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Former Principal Percussionist of the ROH, LPO, Philharmonia, Sadler's Wells and Professor at RCM, Trinity & GSMD.

Michael Skinner

Michael Skinner's playing career began in 1955 as a jazz drummer working in traditional jazz bands. In 1960 whilst at University he joined the City of Belfast Symphony Orchestra playing snare drum and xylophone. Coming to London in 1962 he began freelancing as an orchestral percussionist. In 1963 he joined Sadler's Wells Opera as Principal Percussionist leaving in December 1968 to freelance again. Also during this period he played as a percussionist on West End shows including Maggie May, Robert & Elizabeth and Sweet Charity. Between 1970 and 1972 he was Principal Percussionist of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and between 1972-3, Principal Percussionist of then New Philharmonia Orchestra. In October 1973 he joined the Royal Opera House Orchestra as Principal Percussion, a position he held for 31 years. Throughout this period of time he has played as a freelance player with every orchestra in London including first performances of compositions by composers such as Benjamin Britten and Sir Michael Tippett. Michael has played on many movie soundtracks and appeared in the film 200 Motels with Frank Zappa. He also played with Benny Goodman in a performance of Malcolm Arnold's Clarinet Concerto. Michael is a founder member of the Guild of Ancient Fifes and Drums. He has made a particular study of the drumming styles of Switzerland and the Pipe Drumming of Ireland and Scotland. Michael is committed to teaching and was the founding President of the National Associations of Percussion Teachers. He is author of Roll Review, Snare Drum Rudiments and Graded Repertoire and Studies for Snare Drum Grades 6-8 and co-authored Play Tuned Percussion with the late James Baldes OBE. He has given masterclasses at the Royal Northern College of Music, the Birmingham School of Music, in Croatia and Germany. Michael was a Percussion professor at the Royal College of Music, Trinity Laban and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1989.

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


I was in my mid-teens and I saw a drummer on television and I thought, "I rather fancy that"! 


Who was your first teacher and where did you start?


Samuel McCrea who was the drummer at the local variety theatre in Belfast, where I was living at that time. He taught me drum kit. 


What instruments/resources did you have? 


Only a snare drum and a practice pad.  My mother bought me the snare drum as a Christmas present.


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


Make sure you've got a good teacher! My mother asked the proprietor of the drum shop if he knew anyone who gave lessons and he knew all the drummers in Belfast. I never took any grades. I practiced along with records.


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


Basically, do as much playing as possible in as many different styles as possible, for example I learnt Scotch Pipe Band drumming, although I never did it professionally. By default I was forced to go down the ensemble route because there weren't any solo opportunities.  I played with trad jazz bands, and in a hotel, and then ultimately with the City of Belfast Orchestra.


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


Fairly early on.  I knew I wanted to pursue playing, but was told to have something to fall back on, so I went to University to study Maths. It was after that that I was able to concentrate on playing.   


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


After University I went to London to live and I studied briefly with Gilbert Webster who was the principal percussionist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I had met Gilbert when the BBC did a tour of Northern Ireland and needed two extra players.  He was a good teacher and very experienced orchestral player. 


Why did you decide this pathway?


There wasn't really any other path for me to take. After studying with Gilbert I was on my own! In those days there was very little training available for percussionists.  The RCM taught their  conducting students to play percussion so that they could fill in the parts in the orchestras! In fact in about 1968 when I started teaching at Trinity College of Music, I was the first percussion teacher there (Lewis Pocock taught only timpani) and had to create a syllabus for the students as none existed before then.


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


 It came in two forms in Belfast.  I was playing in the trad jazz bands and I got a position with the City of Belfast Orchestra, which had two other percussionists who didn't play the xylophone in any recognisable form.  Bertie Lyness was a great snare drum player.  He was part of the Royal Ulster Constabulary Band but really didn't play tuned percussion, so it fell to me to play glock and xylophone, which I had to mostly memorise because I hadn't yet studied with Gilbert on tuned percussion. I was paid £4 for the concert, and half that for each of the rehearsals apart from the final rehearsal which you played for free.  When I came to London my first gig was with the LSO in Gloucester Cathedral. Sammy, my teacher, along with several other percussion players had played in silent cinema in a variety of locations in Dublin and Belfast.  One of them,  Charlie Donaldson, had just resigned from the LSO and he told me to phone Jim Holland, who had taken over the position of Principal.  Jimmy said, "oh good, you can go to Gloucester next week" so I did! It was slightly scary.  We played Vaughan Williams' Sea Sympthony.  The other players were easy to get on with though. 


What happened next?


I continued to play for the LSO as an extra player. I freelanced for a couple of years with the LSO, LPO and BBC Symphony.  Then Sadlers Wells Opera, now ENO, at that time ran two companies, each with their own orchestra alternating touring the provinces and playing in London. They advertised for a percussion player for one of the orchestras and I played an audition and was offered the job.  I stayed with them for 4.5 years, and continued my freelance activities where it fitted. The LPO didn't have a snare drum player (Harry Smaile had left to go to the LSO).  I was given a trial with the LPO, playing the 1812 Overture, and they thought I was ok and offered me work on their extras list. 


You were the Principal Percussionist for the Royal Opera House Orchestra for 31 years, what was this like? 


It was ok most of the time. Every job has its down sides but in the main it was good. I got to play some nice music, some challenges, but it was a steady job.  I also made some really good friends. 


Were there any challenges in working with opera and ballet? 


Yes.  In ballet you have to be sure to look up at the beginning and end of numbers because a lot can change. In the main ballet music is orchestral music, but in opera you have to listen so carefully to everything that's going on and know who you can rely on.  


What was the process in getting this job? 


I got a phone call from the orchestral manager, who was a timpanist, asking me if I'd like to have lunch with him.  During the lunch he offered me the job so I accepted it!


Which opera/ballet do you think you've performed the most and do you know (roughly) how many performances?


Probably Swan Lake.  I must have played that hundreds of times. 


You have performed with every London orchestra, on West End Shows and have also recorded on multiple films. What do you enjoy about the 'portfolio career' of a percussionist?


You just take things as they come, and make sure that you can sight read! I enjoyed the variety and the challenge, and occasionally you'd get some really big challenges! 


You also featured in the film 200 Motels with Frank Zappa, how did this come about and what was it like working on a film set?


The plot of the film involved an orchestra (RPO) being held prisoner on a desert island.  The percussion players were guards in the camp.  It was an interesting experience but very tiring. We had to be ready at 8 in the morning, all dressed up with camp guard outfits.  Quite often we'd then hang around all day, but then get very busy. I got the gig through the RPO.


You have held Professorships at the Royal College of Music and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, what was this like?


From the time I started teaching at Trinity College to working finally at the RCM it changed out of all recognition. For those of us who taught in colleges at the start, there was no set syllabus or Associated Board or Guildhall exams, nothing. It developed to what it is today from that point.  Now students have to go through up to 4 rounds to get into college, and the standard of the students' playing has improved amazingly. 


For several years I had the honour to be the President of the National Association of Percussion Teachers (NAPT), an organisation which focusses specifically on teachers, many of whom teach in schools. Teaching is often an isolating experience, working one to one with students and rarely seeing your colleagues. Through the NAPT teachers found community, and many of the teachers have had influence on the structure and content of the exams


When and why did you start teaching?


My first teaching job was to cover for a timpanist called Lewis Pocock at Trinity.  I went in to give some lessons and they asked me to continue.


Did teaching help your performing career? 


Yes.  I learnt more from the students than they did from me! 


You have also composed music for the Trinity Percussion Syllabus and your own books and collaborations, how and when did you start composing?


Very early on, probably in the mid sixties.  I was writing studies for the Trinity exams. 


What is your career highlight so far?


Mostly I just took the music as it came.  There were some special moments. Gloriana had been written for the coronation of Queen Elisabeth II but had been taken off after the first night. Sadlers Wells Opera did the second ever performance in 1967, and that was quite an occasion.  Death in Venice was special because the percussion section, particularly the tuned percussion, was featured largely. 200 Motels was a really interesting experience. 


What is the best thing about being a musician?


The opportunity to be creative. The scope for imagination, particularly for a percussion player, for example creating the sound of the guillotine in Dialogue of the Carmelites, by Poulenc.  I had the opportunity to travel - I went to Japan twice, America several times, and lots of places in Europe.


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


1. Accumulate instruments and sticks as you go along.  Invest in sticks and small instruments (tambourines, castanets etc).

2. When you're supposed to show up, show up.  In other words be absolutely reliable.

3. Acquire not only technique but the terminology of your trade. For example, a colleague rang me quite recently to ask what a Tarole was.  Do you know?

Thanks Mike! 

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