Freelance Drummer, Composer & Educator
Mike 'Ozzie' Osborn
Mike ’Ozzie’ Osborn is a well known freelance percussionist and drummer. He has worked extensively in theatre, television and in the recording industry with many international artistes and is an experienced teacher and workshop leader. Mike was recently one of the composers of the new Trinity College London drum kit syllabus.
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
My Mum was a professional musician and I had always grown up in a musical household, barring my Dad who had Van Gogh’s ear for music, so I had piano lessons from the age of 6. In spite of having severe problems with sight reading which I much later found out was caused by dysmusia, a form of dyslexia where the brain tries to invert the notes in the treble clef and the bass clef, I somehow progressed through to my Grade 6. I gained high marks in my pieces, my scales and arpeggios (which I had totally learnt by heart and memorised) and also in my aural and rhythm tests but only achieved 4 marks for my sight reading which I think the examiner gave me out of pity (and for the brown paper bag stuffed with used fivers that I’d surreptitiously slid under her chair on my way into the examination room). I realised back then that, although I loved the piano and still do, my complete inability to play even the most simple of piano pieces from the written music without adequate preparation and a degree of memorisation was going to be a huge drawback. Bizarrely, my Mum had the same condition but was so adept at playing by ear that she managed to have a long and successful career as a musician despite her inadequacies as a sight reader. The day she showed me how to play from chord charts instead of reading the dots was a total revelation as learning chord shapes suddenly made things so much easier and I make sure that all my tuned percussion students learn this vital piece of the musical jigsaw. Sight reading is obviously incredibly important but so too is the burning desire to make music despite any obstacles and this should be the one thing that really drives you throughout your career. I’m 55 and it still burns me today, although that may be an ulcer. You can learn how to get better at sight reading and to get to the stage where it does not scare you (unless it’s Stockhausen) so that, if like me, keyboard sight reading is your Achilles heel, you can use your musicality to overcome this. But my musical world changed forever when my Mum then took me, aged 9, to see the great percussionist James ‘Jimmy’ Blades OBE doing one of his famous recitals accompanied by his pianist wife, Joan Goossens. This mercurial and majestic Guru of Percussion, straight out of an Ealing comedy with his dapper three piece suit and his mischievous and avuncular ways, was and always will be revered and loved by any serious student of percussion and, although the epithet is too commonly used nowadays, Jimmy was a total legend in this business and his legacy lives on in the many students who were lucky enough to have been taught by him. He is the reason I do what I do and I teach what I teach and I cannot tell you what an honour it was to call him not only my teacher but also my mentor. The sudden epiphany that I had when I was called onto the stage at his recital and had the opportunity to strike the gong (actually a tam-tam) that he had played for the Rank Film Organisation’s iconic opening credits for hundreds of their myriad films did not go unnoticed by my Mum. She immediately enrolled me in percussion lessons with the wonderful and inspirational Sue Bixley, herself a former student of Jimmy and whom he had whole-heartedly recommended as a tutor. Sue really opened my eyes to the fact that I could read music if I applied myself and the sudden realisation that a single line of music, whether it be a snare drum part on the percussion clef, a xylophone part on the treble clef or a timpani part on the bass clef was not now entirely insurmountable. This was enough to persuade me that percussion was the way ahead. I can seriously say that I do not, and have never had, one single regret about choosing this career and I have enjoyed every single moment on the rollercoaster of this wonderful and joyous business. Having said that, I do have one regret and that is that I could have answered this first question with “Because I liked hitting things and I was 9”.
What instruments/resources did you have?
My Dad made me a practice pad out of an old rubber dart board mat and a piece of angled wood. He lovingly polished and varnished it and, although now aged 91 and still blissfully unaware of the difference between a hatchet and a crotchet, he is a design genius and many of his incredible inventions are regularly used by me including a castanet machine which has outlived many of my expensive industry standard ones, a stand and frame for some Boosey and Hawkes rosewood xylophone notes which he purchased for a tenner for me in a local junk shop (still being used by one of my students as a practice instrument) and a bespoke gong stand which legendary drummer and top examiner Steve Gilchrist, son of my original teacher, Sue Bixley, and one of my old pupils still has in situ at his fabulous Brixton Hill Studios. My parents then bought me an old Premier drum kit for Christmas that year and I was sorted. Snare and Xylo for my orchestral lessons and a kit to teach myself the dark arts of Jazz and Rock. Mum’s master plan was for me to take over from the old drummer in her band when he retired and before long, aged 12, I did my first gig with her function band at the Crystal Palace Football Club Dinner Dance. I earned £10.00 and my Mum bought me an engraved tankard to celebrate my first paid gig. In the following couple of years I did the circuit of weddings, dinner dances and cabaret backing in the clubs. This was ‘earning and learning’ and it was the very best apprenticeship that I could ever have wished for at that young age. I left my Mum’s band in 1979 to work in a cabaret club in Streatham called the Peacock Club (now the jazz club, The Hideaway) on Friday and Saturday nights for £25 per night. When my schoolmates were earning £5 per week for getting up every day at 5.00am to deliver newspapers including the weekends, I was in clover and earning £50 for doing what I loved for just two nights (the equivalent of £250 per week nowadays at the age of 14!). It sounds a little ridiculous but speak to any older players and you will learn that a musician’s pay and conditions were a lot better in those halcyon days. However, if you are prepared to work hard and practise until you don’t only get it right but you never get it wrong, be versatile and be happy to turn your skills from performing to teaching and writing and composing and scoring and copying and fixing and arranging and tea making, and to be gregarious and good humoured and always have a positive outlook and look properly attired and not bring people down with your negativity and always be loyal to your mates, then you may make it in a fabulous job which engenders camaraderie and bonhomie and makes a million amazing memories which last a lifetime....or at least as long as that last sentence! If money is your goal then you are knocking on the wrong door. This job can be very well paid but if you’re in it for the money then you’ve missed the point. Our job is for a special type of person and it is a lifestyle choice. It is not for everyone. You have to have the stubbornness of a mule, the hide of a rhinoceros, the work ethic of an ant and the patience of a saint, plus you have to be very, very good at what you do. But the sheer joy of making music is why we do it and it is unequalled as a job in my humble opinion.
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
Apart from the usual advice to listen to your teachers, use every avenue open to you for advancing your knowledge and skills including the vast amount of information available on the Internet and to grasp every opportunity to play your instrument in every style, idiom and genre possible, the key word for improving is practice. Most young musicians spend 90% of their time practising stuff they know and 10% practising stuff they don’t. Just swap this round and you’ll immediately improve by 100%...... I was never cut out to be a maths teacher. The object of practice is not to just keep your teachers and parents from moaning, the point of practice is to get better for yourself. They say that the average musician practises for 10,000 hours before becoming a professional. Many students will do those hours and more. When I trained at the Royal Academy of Music, I was in the year below Evelyn Glennie, who has previously been interviewed by PercWorks. She was totally dedicated and was in the percussion room practising for 6 hours plus per day, every day. Her ambition, drive and talent has led to her hard earned reputation as one of the most respected and pioneering solo percussionists in modern music, a job title which did not exist before Evelyn created it. Music is your own journey and if you do the practice you’ll get to reach your personal goals much quicker than if you don’t, it’s not rocket surgery!! A good teacher’s job is to guide their student and to ensure that they fulfil their full potential, but, ultimately, to make themselves redundant to that student and set them on their way. Added to this, a good teacher should give them the benefit of their experience as a performer and educate them in solid technique, musical etiquette and an all round sense of musicality. They then have the tools to create their own destiny and, even though you will always be there for guidance and advice, they have to take responsibility and lead their own musical life. This journey is unique and special to every single musician and is the making of who we are musically.
With your knowledge and experience, what performance opportunities are there for young percussionists and would you suggest for them to become engaged with?
