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BBC National Orchestra of Wales - Principal Timpanist

Steve Barnard

Steve Barnard ARAM was born in Nottingham and started percussion lessons at school with Brian Booth. At the age of 17 he went to the Royal Academy of Music where he studied percussion with James Blades and Nicholas Cole. After a year of freelancing he was appointed Principal Timpanist with the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, now the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and at the age of 21 became the youngest Timpanist in a UK orchestra. In a career so far spanning 41 years Steve has played in most major concert halls around the world and with many great conductors and soloists. Over the years he has been involved with the orchestra’s outreach programme and also teaches timpani at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Steve also enjoys playing kit both with the orchestra and as part of a jazz quintet whenever the opportunity arises.

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

I started playing the drums at the age of four. When I was about 9 years old my dad took me to see Eric Delaney at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham. We sat up in the 'Gods' and I remember looking down on the stage from what seemed like a great height as Delaney, great drummer and showman that he was, played his timpani along with his big band. The drums lit up from inside with coloured lights as he hit them and I thought 'that's what I want to do'! I haven't yet managed to persuade the BBC to let me use the lights though....


Who was your first teacher and where did you start?


When I was 11 and went to grammar school, I immediately signed up for percussion lessons. In those days all instrumental lessons in schools were free - yes I know, unbelievable - and my first teacher was the wonderful Brian Booth. He's taught many well known professional percussionists over the years and I owe a lot to him for starting me off. We covered everything - kit, timpani, tuned and percussion - and he would play jazz piano (cigarette in mouth because you could do that back then) while I played along on kit. 

What instruments/resources did you have? 


We had quite a lot of gear in the school and I learnt my early timpani trade on a set of three very old copper hand tuned timps with calf heads. I very soon joined the Nottingham Junior Harmonic Orchestra where I also played on calf headed hand tuned timps and then on Saturday mornings went to one of the four Notts music schools where I first came into contact with Premier pedal timps with plastic heads. I've used Premiers ever since along with my calf headed Ringers and hand tuned Lefimas with goat skin heads. Nottinghamshire had an amazing music service in those days and the four county music schools provided an excellent resource for young musicians. I was so lucky in that every Saturday morning I had a percussion lesson, piano lesson, theory lesson and took part in both a wind band and orchestra rehearsal. The afternoon was then reserved for going to see Nottingham Forest if they were at home!

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


Obviously practice is very important. I never did grades but I think they can give you a focus and provide the motivation when you're slogging away at snare drum rudiments and scales! Try and enjoy playing as much as possible. It can be difficult at times but the hard work will definitely pay off in the end. 


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


I think the best advice I can give here is to take every opportunity that comes along. From about the age of 15 I did every Messiah that I was offered all over the county each year. There's not much to play but it was a great experience playing with scratch orchestras where I was the youngest performer. I also played kit every Sunday evening with the Nottingham jazz orchestra in a pub. We had a pad with about 400 pieces in it. The band leader would just shout out a number, count us in and off we went. What a way to practice sight reading and I had a very experienced bass player, four times my age next to me and helping me along. I was also by now playing in the County Youth Orchestra and National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and had my own rock band so my experience was covering all genres. It's important to not limit yourself and to keep an open mind, just as long as you're playing music. 


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


I'd always known I wanted to play for a living, I just never really considered anything else but if one thing decided it for me, it was that my teachers at school didn't want me to! Their attitude to the idea of anyone being a professional musician just made me more determined to succeed and prove them wrong. 

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


I really wasn't enjoying school - apart from school orchestra and music lessons - and I really didn't want to do A levels. I discussed this with Brian, my teacher and he suggested that I could do an audition for the Royal Academy of Music. I was only 16 and had just started in the sixth form but he pointed out that the performers course didn't require A levels and the RAM were the only music college that would take younger students. So having nothing to lose I went and did the audition and was offered a place for that September! I was so happy, I took the acceptance letter to school that day, showed it to all my teachers and then walked out. I got a job in a solicitors general office for six months and then went off to London. So I never had to consider going along another path, this was my only option at this stage and it just felt like the right thing to do. My teachers at the Academy were the legendary James Blades and Nick Cole who was then the principal percussionist of the RPO.

At what point did you decide to specialise in Timpani?


I don't think I ever decided to specialise in Timpani and I still loved playing kit. It's just that I wasn't really a tuned player so this sort of cut out the possibility of going for percussion jobs although I did do a couple of auditions on percussion for the experience. I also enjoyed playing multi percussion parts, pieces like the Soldier's Tale and the Britten chamber operas. I did however find myself usually playing timpani with the Academy orchestras and I realised I preferred playing timps to sitting around playing a triangle occasionally! I was also at this time invited to join the World Youth Orchestra as I was the youngest percussion student at the Academy and went with them to South Korea and Japan for four weeks which was amazing. 

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


This was with the Nottingham Harmonic Orchestra when I was 15. I played the triangle in Dvorak's cello concerto (Brian was playing timps) and was on the bus home with 5 pounds in my pocket before the audience were back in their seats for the second half! I also picked up a regular gig on kit in a dance hall from one of the guys in the jazz orchestra. Just me and a keyboard player. I loved that and learnt so much from it. 


What happened next?


I started to pick up work whilst I was at the Academy particularly with the RPO from Nick and also tours with Scottish Ballet and Ballet Rambert. The Academy didn't like us taking time off college to do work and this caused a bit of a problem at times but I made it to the end of the course and left in 1978 after 3 amazing years to pursue a career but not knowing how it was going to turn out. 

You have been the Principal Timpanist for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales for over 40 years, what has this been like?


Yes as it turned out, I was appointed Principal Timpanist of BBC NOW (then BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra) in August 1979 and have been here ever since. It has been the most amazing experience and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to play in so many different places around the world and with some really talented musicians. Most of all though I've had the security of a job for so long which has afforded me the chance to not only play music for a living but to do other things too. I really do appreciate how lucky I've been to have had this, particularly in these uncertain times. 

Have there been challenges?


I know the repertoire really well but every now and then there are challenging new pieces to play, as we do a lot of contemporary and new music. And occasionally Britten's Nocturne pops up, which is always a challenge at the best of times. 

What was the process to getting the job?


After leaving the Academy I freelanced, mainly Ballet Rambert. In early 1979 I took on an 18 week national tour playing kit in a show called 'O What a Lovely War!' At the end of the tour I called Nick Cole begging for work. He was in Wales that week with the BBC Welsh who hadn't managed to fill their timpani job from the trial process. I hadn't applied for the job but he had a chat with the manager who then called me and offered me a 2 week trial. I came to Wales the following week, did the trial and was offered the job a week later. I was stunned but very happy obviously and accepted immediately, becoming at 21 the youngest timpanist in a UK orchestra. Incidentally I'm now the longest serving at 41 years!


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


I love teaching at the RWCMD. I have a lot of experience of playing in an orchestra and feel privileged to have the opportunity to pass on this knowledge. I really hope my students get as much from it as I did from lessons with Brian, Jimmy and Nick.


When and why did you start teaching?


I started teaching originally at the University but was then offered the post at RWCMD in 1997. At this point I really felt ready to pass on my experience and give something back to the students. 

Does teaching help your performing career?


I'm not sure it particularly helps my performing career but it does help to focus my mind on certain passages of repertoire. I do even now occasionally discover a different way to play something when discussing it with a student so I suppose it's mutually beneficial. 

What is your career highlight so far?


This Is undoubtedly when Alun Hoddinott wrote a timpani concerto 'Dragonfire' for me, the first performance of which was in 1997. I felt so honoured that he wanted to do this for me and I've played it several times since. He loved percussion and particularly the timpani and I still have the letter he wrote, thanking me for the performance. 

What is the best thing about being a musician?


Playing music and getting paid for it. It doesn't get much better than that and it really doesn't feel like a job. Sometimes I can just sit back and enjoy the sound of a symphony orchestra playing great tunes and when we're at full tilt there's nothing quite like it. I also get to play kit with the orchestra when the opportunity arises so I can still indulge the kit drummer in me!

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


1. Practice I'm afraid! There's really no substitute for this and definitely no shortcuts. 

2. Listen to and learn from other players and those from the past. Drummers like Buddy Rich, Bill Bruford and Ian Paice - my 3 favourite drummers - all master technicians but so musical too. 

3. Take every playing opportunity that comes your way and learn from it. But most of all, enjoy it! Never forget that music is to be enjoyed and give pleasure to those listening to you play. 

Thanks Steve! 

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

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