Freelance Percussionist &
Percussion Co-ordinator at Junior Guildhall
For the first 10 years of his professional career Rob was the percussionist with the highly-acclaimed and award-winning pop group, The Divine Comedy. Alongside this he has worked with artists such as Sir Tom Jones, Sir Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel, The White Stripes and Sam Smith. In more recent years Rob has expanded his career over a wider range of musical genres which has seen him perform and record with The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, The BBC Symphony Orchestra, become a member of Christian Forshaw’s Sanctuary Ensemble and The Colin Currie Group whilst also teaching at Junior Guildhall and Felsted School in Essex. The bulk of Rob’s career is now spent in the studio recording film and TV scores. These include Avengers: Infinity War, Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Mary Poppins Returns, Black Panther, Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame.
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
I started when I was 12 having lessons on drum kit for a year. In those days all peripatetic lessons were free in Leicestershire and I just signed myself up for them without even having to tell my parents. My teacher suggested that I should do an audition for the county youth ensembles on percussion which meant playing a xylophone for the very first time in the audition itself. I was already playing the cello in one of the county youth orchestras but ended up doing better on percussion than I did on the cello in the auditions. I should add that I think it said more for my cello playing at the time than it did for my percussion!
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
My first teacher was Dougie Wright. Although we didn’t know it at the time, Dougie is a true legend. He has a CV as long and impressive as you’ll ever see. As I said before, Dougie started me out on drum kit then suggested I learnt percussion as well.
What instruments/resources did you have?
We had a drum kit at school then after I started taking it more seriously my parents bought me a Premier Olympic kit and a little later we bought Dougie’s Premier xylophone off him.
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
It’s very difficult to find space for instruments but a practice pad and a pair of sticks is a great start. Tuned instruments are much cheaper now than they used to be so finding one of any kind is great. I have a student who has no space at all at home but he does have a 3 octave xylophone. We just adapt the pieces that he plays so that they fit on to his instrument. In an ideal world we would all have the space and be able to afford a marimba but unfortunately that’s not the case. However, do look out for shops/individuals doing long-term hire. It can be a great way of getting the instrument without a huge financial outlay. In terms of grades I don’t think that they are an absolute necessity but they often act as a good inspiration for those who need it. As a teacher it is very easy just to take the students from one grade to the next without looking beyond syllabus repertoire. That said I’m very excited about the new ABRSM syllabus and I think that it offers far more than previous ones. I particularly like the duets and the multi-percussion options. With regard to performing experience I say do as much as possible. Online, on stage, wherever it is possible...play to people.
With your knowledge and experience now, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young percussionists to engage with?
Solo opportunities can be easier in some schools than others. By the time I was 16 I was studying on the Specialist Music Course at the Leicestershire School of Music and was very fortunate to be having lessons with Melanie Walker who set me loads of challenging and exciting repertoire. This enabled me to perform regularly and gave me the confidence to do Young Musician of the Year when percussion were included for the first time a couple of years later. These days I’m very fortunate to teach in a school with fantastic resources and as such my pupils can perform every Tuesday break-time to a decent audience of other pupils and interested teachers. I think that doing competitions, festivals etc is all great because you get feedback from musicians other than your teacher. I think it’s very important to hear what a non-percussionist has to say about your performance as well. I always tell my pupils to enter these things to do their best and not worry about winning. You are never going to please everyone with your performance but all feedback (well most of it!) is useful. I think that playing in ensembles is vitally important. Not only musically but also socially. Try as many different genres as possible too. I rarely do a day's work where I’m just playing one musical genre and having even a small amount of knowledge gives you the confidence that you can cope with the situation. Start with school/local ensembles then see where it takes you. I was very lucky in Leicestershire to be surrounded by a fantastic brass band tradition. The quality of playing was phenomenal and it gave me the opportunity to play at places like the Royal Albert Hall when I was only 15.
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
Probably when I was 15. I had really developed a love for percussion and all that it had to offer. The school I went to for my GCSE’s was an absolute dump and had done it’s very best to drive away any sense of ambition that any of its pupils may have had when starting there. However, I had extremely supportive parents who despite not knowing anything about the music profession could see how much percussion meant to me and did all that they could to support me.
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
I went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where I learnt with David Corkhill, Terry Emery, Michael Skinner, Jimmy Holland, Richard Benjafield and Anthony Kerr.
Why did you decide this pathway?
When I auditioned for college I went for the RCM, the RNCM and the GSMD. Initially I was determined to go to the RCM but that was soon out of the equation when I didn’t get in! I got in to the other two but had a great feeling about the Guildhall during the audition. Melanie suggested that London might suit me well and I went with her advice.
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
I can’t remember exactly but one of my first big opportunities was being asked by a friend at college, Joby Talbot, to play on a song for The Divine Comedy at Abbey Road. Joby was the piano player and orchestrator for the band and we’d become good mates while Joby was doing his post-grad at the Guildhall. There was no money but it was an incredible experience, playing in Abbey Road 2 when I was only 21 or 22.
What happened next?