Firstly, the most obvious place is at school. There were already a couple of geeky fifth formers doing percussion so I was originally put on the oboe, the ‘ill woodwind which no one blows good’ with apologies to my many superb oboe playing friends. It really is a tough instrument and I never progressed much beyond giving the orchestra the tuning note which sounded not so much like an A440 but more like the A40! Luckily a timely trampoline accident severed the nerves in my lower lip so I had to ditch the oboe and join the geeks in the percussion section who obviously then instantly became uber cool under my tutelage! There are usually other school bands and ensembles as well to get involved with. I run percussion ensembles at RGS and Epsom College and these are always fun as I do arrangements according to the age and ability of the students and I insist that they have to memorise their parts, however complicated. I’ve always done this as the students then have to engage with each other and the audience instead of having their heads stuck in the music. The other place where young percussionists can get experience of playing is in one of the many Youth Orchestras. Just near me we have the Surrey Youth Orchestra and the Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra which have fine reputations but there are many such orchestras run by Music Trusts and County Music Hubs up and down the country. There are also several national orchestras such as the National Youth Orchestra as well as many other orchestras who often run residential courses over the Summer holidays. I myself have been closely associated with the National Schools Symphony Orchestra as a coach for many years and these are wonderful opportunities for young musicians to have fun and learn from experienced players. There are also bespoke percussion groups too, such as samba bands and steel bands and another avenue, which is a fantastic opportunity, is youth theatre groups and amateur dramatic societies who often need musicians. I did loads of different productions when I was a teenager and you get to cut your teeth playing with good amateur and sometimes even pro players, and you sometimes get paid too, but the experience is extremely valuable in every way. The answer is to seek these opportunities out and get yourself involved. Every opportunity to play is so important to a young player and every time you play you invariably end up meeting someone new who can introduce you to other players. This is the old school networking that we used to have to do before the age of multimedia and it worked! My first proper professional experience came about through a chance meeting at my school. There used to be a fabulous music programme on the BBC called Play Away with Brian Cant as the presenter and Jonathan Cohen as the Musical Director plus it featured a great band. They were due to visit my grammar school to do a concert but their drummer had trouble with his car and broke down on the way so I was asked by my music teacher to set the school kit up and join the band. Despite being a bit nervous playing with such celebrity players I managed not to mess up and I think I did a good job because Jonathan took my number as he ran a children’s choir and often needed a drummer. He also advised me that I should think about becoming a professional musician and consider training at a music college and said that he had been to the Royal Academy of Music. Bizarrely, a few years later, by fluke, that’s where I ended up and, one evening in my third and final year, in the notorious Academy bar and rather worse for wear, I bumped into Jonathan again. He had come in to see his old professor and was absolutely stunned but delighted that I’d taken his advice. It wasn’t strictly true but, then again, it wasn’t strictly untrue. He asked what I was going to do when I left and I told him I was going to do a Summer Season with Little and Large on a holiday camp in Chichester. He said he still had my number on his rolodex (what us oldies used to store landline phone numbers on before the advent of the mobile phone) and he would give me a call at the end of the Summer which he duly did and asked me to do some work on a famous children’s television show called Playschool, which you’ll have to ask your Grandparents about but was on twice a day every day and I was a regular drummer and percussionist on the programme for its final two years. Jonathan also asked me to join his trio and we did a televised concert with an old American singer, Elisabeth Welch, famed for singing Stormy Weather and Love for Sale. The producer of this show, David Kernan, was about to stage a new musical in the West End called Blues in the Night and he asked me to be the drummer. The show ran for well over a year and started my professional career. A few years ago I met the drummer who should have been with the Play Away Band at my school but for his broken down car. His name is Rob Curling and is now a well known Sports presenter for Sky News. Needless to say, I bought him a pint!
