Royal Opera House - Prinicipal Percussion & Timpani
Simon grew up in Edinburgh where he attended St Mary's Music School studying Percussion with James Grossart, piano with Audrey Innes and composition with Geoffrey King. Moving to London, he attended the Royal College of Music studying Timpani with Janos Kezsei, Percussion with Kevin Hathway, Piano with Raymond Fischer and Composition with Richard Popplewell. Simon then enjoyed a varied freelance career playing with most of the major orchestras and opera and ballet companies in the country. He joined the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in 2007 as Principal Timpani and Percussion. Simon continues to enjoy playing the piano and composition, and has presented 2 lunchtime concerts of his own music at the Royal Opera House.
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
I was 12. I had played the violin from around age 7 and before long it was clear that the violin and I didn't get along. I had also taught myself how to read music and play the piano from an early age. I was asked by the school's head of music what I wanted to play instead of the violin, and vividly recall the look of horror on his face when I answered "Timpani". I was regularly taken to see SNO (as it was then) concerts, and sat in the seats behind the orchestra. I was fascinated by what I saw the timpanist (Huw Ceredig) and percussionists (Pamela Dow et al) doing, so the way ahead was a no-brainer!
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
I grew up in Edinburgh and attended St Mary's Music School. Percussion was not on the syllabus at the time, so I was sent to Mr James Grossart outside of school hours. He started me off with side drum technique, although it took me a good while to achieve even a basic double stroke roll (the discovery of buzz rolls was a very welcome short cut!). Other percussion and timpani came later.
What instruments/resources did you have?
I started off with a practice pad, as much for my parents' sanity as anything else. Later on 3 hand tuned timpani were found for me to use at school, and I borrowed an ancient xylophone to practice at home. My school eventually purchased a snare drum with which, along with the timps, I thoroughly annoyed everyone within earshot. The local education authority owned 3 Premier pedal timps, which were a rare treat.
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
I was lucky in that there were lots of school and amateur orchestras in those days, and I learned as much from playing with all of these as from my lessons. I fear there is much less of this around now, but search out any and all playing opportunities as you can find. You'll soon discover what sort of playing you enjoy and want to concentrate on. I never took any percussion exams (I'm not sure there were any at that time), but I took plenty of piano exams. The experience of learning something for a deadline is invaluable, and the discipline involved is well worth cultivating.
With your knowledge and experience now, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young percussionists to engage with?
Take any opportunities that you can find. Whether it's orchestral, small ensemble, pop band..... whatever. Try anything once! I persuaded a school orchestra to accompany me playing the Beethoven violin concerto on the xylophone! I can't vouch for what it sounded like, but if you don't try it you'll never know what it feels like or if you enjoy it or not.
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
My first school orchestra course during a cold and wet October half term break. We were sent to an old wartime evacuee camp in the Borders; heating and cuisine were....er.....basic, but I was hooked straight away. Rachmaninov's 1st Symphony was the piece and it still holds a special place in my heart. Many years later I got to record it with the Philharmonia, which gave me a strong feeling of full circle.
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
I went to the Royal College of Music and studied Timpani with the late and great Janos Kezsei, and Percussion with Kevin Hathway. I also pursued piano and composition, of which more later.....
Why did you decide this pathway?
I had wanted to study timpani with Alan Cumberland (then the timpanist of the LPO), but was sent to Janos instead. It's just as well I got in as I didn't apply anywhere else.
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
My first fully pro gig was with the Guildford Philharmonic in the Leas Cliff Hall, Folkestone. The conductor was Jan Pascal Tortelier, the pianist Peter Donohoe played Beethoven's 5th concerto and Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony was also on the programme. Heady stuff for a 17 year-old! I remember it clearly, unlike many hundreds of concerts since! I knew this music well, and enjoyed every minute of it. I was in my first year at the RCM; I got the gig from the late Mr Roger Blair who was their regular timpanist and who I had met as a tutor on National Youth Orchestra courses. He must have seen something in me and gave me this first opportunity. I am forever grateful.
What happened next?