I was asked to go on tour with The Divine Comedy during my Post-Grad at the Guildhall as part of the orchestra for A Short Album About Love. The Guildhall were great as I ended up needing around 16 weeks in total off to take on the various bits of work I’d been offered. They encouraged me to get out and do as much of it as possible without ever wishing to stand in my way.
You were a member of the pop group 'The Divine Comedy' for 10 years and have performed at festivals such as Glastonbury, V Festival and Reading. What was this part of your career like and how did it differ from your work with ensembles such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House?
It was just really good fun. I wouldn’t necessarily want to do it again now I’m in my forties but it was basically like being paid to go on holiday with your best mates for 10 years. Musically, it wasn’t always the most rewarding but I was very fortunate to work with a singer/song-writer who wanted to challenge us and also collaborate with other great artists. We worked with people such as Tom Jones, Robbie Williams, Mark Eitzel and perhaps the highlight for me was doing a cover of “Don’t Worry Baby” with Ronnie Spector. By the time I was fortunate enough to get work with the Royal Opera House and the BBCSO I had basically moved away from doing The Divine Comedy and was working more as a freelancer. Initially I was usually booked to play a specific part with the orchestras or because I had a strong relationship with the composer and had been involved with some of the percussion writing. When working with the orchestras these days it is often because there is some hand-drumming that is featured in some way and they want someone who is happy to be the rhythmic link between the conductor and the band.
You have performed with many ensembles, artists and have also recorded for multiple films. What do you enjoy about the ‘portfolio career’ of a percussionist?
The great thing about being a percussionist is the variety of genres available to you. Regularly on films we’ll do a couple of sessions with the orchestra where we do the standard orchestral percussion like gran cassa, cymbals, tuned perc and tam-tam then the following day we’ll do percussion-only sessions with taikos, dunduns, snares and many other bits of hand-drumming and shakey things. It’s that degree of variety that keeps it interesting and exciting every day. The other important thing about a portfolio career is that you open up many more avenues of work for yourself. If one area goes a bit quiet it means that you have other ways to pay the mortgage!
Are there any challenges?
Not specifically, I think it’s just about keeping yourself technically and mentally prepared to play whatever is in the diary that day.
You are the Percussion Co-ordinator at Junior Guildhall what's this like?
Challenging, rewarding and sometimes very hard work. I get to work with fantastic staff and equally fantastic pupils who are ambitious, talented and most importantly, creative!
When and why did you start teaching?
I started teaching when I mentioned to the lads at the musician’s football in Crystal Palace that for one reason or another I was looking for some more work. Alex Neal was there and he said that Colchester Institute was looking for a kit/percussion teacher. Basically a couple of weeks later after Alex had very kindly made a couple of phone calls for me I started teaching 2-3 days a week down there. It was at this point that I was able to prove to my wife that playing football was only going to be good for my career..!
Does teaching help your performing career?
It helps you pinpoint areas of your own technique that need work. It also makes me really think about how I practice and whether I am following similar rules to those I would expect from my pupils.
You are also actively involved in outreach projects, what do you enjoy about this side of your work and how does it differ from teaching?
I enjoy this side of what I do for a variety of reasons. I love walking in to a room with 80 people who have never met one another, we have no music or plan (well, we do to a point obviously) then 2 hours later we leave having composed a 10 min piece full of banging tunes and funky grooves that an 80 year old and a 9 year old came up with between them. I work with a great team, led by Lincoln Abbotts who is a constant source of inspiration to me. (I regularly nick his ideas and put them in to my own one to one lessons). The main way it differs from teaching is that because of the nature of what we are doing, we can be as creative as we like without worrying about technical deficiencies and long-term plans. We can just go in and make a noise!
What is your career highlight so far?
Too many to pinpoint one but some would be:-
Opening night of Winter’s Tale by Joby Talbot at the ROH when I was part of a five-piece onstage band.
Recording all of the percussion for Aluminium by The White Stripes/Joby Talbot.
Working with Daniel Pemberton, Andrew Skeet and Paul Clarvis on the films we do together. Dan gives us carte blanche in terms of creativity and it’s incredibly tiring but immensely rewarding. He’ll also tell us if it’s rubbish!!
The first time The Divine Comedy played Brixton Academy.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
In the current climate that’s a tricky one! On the whole though I love the opportunity to be creative and work with good mates. One of the things I have always been aware of with percussionists is that we work as a team and if someone is particularly busy then everyone is pleased for them. The vast majority of my closest friends are musicians and I think that if you asked most musos now what the main thing is that they are missing about their jobs, they would say it is the opportunity to make music with their fellow professionals.
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist thinking about a career in music?
1. Be curious and always look as far as possible in to what you are learning. If you are playing a xylophone piece called Bossa Nova, go and find out what one is!
2. Take on every opportunity you are offered and don’t pigeon-hole yourself by only playing one style of music.
3. Practice hard but find ways to enjoy your practice. Set yourself small but achievable targets within each practice session and you will find it much more rewarding.
If you would like to find out more about Rob, check out the following links:
Guildhall School Music & Drama www.gsmd.ac.uk/
Southern Percussion www.southernpercussion.com/
Harlan Percussion www.harlanpercussion.com
Sabian Cymbals www.sabian.com
Protection Racket Cases www.protectionracket.com