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
I continued to have percussion lessons with Sue Bixley up until being offered a place at the Royal Academy of Music where I studied with Nick Cole, then Principal Percussionist with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Steve Quigley, current Principal Percussionist with the Royal Philharmonic and master classes with James Blades of whom I spoke earlier. Nick was a quite brilliant teacher and top bloke but did not approve of drum kit players so I was advised by both Sue and Jimmy to play down my abilities at my audition and only tell him that I really wanted to be an orchestral percussionist. At the Fresher’s Jazz Night, I was asked to play kit as there was not one at the Academy at that time, and not even a jazz course which started in my third year, and I had a kit and a car so the gig was mine. It was a fab night and a great band. All was going well until I suddenly saw Nick coming down the corridor toward the bar. He was obviously popping in for a swifty as he had his concert gear on and must have been working close by. I quickly told the band that I was not supposed to be able to play drum kit so I went into some military press rolls and the odd cymbal crash. Luckily Nick left after a few minutes but not before my ‘mates’ in the band had given me a solo section (or ‘trading fours’ to the cognoscenti) to make me stick out like the sorest of thumbs much to their enjoyment. At my next lesson Nick questioned me about the evening and I made up some blarney about another drummer from another college failing to turn up so I had to cover for him last minute and he made some comment about me being a ‘bit like a fish out of water’ but complimented me on my press rolls!! Now you young players, please learn this. The music business is a small business and any porky pies will be found out. A couple of years before coming to the Academy, I had acted the part of Dale, the delinquent drummer, on a children’s television series called The All Electric Amusement Arcade and my introduction in Episode 2 was a huge five minute drum kit solo filmed from all angles whilst there were cut aways to the band discussing that had to have me in their band despite my bad reputation. (Not much has changed since then I can assure you!). Thames Television decided to repeat the whole series over the summer holiday after my first year at the Academy and, of course, Nick who had young children then, had seen it. At my next lesson in September I was rather confused and red-faced as Nick asked me some probing questions. “Ozzie, do you have a twin brother who plays the drum kit?”..... “No Mr. Cole”. “So Ozzie, were you the rather brilliant young drummer on a certain children’s television show?”.....”Yes Mr.Cole”. “So Ozzie, at your audition, when I asked you whether you played the drum kit, had Mr Blades or Miss Bixley advised you to be somewhat economical with the truth?”..... “Yes Mr. Cole”. “And when I espied you playing the drum kit in the Academy bar, had you espied me first?”..... “Yes Mr. Cole”. “You’ll go far Mr. Osborn and mine’s a large scotch”..... “Yes Mr. Cole”.
Why did you choose the musical pathway and were others available?
The idea of becoming a professional musician was not something that I thought I could do originally. Even though I’d been gigging since the age of 12 and was playing music and earning money all the way through school, the idea of going to a music college seemed too sensible in a way. I thought that it was probably a good way to make some money and have fun with my muso mates in various bands but the idea of it being a full time job did not really compute. I was lucky enough to have been spotted by a top children’s theatrical agent when I was aged 11 in a local dancing school show, where my Mum played the piano and I was the only boy. I used to sit at the back and do my homework while my sister danced and my Mum played. I fancied one of the girls there and she said I should do tap dancing so that was that. This agent set me up for many great TV jobs and I was also at the National Theatre in the company for two years. I had thought of pursuing a career in acting and was offered a place at Guildhall School of Speech and Drama but a week later I had a call from the head of the school who said that some of the faculty staff had raised concerns that it may be a backward step training for drama when I already had a top agent, a full Equity card (which you needed back then to work professionally in television and in the West End, but you could only get by doing 40 weeks on a provisional card doing Repertory theatre work or holiday camp red coat entertaining. Because I had done so much work as a child actor, I was automatically given a Full Equity card at 16 which was quite rare). Plus I was actually starring in Treasure Island at the Mermaid Theatre in town playing Jim Hawkins, opposite Tom Baker as Long John Silver at the time of the auditions. The Guildhall teachers quite rightly said that in the acting game, building up a reputation with casting directors and producers is vital and taking three years out to go to college would negate the good work I had previously done. My percussion teacher, Sue Bixley, suggested that I audition for the Royal Academy of Music where she taught and I was lucky enough to get a place. The decision to then go down the music route sort of fell into place and I have loved every minute and never regretted my choice.
You have held percussion/kit chairs on many West End shows and touring shows such as Fame, Rent, Guys and Dolls and High School Musical. What is this like and how does it differ from your other performing work?
