Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - Principal Timpanist
Matt Perry began his Timpani and Percussion studies in Birmingham, under the tuition of Annie Oakley. From there he studied Music at University College, Oxford, and went on to a postgrad at the Royal College of Music. In 1999 he joined Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as Principal Timpani, moving to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 2006. During that time he has performed with the majority of the UK full time professional orchestras, participated in many community education workshops and projects, held teaching positions at Trinity College of Music and Drama, Birmingham Conservatoire and the Royal College of Music, and given several master classes both here and abroad.
Why did you take up timpani and how old were you?
I turned up to our school music department when they were holding auditions for percussionists. I think they realised all their current players were pretty close to leaving school. I was 12, and timps were just included with all the other perc instruments.
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
Annie Oakley (Principal Percussion, CBSO) – orchestral percussion. An amazing first teacher to have, laid some great foundations.
What instruments/resources did you have?
I was really lucky at school. We had pretty much all of the standard orchestral gear, tuned and untuned. Shortly after I started they got a marimba as well. This was the late 1980s, Evelyn had just burst onto the scene, the CBSO was doing all it’s weird and wonderful Towards the Millennium repertoire. In general, percussion wasn’t very high profile but was definitely in the ascendancy.
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
Listen to a wide variety of music, don’t dismiss anything and start to learn what you like, why, and who’s playing it. Get to grips with some theory – learn to read music, you’ll progress faster and you won’t have to put the brakes on your playing further down the line when you really need to be able to. And join a choir.
With your knowledge and experience now, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young timpanists/percussionists to engage with?
A lot of players (maybe this is more typical of those at college level though?) seem to be able to create their own solo or ensemble opportunities, putting groups together and raising their profile through social media. It’s great seeing how entrepreneurial some can be. But playing in any ensemble (it doesn’t have to be an orchestra - usually other groups keep you much busier as a percussionist anyway) is an essential way of learning to apply and develop your wider musicianship. Just take any opportunity you can get.
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
Either during the 1994 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, which I really enjoyed working towards and meeting the other players involved, or probably during the (then) LSO-Shell scholarship in 1996. I (incredibly naively) simply didn’t realise how much effort went into preparing all the orchestral repertoire and how rewarding it could be. I was surrounded by loads of players – some have since gone on to achieve incredible things - all at similar stages of their studies, all engaging seriously with the process and trying to improve and I just felt that here was something I really wanted to try to do with people that I wanted to be around.
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
First I went to Oxford to study Music where formal percussion studies took a back seat for a while. There was a huge amount of music going on but I realised I needed to get lessons again, so got occasional lessons with Janos Keszei and Kevin Hathway. After Uni I did a couple of years at the Royal College of Music, studying with them properly, and also with Andy Smith and Michael Skinner. Later on (when I was in Bournemouth) I got a few lessons with Tim Adams (Pittsburgh) and Tom Freer (Cleveland) and more recently with Nick Woud. Who is just brilliant! But these players really opened my eyes to other ways of playing and approaches to timps and music.
Why did you decide this pathway?
I went to a fairly academic school and there were very few people I knew of who had gone straight to music college. I did a few auditions and got a couple of offers but I wanted the fallback of having an academic degree as I didn’t really have the confidence I would make it or the certainty that I wanted to try back then. I didn’t realise at the time but for me, the three extra years I spent before going to music college gave me the maturity and determination I needed to make a real go of things. I think if I’d gone as an undergraduate I’d have been lost.
At what point did you decide to specialise in timpani and why?
When Bournemouth offered me the job in 1999! I’d always loved the broader range of repertoire timps were involved in and I don’t think I’d ever let myself believe that I could actually get a timps job (although I practised loads).
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
My first date was with CBSO on some New Year’s concerts. Huw Ceredig (now very sadly no longer with us) had adjudicated on the Young Musician percussion finals and had kept in touch with my progress via Annie Oakley and Kevin Hathway. Unusually there were doing a piece which needed a pretty big section so I got a call. I was incredibly nervous, excited, generally in awe of what was going on.
What happened next?
A few more CBSO dates, spread out over my time at college but also a load of auditions came up at around the same time. Birmingham Ballet timps – which I didn’t get through, but the panel took the trouble to give me some feedback on how I’d played, which was incredibly useful for my next audition, which was Bournemouth… But there was others as well, timps and percs, and as I went through the cycles of carefully and thoroughly preparing (this developed over time), performing and trialling in front of and with people I really respect and admire, I improved my playing and awareness of what was involved in working with an orchestra.
You are the principal timpanist for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, what's this like?
Every time I go to work I hear something which inspires me and makes me think I need to raise my game. It’s an amazingly dedicated and friendly bunch of people who take continued pride in being the RPO and giving their best whenever and wherever we perform.
Are there any challenges?
The schedule can be extremely punishing with a lot of travel and you can’t hide or be a passenger, you’d be letting your colleagues and the audiences down. But it comes back to that spirit, that even when you feel at your most knackered and uninspired, what’s going on around you makes you deliver your best, almost without question.
What was the process to getting the job?
I’d already worked with the RPO so didn’t have to audition. That said, a good many of the big excerpts came up during the trial, including Brahms Symphony No. 1 on 45 minutes rehearsal on tour – the band had done it a lot prior to my coming in – and a Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, playing in a new position on stage, as the two places tried in rehearsal weren’t deemed to be quite right. Don’t ask… Also, they made sure I’d seen all sides of their work, the high profile tours, the small out of town venues, recording sessions, the big Albert Hall events, so I had a very clear idea when they offered me the job of what I was getting into.
You are a professor at the Royal College of Music, what's this like?
It’s a big responsibility, but one I enjoy, trying to bring out the best in the students, make them the best timpanists and musicians they can be. But I learn plenty from them as well, they’re all very talented and capable players, curious and innovative. It’s always interesting to see their journeys post-college and some, of course, I still keep in touch with, working with them as colleagues.
When and why did you start teaching?
I did some teaching when I was in Bournemouth, but mostly I was involved in the education and outreach work. When I came to London in 2006 opportunities came up, firstly at Trinity, then later at Birmingham and the Royal College. I always wanted to teach, it forces me to examine and justify everything I do in my playing and my musical thinking, but it’s a reciprocal process, and my playing has definitely improved as a result of what I’ve learned or been inspired to discover through the contact I’ve had with my students.
Does teaching help your performing career?
What is your career highlight so far?
Very difficult! Maybe Shostakovich 11 in Bournemouth (incredible piece), or La Mer at the Proms with the RPO a few years ago. As time goes on, though, I can’t help wonder how many chances I’ll get to play certain pieces, so the Gotterdammerung excerpts we did at the Proms in 2019 were pretty amazing as well. I always hoped there would be many highlights, though, in years to come, because of venue, repertoire, colleagues, or even just atmosphere. Time will tell.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
Can I list three? First you get to work with some incredible people. Second you can get to see places you might never otherwise go to (and I run as well, so exploring more remote areas of places we visit can be great fun). And third you get to make music at the highest level – participation at any level is fantastic, but when you’re a part of something really good, which you’ve spent your career striving for, it can be really special.
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist/timpanist thinking about a career in music?
1. Be resilient, you might have to face a lot of rejection.
2. Believe in yourself and make sure your practice reinforces this (consciously address your weak points, set yourself goals, give yourself credit for what you do well and keep track of your progress).
3. Never forget to enjoy what you do.
If you would like to find out more about Matt, follow the links below:
Jason Ginter Timpani Sticks JGPercussion.com