London Symphony Orchestra - Co-Principal Percussionist

Sam Walton

 Sam Walton has worked with many of the UK’s orchestras including the London Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, the Philharmonia and the London Sinfonietta. In May 2012 he was appointed Co-Principal Percussion of the London Symphony Orchestra. Sam is also Principal Percussionist of the John Wilson Orchestra. As a chamber musician, Sam is a member of the Colin Currie Group and the LSO Percussion Ensemble. Sam is currently a teacher at the Royal College of Music, the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall. He is also the percussion tutor for the European Union Youth Orchestra.

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

I was 7 when I started playing, although I wanted to start at 4. The local drum teacher explained that my hands were too small to hold the sticks, so he recommended I start to learn the piano, to get to grips with reading music.

Who was your first teacher and where did you start?

 

My first teacher was Simon Wilcox, a local drummer and percussionist. He was a great teacher, very inspiring. He also introduced me to the local brass band, where I learnt how to play timps and tuned.

 

What instruments/resources did you have? 

I owned a drum kit at this stage. Most people of my generation started on drums before starting on tuned and timps.

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

 

Learning to read music at a young age was very important for me. It enabled me to progress more quickly once I started on drums. I would say learning the piano was a huge positive for me at this early stage. Also, having a passion for the instrument you are learning. Although I enjoyed the piano, it was only ever going to be supplementary to the drums; I had no interest in learning any other instruments.

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

 

Any ensemble playing really. Brass bands helped me get an understanding of playing a huge array of styles of music; from Prokofiev to arrangements of Bohemian Rhapsody! And through this, having a go on all the percussion instruments at an early stage. It's important not to label yourself as a drummer or a marimba player specifically.

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

 

Tough question! I think when I realised I was pretty average at everything else!

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

 

I went to the Royal Academy of Music to study with Neil Percy and Kurt Hans Goedicke from the London Symphony Orchestra. The department was incredibly strong during that time, and I was fortunate to be studying with people who were very inspiring. My fellow students were pushing the levels higher and higher, which forced me to work very hard to attain the already very high levels.

Why did you decide this pathway? 

 

I wanted to study with Kurt and Neil since I met them at the Shell/LSO competition in 1992. They were the reason I wanted to play in symphony orchestras.

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

 

My first orchestral concert was with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in my second year at the Academy. Chris Guy, who was the principal percussionist at the time, asked me to play in the section for a cello concerto by Vasks. I was very excited to be playing my first professional concert, and remembered taking it very seriously, whilst learning lots from the more experienced players in the section about orchestra etiquette.

What happened next?

 

After leaving the Academy, I freelanced in London for 15 years, performing in as many different musical scenarios as I was asked to do! From orchestras to West End musicals, and education projects to improvisation groups. It all helped to give me a sense of what can be achieved as a professional musician.

You are the Co-Principal Percussionist for the London Symphony Orchestra, what's this like? 

It's intense! Before the current situation, the orchestra was very busy with concerts in London, 90 days of touring, and recording projects in the studio. Things are a bit different at the moment, but we are still managing to broadcast concerts every week and some studio work. I love my job and every week presents a new and interesting challenge. It's also great to work with people who continue to inspire me.

Are there any challenges? 

The work can be unrelenting, the touring can be tough, spending time away from my wife and two sons, and the hours we work can be late. But these are minor concerns.

What was the process in getting this job? 

 

I had to audition, which consisted of around 45 minutes to an hour of playing all the most challenging excerpts in the repertoire on all of the instruments a co-principal is required to perform. Which is basically all of them, from marimba and xylophone, to snare drum, cymbals and tambourine. Around 130 top players applied, and after this initial audition, the list was shortened to 10 players. Each player then completed a trial period with the orchestra, performing in concerts and general work. The candidates are gradually filtered down until only one or two remain. The successful candidate has to receive the blessing of all the principals in the orchestra, so it can take some time; they need to be certain the right person is in the job, but the process can take years! 

 
You are a member of the Colin Currie Group, what do you enjoy about chamber performance?

 

Colin and I have been great friends for 30 years! We studied together and have played in many chamber music scenarios. It's very different from playing in an orchestra, presenting different challenges. But I love the collaborative experience of everyone having a creative input into the process. This gives you a bit more musical freedom. Also I enjoy the different repertoire.

 

You are the Principal Percussionist of the John Wilson Orchestra, how does this differ from other groups you play with?

 

Stylistically, the way the orchestra plays is very different from the LSO. John expects everything to be precisely with his beat, so there is no room for freedom within the tempo. John always wants the percussion to be on the front of the beat, at the beginning of the orchestral sound. The repertoire the orchestra plays is so wonderfully written for the percussion that you rarely need to be correcting anything. The instruments we use are fairly authentic, trying to recreate some of the original sounds of those Hollywood scores as closely as possible.

 

You have performed with many orchestras, ensembles and have also recorded on multiple films. What do you enjoy about the 'portfolio career' of a percussionist?

 

I think that, generally, the nature of a percussionist is that we have inquisitive minds. We are also very fortunate that we can transplant our craft over a wide variety of musical genres, from orchestral playing to West End shows, from Salsa to Samba. And I think it's unwise to pigeon hole yourself as a performer. Why should we when there's so much great music out there?!

 

You are a Professor at the Royal College of Music and Royal Academy of Music, what's this like?

 

I really like being a professor at these institutions. It gives me a very broad understanding of the students about to enter the profession, who they are, and what levels they are at currently.

 

When and why did you start teaching?

 

I started teaching seriously around 10 years ago. I wanted to start to give back some of the knowledge I'd gained from the profession to help the younger generation enter the profession. 

Does teaching help your performing career? 

 

Absolutely! It really gets me thinking about the mechanics of how I play the instruments. I've also changed the way I play things from seeing different approaches of my students. I prefer it to be collaborative rather than dictatorial. I don't want my students to play the same way I do. I will present the way that works for me. They can take it on board and then develop it or reject it, I don't take it personally!!

 

What is your career highlight so far?

 

Tough question! All involve Proms concerts! Mahler 3 with Haitink and the LSO, Prokofiev 5 with Gergiev and the John Wilson Orchestra Tom and Jerry Prom were all highlights. Also performing Steve Reich's Quartet world premiere at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with the Colin Currie Group.

What is the best thing about being a musician?

 

The variety is great, no two days are the same. Meeting interesting people, travelling, and the fact that, at the end of a days work, you get a round of applause!!

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

 

1. Be open-minded.

2. Practice wisely.

3. Remind yourself how lucky you are to be doing something you love.

Thanks Sam! 

If you would like to find out more about Sam's work, follow the links below:

Watch the LSO Percussion Ensemble here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzURBg_BOl4

Read more: https://lso.shorthandstories.com/sunday-24-may/index.html

John Wilson Orchestra: https://www.johnwilsonorchestra.com/

Watch the John Wilson Orchestra: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=kYrUWfLlYI0&app=desktop

Sam is an Acoustic Percussion Artist www.acousticpercussion.com

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