I absolutely loved my time in the West End and on touring shows when I was a younger musician. I was extremely lucky to get gifted the drum chair on Blues in the Night just after leaving college and working in the West End every night with some fantastic musicians and a stellar cast. It was a six piece on stage band and four actors in the company and the music was blues and swing. It was like doing a concert eight times a week and I loved every second. It never got boring and the company, crew and band were like a family. The show was very successful and was nominated for two Olivier Awards so we also got to perform on the Olivier Television Awards and I got to meet and work with Ronnie Hazlehurst, the legendary television musical director for the first time. My students often ask if doing the same show night after night is boring. I can honestly say that I was lucky enough to play some great shows with some great musicians and the longest I did on a show was 18 months. I think if you come into work with a good attitude, are a team player and have a good understanding of musicians’ humour then playing the show becomes so much easier. You are a little cog in a wheel of the production and you need to get your job right and that goes without saying, but you need to feel that what you and your fellow musicians achieve is a team effort. I couldn’t say what that would be like if you really hated playing the music though. I have always disliked the Sound of Music and dodged the bullet when I was asked by a good friend to dep on it in town! I have also known other friends who get stuck on really long running shows. They can’t really leave as they become reliant on that regular weekly pay cheque which doesn’t normally happen in our business. It’s usually a case of sending in the invoice, then wait, then wait some more, then chase it up, then wait.....etc. They also lose a lot of their freelance contacts as they have been off the radar down some pit for years. It is getting harder now to dep shows out and producers and fixers frown upon the idea of deps. This adds to the pressure of maintaining your presence in the business and occasionally means turning down great work because of the fear of losing your regular show gig. A lot of young players are desperate to get a show but always remember that you are only ever two weeks notice away from unemployment and that if you develop yourself as a good freelance player, you can still do the occasional depping and your freelance work will give you the variety that most musicians came into the business for in the first place. I look back on my West End and touring show days with great fondness and myriad memories but was also glad to leave them behind when I had to change my career path slightly due to family commitments as, enjoyable and financially beneficial as they were, they can become all consuming and can suck the lifeblood out of your enjoyment of making music, as I have seen with some other musicians, and I didn’t ever want to get to that stage.
You’ve also depped on many West End shows. How does learning a show as a dep differ from learning for your own production?
Great question. There was a saying that you should never put in a dep that’s better than you as they’ll get the gig. I can safely say that every dep I’ve ever put in has been a far better player than me and I’ve never lost a single gig. This may be the fact that they are loyal musicians and in most instances, good friends too, or it may be that I’m a black belt in origami and know where they live, but I can honestly say if I ever had to put in a dep I would make sure that they were the right person for the job, they were given sufficient time to study the part, which should of course be marked up properly, they had sat in enough times to get acquainted with the score and heard the clicks and that they were comfortable with the musical director and other musicians and vice versa. Now, if I am depping on a show, then I would make sure that I have really done my homework and have memorised the dodgy bits so that I can watch the MD and not have my eyes stuck in the pad. This is vital. Most of us can sight read pretty well as it’s our job but it is also about putting the MD at ease as he is the one who gives you the dreaded ‘never again’, not the person you are depping for. The other thing that is vital is that you do exactly what the other player does. That means every nuance of dynamic, every drum fill and every groove. You are on a hiding to nothing when you dep because the highest accolade you can get is someone not noticing there was a dep on. Even if a player has a different style to you, your job is just to sub for him and not to show off your chops. I made this mistake once as a very young player and was depping for a few weeks with the dep musical director who was a mate and a friend who was the Dance Captain. I began after a week to really get into the show and tried a few different things, not wildly different but different. Of course the Dance Captain loved them as did the dep musical director as it’s sometimes nice on a long running show to add a little spice right? Wrong. The night before the regular drummer (and also a very dear friend) came back, the main Musical Director unbeknown to anyone, came in to see the show from out front. He called me into his dressing room after the show and I thought he was going to thank me for my efforts for the last three weeks but oh no. He made it quite clear that my only job was to play the show exactly the same as the drummer he had chosen to do this gig and that to change it in any way, regardless of what anyone else said or wanted, was the height of disrespect. Lesson learned and after an apologetic phone call to the, luckily, still very dear friend who I was depping for who thought it was hilarious and told me not to worry, the MD put me on the naughty step of no depping for a month. When I came back on the show he took me out for a pint to show no hard feelings and I thanked him for schooling me in the brutal art of depping.
What advice would you give to a young percussionist aiming for a career in musical theatre?