I continued to get gigs here and there, until my 3rd year at RCM when Janos (to my eternal gratitude) put my name forward to the Rotterdam Philharmonic. I played timpani for them on and off for around 2 years, gaining invaluable experience at a high professional level. After that, I established myself as a freelancer based in London. I was given opportunities to play in many orchestras, not least by Andy Smith in the Philharmonia with whom I played 2nd (and occasionally 1st) timps for many years. There were ups and downs in those years, but I gradually became very busy playing timps and percussion for a large number of orchestras and opera and ballet companies.
You are a Principal of both Percussion and Timpani at the Royal Opera House Orchestra, what's this like?
Never a dull moment! I enjoy the challenge of playing in all positions in the section; the responsibility and exhilaration of the timpani, the challenge of playing Section Principal Percussion from time to time, and sometimes taking a back seat and catching up on my reading (!). We play a wide variety of repertoire at the ROH, from Mozart and Rossini to the present day. Alongside the staples of opera and ballet repertoire (eg. La Boheme, La Traviata, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet), I have played Powder Her Face - a chamber opera by Thomas Ades (probably the hardest single thing I've ever had to do), Death in Venice By Britten, and I've been an on-stage timpanist (in costume!) in The Minotaur by Birtwistle..... The list goes on!
Are there any challenges in working with opera and ballet?
In opera, the orchestra is an accompaniment to the singers (apart from overtures, interludes etc). A high degree of awareness and flexibility is required to stop voices and orchestra parting company (which does occasionally happen!). Some conductors are better than others at walking this tightrope, and the orchestra has often saved the day with its corporate knowledge of the music and an instinctive ability to adjust. In ballet, the orchestra still has to adjust to the dancers who, just like singers, don't perform their roles exactly the same way twice. As we can't hear the dancers, we rely more on the conductor to steer us through this potential minefield.
What was the process in getting this job?
I applied, auditioned and played a trial period with the orchestra.
You have also composed music for the ABRSM Percussion Syllabus, how and when did you start composing?
I started writing music in my childhood; mainly juvenile gibberish to start with but I took lessons from Geoffrey King at school and Richard Popplewell at the RCM, and began to understand some of the processes and discipline required. I don't remember making a conscious decision to do it as a child, I just knew I wanted to.
Does composing compliment your performing career?
Writing music entails understanding how it is all put together; structure and form, key relationships and a sense of the overall purpose and meaning of a piece. As variable as my own efforts may be, writing them has given me an increased appreciation of the music I play; of all the time and effort that went into producing any given piece (even if I don't like it!). As a timpanist, I also believe that a constant awareness of tonality is essential for tuning the drums. I automatically try to follow the bassline of any piece of music, and try to understand what keys the music passes through. More complicated in R. Strauss than in Mozart (!), but a useful thing to be able to do.
Do you have any other strings to your bow?
I am pleased that I kept up my piano playing. I play purely for private pleasure (mine, if not the neighbours'....), and have discovered a huge amount of wonderful music for piano that I would otherwise have been unaware of. It has also helped my tuned percussion playing, as I see a xylophone part (for example) not as a single line of unconnected notes, but as a sequence of chords. I believe this helps with reading an unfamiliar piece, and increasing the fluency of what I play (if not always the accuracy..!).
What is your career highlight so far?
That's tricky..... In recent years: Der Rosenkavalier conducted by Andris Nelsons, Parsifal conducted by Bernard Haitink, Die Frau Ohne Schatten conducted by Semyon Bychcov to name but a few. My first Mahler 2nd symphony with the Philharmonia conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli was unforgettable. There was a particularly electrifying moment near the end (thanks Andy!!) where I actually left my seat.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
To follow on from my previous answer... To be a part of this wonderful music that I have loved all my life is a privilege and an undying pleasure. In spite of all the ups and downs over the years, I wouldn't have done anything else.
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist/timpanist thinking about a career in music?
1. Work hard. There will always be a place for someone who is excellent at what they do, no matter how overcrowded the profession.
2. Have an awareness of the other musicians around you. Percussion doesn't exist in isolation.
3. Enjoy what you do! Otherwise, what's the point...??
As a final remark, my philosophy (such as it is) is to always strive to do the best that I possibly can, and have a good time doing it!
If you would like to find out more about the work Simon does, please check out the ROH website: