, what could be better than that?

How is it different learning a show as a deputy different to having your own chair?


Learning your own chair is hard work but it’s mostly done at the beginning of the process, during rehearsals when everyone is learning their parts, actors and musicians. By the time you arrive at Press Night, you’ve already played the tunes countless times and, although they might still be changed, edited or altered someway, the music is there, you know what you’re doing. Learning as a deputy is much more difficult. First, you have to learn the dots, then you have to play the music as the chair holder plays it. Everyone knows everyone’s parts and they might be listening out for a particular note or phrase. Play it radically different to how the chair holder plays it and you might put someone off.

You've taken a particular interest in Cuban Folk music, how did you get into this and what would your advice be to young percussionists wanting to discover more?  


I first started listening to Cuban music when my Dad bought me an album by the Afro Cuban All Stars, featuring many of the same musicians as on Buena Vista Social Club. It had the great Anga Díaz playing congas, one of the most magical and musical congueros you will ever hear. The more I got into various Cuban styles such as son, salsa and later, timba, the more I discovered about it’s musical roots; the rumba styles of guaguanco, yambu and colombia; and batá, a three double headed drum ensemble which accompanies singing and dance. Each new discovery lead me to discover more and I haven’t stopped yet!


You have performed with many ensembles, artists and shows. What do you enjoy about the ‘portfolio career’ of a percussionist?


I like playing different music, I like variety, I like discovering new music or new ways of looking at old music. I like new and odd instruments and I like coming back to old favourites such as the xylophone and timpani and a trusty snare drum. I’m a lucky man.

What instruments/resources do currently you have? 


I have a lock-up full of gear; timpani, xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, tubular bells, bass drums, snare drums, gongs, tam tam, triangles, shakers, and tambourines coming out your eyes; along with a host of more Latin American instruments, surdos, caixas, repeniques, timbal, congas, clave, cajon, bongó, batá, shekere and on and on. Far too much and never enough!

You teach at Queens College London, what's this like?


I teach at Queens College London and London Oratory School. I started teaching when I was still at school, just informally to a younger student. Then when I was at the Royal College of Music I did a lot of educational workshops with Prince Consort Percussion Ensemble run by Kevin Hathway. After I graduated I started teaching in a few different schools and have continued teaching ever since. A musician’s career can be extremely varied and unpredictable, particularly this year! Teaching offers a certain amount of financial stability and when I started I think this was the primary reason for doing so. However, the longer I do it the more I enjoy it. I like helping another musician find his or her path, discover new music, developing a technique to perform and so on. And it fills me with great pride to see some of my students develop their own musical careers.

Does teaching help your performing career?


Yes, I think it does. Normally it’s when a student asks a question that I’ve never had to answer before. You are at times forced to question your own assumptions and I have changed aspects of my playing because of a student’s question. 

You also have a Masters Degree in composition, when did you get into this? 


In the last few years of school before I went to the RCM. But it was there that my understanding and love of composing flourished. 

Does composing compliment your performing career?  


Of course. It’s all about music and expression and performance so they are always entwined. Every part of a musician’s career compliments every other.

What is your career highlight so far?


Being in the studio just a few weeks ago with my band, all great friends, for the first recording session for my album, produced by Adam Goldsmith, one of my very oldest friends. Playing my music with great musicians who make it all sound so good; nothing beats that.

What is the best thing about being a musician?


People always go, oh that’s interesting when I tell them what I do. Normally followed by what does a percussionist play? but you can’t win ‘em all.

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


1. Play as much as you can; doesn’t have to be practice all the time, just pick up some sticks and play.

2. Don’t ever be a musical snob and don’t be closed minded. There is more music out there than you could possibly imagine and it’s all there for you to listen to, enjoy and learn.

3. You will at times in your life and career think that you are not good enough, or that you haven’t achieved enough. Every musician goes through this. Keep in mind how much you love playing, how much you love music, and let that be reason enough to continue.

Thanks Matthew! 

If you would like to find out more about Matthew, check out his website:

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