Gaining experience of show playing is vital so that you can equip yourself with knowledge of the genre, its vast history and the discipline needed to dedicate yourself to a career down the pits. Most musicians don’t train with the goal of playing the same show eight times a week so getting experience at school or in amateur dramatic shows is really important so that you make the right decision and find out that this is something that will not only sustain you financially but also nourish the need for being creative which is the driver for most musicians. Aiming to work in musical theatre is a good goal but be aware that to maintain a long career it is vital to be versatile and to explore other avenues of music such as teaching, freelancing and composing. Most musicians who work predominantly in shows also have other strings to their bows if you’ll excuse the pun. It is also a good idea to try and get a chance to ‘sit in’ on a show and watch how the players work in that mostly subterranean environment. It can be daunting going backstage and climbing down narrow stairwells into the pit and seeing the limitations of trying to make music in enclosed spaces with headphones, click tracks, obscured sight lines and tiny black and white tv monitors of the musical director. I have even done shows where I have been in a remote room miles away from the orchestra pit. Gaining experience of this is important. I would suspect that many young percussionists will have teachers who either work in shows, or at least know someone who does, so this can be a good way to get this opportunity. I had many young players ‘sit in’ with me when I was working mostly in shows. These were my own students, students of fellow players and, in some cases, young players who had the gumption to contact me to see if it was possible. Pit visits are usually okay with musical directors and the management as it is generally recognised that this encourages (or discourages!) the future players in our business. The other useful advice is to acquaint yourself with Musical Theatre. Find out about the famous musicals and the fabulous wealth of great songs and tunes. The Internet is a gold mine of information that most older players never experienced so make good use of its capabilities. Learn the repertoire whether it be the vibraphone part from West Side Story, the tuned parts for Broadway Pirates of Penzance or the drum kit part for Lion King. The list is endless but these should be part of your practice regime if you are serious about a career in MT and they are also challenging but so rewarding to study.
You have worked, toured and recorded with many famous artists. What is this like and do you have any highlights?
I have been lucky enough to work with many famous musicians, singers and celebrities during my career. There is a wonderful magic to working with someone with real star quality and if any musician tells you that you get used to it then they are being a little disingenuous in my humble opinion. Real stars have earned their status and to work with them is always a supreme pleasure as their work ethic, professionalism and passion brings out the best in people around them. I have also found that you should always show people the same respect that they show you and not to judge someone by their reputation. I was once asked to play percussion on a Van Morrison duets album by his MD and I had to politely decline as it was my daughter’s birthday and we had already planned something special. Apparently Van was rather bemused that I had turned him down and inquired who I was working with that warranted my refusal of the opportunity and the financial inducement!! When he was told that it was actually so that I could see my daughter on her birthday he immediately got the MD to book me the week after to come back and overdub all of the percussion. What a lovely man he was and we had an absolute blast in the studio with much merriment. When I suggested that one track with Joss Stone needed a touch of triangle to add a little sparkle he remarked that it was the Van Morrison Band and not the Van Morrison Symphony Orchestra. I replied by telling him that I was in fact the Principal Triangle Player with the Bermuda Symphony Orchestra but that work was disappearing. He roared with laughter and my triangle part stayed on the track!
You have performed with many orchestras, ensembles and theatre productions. What do you enjoy about the ‘portfolio career’ of a percussionist?
I suppose that the World of Percussion is so vast that you can study for a lifetime and never get close to mastering every aspect of playing every instrument within it. The same goes for the music business. There are an equal number of opportunities to ply your trade whether it be with an orchestra, a big band, a jazz trio, a West End show or a pop tour. Utilising your versatility both as a percussionist and as a drummer and exploring every avenue of music keeps you fresh as a player and maintains your drive to expand your musical knowledge and skill. I would say that the ability to be a sort of chameleon and adapt yourself to fit into a given musical situation is a good way of maintaining both a career and a lifelong love of your instrument. You also never know what is round the corner. The phone can ring and your career path can take a complete U-turn. It is your responsibility to have the skill set, the knowledge and the ability to make the most of any opportunity that comes your way. As I said before, this uncertainty and lack of stability in planning for your future is not for everyone but if you do choose this lifestyle then be prepared to give it everything you’ve got when the chance arises.
You’ve also performed on Television and Film many times. How does performing on screen differ to performing live?
Although the job is essentially the same, the main requirements for TV and Film is normally patience and stamina. There is a degree of ‘hurry up and wait’ as there are so many other things to consider when cameras are in use and so many more technical issues which can cause hold ups and delay. You often have to reproduce the same performance many times and each time with the same intensity and polish. The pressure of not making a mistake is immense as you do not ever, ever want to personally be the cause of a hold up in filming to be because you’ve dropped a drumstick or your earpiece with the click in has fallen out. Live television is great fun though. One take, over and out. However, the meticulous rehearsals for this one take are endless. Films are also fun to be involved with but with the caveat of early mornings and very long days and a lot of hanging about. But, as I’ve mentioned before, these different areas of work are part of the rich kaleidoscope of being a freelance musician.
You’ve also recently completed composing and performing the new Trinity College London Drum Kit Examination syllabus, as well as having previously composed the ISTD Dance Examination syllabus amongst other writing projects. When and how did you start composing?
I have always enjoyed composing since being at school and arranging barber shop and choral songs for the Inter House Music competitions and then learning to actually compose and arrange properly at music college. I believe all musicians should explore this aspect of creativity and I would dearly like to spend more time writing. Working on the huge project of a whole bespoke drum syllabus from Debut Grade to Grade 8 for Trinity was a joyous but intense project. Drummers Clark Tracey and Chris Burgess along with myself were tasked with all the composing, arranging and production of the tracks and we also used some great session players to make the recordings. Playing a drum track in the studio which you have written yourself should, on paper, be easy but when it has to be exactly in time and precisely correct down to the last nuance of dynamics and the exact placement of a hemidemisemiquaver plus the fact that you know that every drum teacher and student all over the world is going to be pouring over every minute detail in their lessons, then this is a different ball game. But it was a fabulous team effort, a joy to work on and the feedback has been excellent.
Does composition compliment your performing career?
Undoubtedly and also vice versa. Composition compliments your career as it is another revenue stream and one which can continue to grow through royalties and residuals but it also compliments your understanding of what composers are trying to enable a musician to discover in their music. As a percussionist/drummer we are sometimes given music and parts that are clearly not written by a percussionist/drummer! I am very much aware that, should I ever be asked to write for the harp then, although I don’t have to actually play the harp, I should find out how to write the part correctly and in a playable way and check it through with a harpist first. I have often been asked about the best way to write out drum and percussion parts by composers and arrangers and I am always happy to oblige as some of the hieroglyphics that we are sometimes asked to decipher are shocking and I’m sure we have all had our fair share of these. I have also learnt that we are required to have the sixth sense to know when to embellish a drum part when it has been clumsily or wrongly written or notated and when to just play the ink. I often tell my students how, as a young player, I was doing a session with a lot of the Old Guard pro session players and I was handed a part by the arranger which was a Latin Samba and basically unplayable without growing an extra arm and upgrading the microchip in my brain. Instead of trying to play it and making a dog’s dinner of the arrangement, I quietly asked the arranger which part he’d like me to do as an overdub. He looked at me quizzically and I explained that he’d written a ride bell part, a snare part and a hi hat part which was physically impossible to play together. He said equally quietly that he wasn’t really great at arranging for drums and that what I’d played whilst doing the sound check sounded just right. He even came up and thanked me afterwards for not making him look incompetent in front of the band. Little did he know that it would have seemed to the band that I was the incompetent one. I dodged that bullet that day but there are always other days and always other bullets!
When, where and why did you start teaching?
