Royal Scottish National Orchestra - Principal Timpanist
Paul Philbert MBE
Born in London, Paul Philbert displayed his musical propensity early in life, studying at the Purcell School of Music, and further, at Trinity College of Music. He then established himself on the professional stage as the founding Principal Timpanist of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in 1998. Paul has appeared as a guest performer with many renowned ensembles in the UK and Asia, including the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Seoul Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, BBC Symphony, the Hallé and Qatar Philharmonic, to name but a few. In 2015, Paul became the founding Principal Timpanist of the Chineke! Orchestra. He was also appointed Principal Timpanist of the Orchestra of Opera North, a position he held for three years before moving to Scotland where he is now the Principal Timpanist, and a Player-Director with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, a member of the Board for Sistema Scotland, a Timpani Tutor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and continues his role with Chineke! Paul was awarded an MBE for services to music in H.M. the Queen's Birthday Honours List on 10th October 2020.
Why did you take up timpani and how old were you?
It was something of a last resort really..! I'd been a pupil at the Purcell School of Music from the age of 9, and had tried my hand at the piano, violin and clarinet all with poor-to-moderate success. I even tried all of the major brass instruments for a short while. I must've been 14 or 15 by the time timpani & percussion were added to the peripatetic teaching list at school, and I was one of the first students to receive lessons.
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
My first teachers were Peter Beament (BBC Concert Orchestra, now retired), and his then wife Lillian Simpson (ex WNO); they were the very first timpani and percussion tutors at Purcell. We all started with a solid grounding in snare drum rudiments and reading before progressing to tuned percussion and timpani.
What instruments/resources did you have?
Well, my mum had spent quite a lot of money buying me a decent violin, and clarinet, so I started learning percussion with just a practice pad, one pair of 2B snare drum sticks, and the Goodman & Goldenberg books. The school had all the necessary instruments, but I still remember using my upturned laundry basket and various other "targets" to act as timpani when I was at home.
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
These are uniquely challenging times, but, I firmly believe that live music performances will survive this enforced hiatus. Grades can be useful for establishing discipline and setting short-term targets, but it's important to remember that there will ALWAYS be fresh opportunities to learn and grow, thus one should always study well beyond the syllabus. Regarding instruments and sticks, save up, and buy EVERYTHING that you can! You cannot own too many instruments or equipment. Explore ALL performing opportunities and practice as much as is practically possible. All of these things I've mentioned are an investment into your future that you will certainly come to appreciate with age and experience.
With your knowledge and experience now, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young percussionists to engage with?
Under "normal" circumstances, local and national youth orchestras, community orchestras and brass bands all offer excellent performance opportunities, and if those don't exist in your area, create your own group and a YouTube channel and live-stream a solo recital or group performance! The internet makes broadcast, coordination and collaboration a whole lot simpler!.. Even if you're on the other side of the planet!
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
From my very first percussion lesson I knew that something special was going on and I think that I fell in love with the timpani during my very first timp lesson; that set my mind and heart in the right direction. That said, I distinctly remember my first big orchestral timp gig as a student; I was booked to play 2nd timps in Mahler 6 with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. I was sitting behind my pair of timps on the back row at Poole Arts Centre (now The Lighthouse), enjoying Paul Turner's fabulous playing and taking in the sonorous sensation and spectacle of it all. In that moment I recall thinking to myself "I really-REALLY like THIS!".
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
After Purcell I went on to learn Timps & Percussion with John Chimes and Kevin Nutty at Trinity College of Music. They've both now retired from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but have had an ENORMOUS, life-changing influence on me, both as a player and a person. Without their individual and collective methodology, diligence, wisdom, encouragement and support I simply would not be where I am today.
Why did you decide this pathway?
I was always ruthlessly focused on becoming a timpanist with my own chair. I never considered an alternative until I had achieved this goal.
At what point did you decide to specialise in Timpani and why?
I dare say that choice was made, in a small, yet significant way back in my very first timpani lesson. It was always my favourite percussion instrument.
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
I don't recall specifically. It's most likely to have been a booking from the magnificent Mike Perry, or the awesome Andrew Barnard to perform with a choral society, or local orchestra somewhere. They both put a great deal of paid work my way, which offered me unique opportunities and experiences; all invaluable!
What happened next?
Over the years they've both become highly treasured friends of mine.
You are the Principal Timpanist for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, what's this like?
As far as I'm concerned, I hold the very best chair in the UK! My predecessor, Martin Gibson, did an incredible job of creating and maintaining an excellent department with lovely instruments, and a couple of fabulous spaces for the timpanist. Both the Timp store/practice room and the workshop have been designed with a great deal of thought and care to maximise functionality, productivity and comfort. The workplace is full of lovely, and wonderfully talented people, and we are highly fortunate to have a modern, purpose-built space to call our own.
Are there any challenges?
Right now our entire industry is facing unprecedented challenges. Establishing and maintaining a financial equilibrium, and, if at all possible, introducing areas of growth, will be essential for survival, and I think that the pro-active vision and drive of the RSNO team puts us in a very strong position going forward.
What was the process to getting the job?
It was the shortest trial that I've ever undertaken; so short that the day of the job offer took me very much by surprise! Just 4 months from start to finish! I still can't quite believe it!
You are a Professor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, what's this like?
It's wonderful to be working alongside Kurt after all these years (we used to play badminton together when I was a student), and to be a small part of such an impressive educational institution. I've always thought that teaching is the perfect counterbalance to a healthy performing career. It necessitates introspection, analysis, comprehension, and nuanced communication. I should add humility to that list, as quite often I find that my students have something surprising to teach me.
When and why did you start teaching?
Historically, I was offered 2 teaching posts whilst I was a senior student at TCM; they were at Dulwich College Preparatory School, and Benenden School for Girls, both in Kent, and a healthy 180 mile round-trip from my home..! I started my teaching day at 8.35am, and would finish mostly at 9.30pm. Friday's were rather lengthy days.
Does teaching help your performing career?
I most certainly think so.
What is your career highlight so far?
I have too many to count. Performing Peter Grimes at the St Endellion music festival with Richard Hickox (to whom I owe VERY much) in 1994, and again in 2008, the Rachmaninov 2 in Tokyo Metropolitan Hall towards the end of the first Japan & Korea tour with the MPO back in 2001, performing Siegfried Matthus' Timpani Concerto in 2006, performing Wozzeck and Mahler 9 in the USA with the Philharmonia in 2012, discovering new dimensions of Sibelius with Esa Pekka Salonen in 2015, performing Wagner's complete Ring Cycle six times in just over 3 months with Opera North and Richard Farnes in 2016, finally getting to work with Neeme Jarvi last year, and countless concerts with the RSNO!
What is the best thing about being a musician?
I get paid money to do something that I LOVE to do, in a medium with almost boundless expressive capability and life-changing power.
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist/timpanist thinking about a career in music?
1. Focus on your goal, work hard towards it, and treasure & enjoy each and EVERY moment of your journey!
2. Forgive yourself for your "mistakes", re-focus, work even harder, and enjoy the moment!
3. Enjoy your state of forgiveness, open your heart, re-focus again, work EVEN harder, and enjoy the moment more than you did yesterday!
If you would like to find out more about Paul, follow the links below:
Sistema Scotland makeabignoise.org.uk/sistema-scotland
Royal Conservatoire Scotland https://www.rcs.ac.uk/courses/bmus-with-honours/timpani-percussion/
Paul on Social Media: