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Percussion Teacher & Freelancer

Melanie Walker

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


I started at school when I was about 14....quite late by today’s standards. The school orchestra needed percussionists and the music teacher thought I’d enjoy it so I gave it a go.


Who was your first teacher and where did you learn?


My first teacher was the head of brass at Rugby School, but after a year it was clear I needed a percussionist so I auditioned and was accepted to be taught weekly by Norman Parker from the BBC Midland Light Orchestra at the Birmingham school of Music (now the conservatoire). I was fortunate that all costs were met by my local authority.


What instruments/resources did you have? 


When I was 15 my parents got me a 4 piece Pearl Drum kit, the snare drum of which I still own and use. My school had a small pit Xylophone that got me started and when I got to 6th form, I was lent the local authority premier vibraphone. I first saw a Marimba when I auditioned at the northern!


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


Grades didn’t exist when I was at school but I think they give a good framework for progress. However it’s all to easy to work from one grade to the next with little proper consolidation in between. There are too many musicians who have grade 8 but are not really of that standard all round. Practice has to be a general rule I like my students to aim for 20 minutes at grades 1-3, 30 minutes at grades 4+5, 45 minutes at grade 6 and an hour for 7+8. Anyone aiming for conservatoire should aim for about 3 hours a day. A large proportion of this should be on scales and exercises and I can’t emphasise enough the value of SLOW practice. Don’t fall into the trap of playing through....always be self critical.

When you’re ready try to get as many playing  experiences as you can in school and local ensembles. For solos try to engage with local choirs to get a couple of short slots in their concerts to give the singers a break. You may think you’re of too high a standard to play in your school band or orchestra but it’s all good experience and no one likes a prima Donna!


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


Obviously get involved in everything at school but also aim for county level activities and find out if there is a local Brass band you can join as their repertoire is often quite challenging for percussionists. Be prepared to be versatile....perhaps organise a short recital in a local church for church funds or a local charity. You can never have too much playing experience.

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


By the time I reached 6th form level I knew I wanted to study at conservatoire for a career in music.


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


I went to the RNCM and my main tutor was Ian Wright (RLPO) with Heather Corbett (BBCSSO) for tuned percussion. We had rep sessions regularly with Eric Wooliscroft (Halle) and Ray Lomax (BBC Phil)


Why did you decide this pathway?

To be honest, I wasn’t clever enough for University so I rather put all my eggs in one basket!!


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


My first proper gig was to dep for Heather Steadman as Timpanist in London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) for two shows at the theatre royal in Newcastle. I can’t remember who recommended me but it was playing La Sylphide and I couldn’t find a recording anywhere! I was a bit nervous, sight reading on a show but it went ok and I continued to dep and work with them for the next 8 years. The main thing I remember about it was meeting the percussionists who were all highly experienced “old boys”. Messrs Harry Smaile, Cecil Kearney and Eddie Cornish. They had so many tales to tell of playing with really great conductors and Harry had a phenomenal snare drum roll!


What happened next?


Within a few weeks I got my first RLPO gig (Harry Janos with a certain Mr G Johns on trial as principal!) and then I worked pretty regularly through my final two years at college. In those days if we got pro gigs we were allowed to do them so long as we filled in  gig form saying who we were working with. When I left college I was fortunate to have plenty of work for the next several years until I decided to go into teaching which worked better for family life.


When and why did you start teaching?


As I mentioned above, having a child about to start school didn’t really work with charging from one end of the country to the other. I was doing a lot of ballet work with Northern Ballet and ENB which was touring and when I was in Manchester most of my work was Halle and Camerata so a lot of late nights. I had already been doing a couple of days a week at a private school but got a post as full time percussion teacher with Leicestershire LEA who had an amazing music service at that time. Most performers do some pays the mortgage!


Did teaching help your performing career?

No! I was offered a ten week tour and when I said I’d just taken a teaching job I never heard from them again! Seriously though, teaching makes you evaluate your own playing and analyse exactly how you achieve certain things which has to be a good thing.


What do you enjoy about the ‘portfolio career’ of a percussionist?

I’m virtually retired now but in the early days I really enjoyed the variety of my freelance career.


What was/is your career highlight so far?

Looking back there have been many highlights...playing Tippet 3 with him “conducting” for his 80th birthday, playing at the proms, nailing a horrendous Marimba part in Henze opera recording, coaching youth percussion ensembles and taking them to the music for youth finals, dressing up as Paddington bear to conduct the Manchester camerata in a Christmas concert!


What is the best thing about being a musician?

The camaraderie and sense of humour of musicians and working in field I love.


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


1. Practice

2. Practice

3. Practice

Thanks Mel! 


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