I started doing some occasional dep teaching at Epsom College in 1984 after I became a student at the Royal Academy of Music and the existing teacher Duncan Gaffney, a busy session player, needed a cover. I lived very close to the College and he knew of me through his sister who was a singer in a local dramatic group and luckily he taught on the two afternoons that I had free in my timetable. As a music student I was extremely grateful for the work and it also gave me a chance to improve my teaching skills. I eventually took over from him in 1986 and I’ve held the post ever since. They were very understanding of my occasional touring and work commitments and I always put in excellent cover teachers. This was beneficial to both myself and my pupils who occasionally had lessons with some amazing teachers. I always called them Master Classes instead of depped lessons! Nowadays, educational establishments can’t give that lassitude understandably due to safeguarding and DBS certification, which is a shame as, in my opinion, the creativity of most teachers comes firstly from performing as a musician which then enables you to pass the benefit of that experience back to your student. There are undoubtedly some fabulous teachers who are purely teachers but for me it has to be a two way street. I would also say that you have to really love teaching to be able to be a good teacher. If you do it purely for the income it will soon leave you embittered, disillusioned and counting down the minutes until the end of each lesson. Many of my musician friends regularly do a 9 or 10 hour teaching day before going on to doing a show, gig or concert. This is the nature of the beast so be aware of this if you are planning on pursuing music as a career. But teaching music is probably one of the most rewarding aspects of my job and to see your students not only go into the profession but be successful in their own right holds its own rewards which money can’t buy.
You have also been involved in outreach facilitation. How does this differ from your other work and what do you enjoy about it?
I have been involved with taking music groups into schools, educational and remedial establishments over the years in various guises but mostly as a facilitator of samba music which lends itself to a wide range of abilities and disabilities. It also gives me a chance to educate non-musicians as well as budding musicians into the joy and fun that music can bring to everyone. I have also found that teaching students with learning difficulties makes you re-evaluate your usual teaching methods and forces you to adapt to different techniques in order to best release that individual student’s full potential.
What is your career highlight so far?
I do like the positivity of ‘so far’ in this question. I have ticked nearly everything off my bucket list that I drew up as a super keen teenager in terms of orchestras and musicians that I dreamed of working with, apart from two, and the chances of Elton or Stevie calling me up for their next album or tour are dwindling by the minute. However, strange but true as it sounds, I can safely say that working with Dame Edna Everage was a definite high point. This ‘global gigastar’ is not known for her musical prowess but her comic timing was impeccable and was easily akin to listening to the finest Steve Gadd groove and I didn’t once tire of watching her performance from the pit in all 75 shows in which I had the pleasure of performing in her backing band.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
Tough question! I don’t want to get too philosophical as I don’t usually do things I can’t spell but I think that the happiest I’ve ever been in music has been working with dear friends and great musicians who love and respect each other and bring out the best in not only your performance, but in you as a person. We are all troubadours and entertainers and ultimately we ply our trade to change people’s moods and if we do that we’ve succeeded. We also have the ability to change ourselves and our own moods through music. Like life itself, it is a journey of discovery and the road can be winding and bumpy but the destination, with ambition, hard work and a little luck, is where you want it to be. You are the creator of your own destiny. Also musicians are fabulous people, great fun to hang out with and they have the best sense of humour!!
What would your Top Three Tips be for a young percussionist/timpanist/drummer thinking about a career in music?
1. Practise until the cows come home, put them away in the cattle shed and then go and practise some more. You can never, ever stop getting better EVER. End of.
2. Follow your dreams and never accept no for an answer. If you can look back and know that you tried your very best at that time you will never have regrets.
3. Be loyal to your friends, your future students and your fellow musicians. Your reputation in this business is equally as important as your last gig and, if your last gig was dreadful, you’ve always got your reputation to fall back on!!
Any last thoughts?
Yes. Answering this interview was very cathartic as it made me think about our fantastically crazy business, the endless opportunities that it can deliver all over the globe and the wonderful memories I have relived writing probably the highest number of words I have written since college days! It has also brought home the precarious nature of our job and the total reliance on other factors outside of our control to enable us to do our jobs. Tough times lie ahead for all of us but particularly young musicians. Things will inevitably change and our jobs may well evolve to be something different but if you know in your heart that being a musician is your dream then follow it with every sinew of your being. It might eventually transpire that the harsh realities of the job are not what you really want and it may turn out that you cannot sustain that dream or that the dream cannot sustain you but you will look back, not with regret but with an immense pride that you gave it your best. That’s all that anyone can ask of you or you can ask of yourself. My thanks to you for reading this and I wish you all every success for your futures.
If you would like to get in touch with Ozzie, he can be contacted at:
Mike 'Ozzie' Osborn on musicteachers.co.uk
Yamaha Drums https://uk.yamaha.com/index.html
Photograph by Lucy Sewill