We were extremely lucky to have met Evelyn Glennie at her hotel in the West Village several weeks after her incredible performance at the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony. Her power and grace was undeniable, and her command of the other 1000 drummers was nothing short of a spectacle. Read on to find out more about her experience with the Olympics, her ability to “feel” sounds, and other wonderful, and inspiring, Glennie stories.
Tom Tom Magazine: Your recent performance at the London Olympics Opening Ceremony was absolutely incredible. Tell us about getting involved in that project, and what the experience was like from beginning to end.
Evelyn Glennie: Well, basically I was just called up one day and asked if I’d like to participate. Of course these things happen way in advance so you don’t get too excited because you know all sorts of changes are going to happen, the change of ideas as well. But I was very honored to take part, especially with the team of people there. I recognized that Danny Boyle’s film work has just been amazing, and I’ve been a very big fan of his work so I knew that he would create something very interesting, indeed. Anyway, the months rolled by and we got some idea as to the concept of what they wanted me to do. And of course my whole career has been about promoting solo percussion so I was very adamant that I wanted percussion to be at the forefront. That was also their thinking as well, however they wanted a thousand other drummers, too, and this was really intriguing. At first we thought, well, how are we going to find drums for a thousand drummers? And these are all volunteers! We had the idea that actually to give someone a drum can be quite intimidating because you feel as though you have to be able to play that drum. But we came out with the idea, because it was linked to the Industrial Revolution, to use different types of buckets. Suddenly the whole thing exploded into this very memorable scene, I think, in the Opening Ceremony. It was just a fantastic example of true teamwork where anybody could participate. And with that will there it was an unbelievable event to be part of.
So you were actually part of the design, coming up with the original ideas as well as performing.
A bit of both, actually, because several visits were made to the arena to work out how we would actually function in such a big space, and how we would actually hear each other and communicate with each other. Each group of drummers had a professional or experienced student to really bind them together, otherwise it’s literally too far away. And I was up in a podium bit and that in itself was a challenge, really. So from the technical side it was an incredible feat for all of our technicians to work the sound. It was really remarkable from all avenues, actually.
How long did the preparations take from start to finish?
Well, the thousand drummers rehearsed on their own in a huge car park in the east of London, so I wasn’t involved with that aspect of it. We had professional drummers leading all of that. I went to another venue in London where I gathered with a smaller group of drummers and then I recorded my part, my rhythm, at Abbey Road Studios in London. So this was all done separately. And then we had about ten days that we had to allocate. So out of those ten days we may have used maybe six days whereby two of those days were dress rehearsals for 60,000 people and this just gave us an idea as to really what it feels like, what’s happening, and to iron out any teeny little things. So we were well-rehearsed by the time we actually performed, for sure.
It was something so much bigger than any of the individual drummers!
Absolutely. Interestingly, I gave an interview for Sky News just the other day. It was at Trafalgar Square, in London, and just on the other side of the square there happened to be fifty of the drummers doing something for the BBC. So I went up to them and we were all still so excited. They were demonstrating the rhythms that we were playing. You know, what we actually played, although a lot of it was improvisation, was just this core, raw rhythm, really. It was very infectious, very moving, a purposeful rhythm, and something that can easily be memorized. Something that the audience can truly feel, as well. It was this indescribable feeling that was physical as well as visual as well as aural. Something that was quite unique and very raw, indeed.
Touch the Sound, the documentary about your life and musical work, is a beautiful exploration of your experience with deafness, which began for you as a child. Your ability to “feel the sound” is a remarkable solution. Would you tell us more about your technique and how you taught yourself?
Well, I’m not sure that I taught myself, it was really the realization after having been wearing hearing aids and assuming that hearing came through my ears, I was playing louder and louder and louder. This was really affecting my balance and my sense of touch and there was no sensitivity there, or not the sensitivity that I felt was actually inside of me. Suddenly my teacher, when I was first introduced to percussion at the age of 12, he said to me in one lesson, “Evelyn, strike this timpani”–and this was an old, hand-tuned timpani with the taps–“are you actually feeling this anywhere else in your body?” And so, I struck it and I paid attention, and I said, well actually I can. Basically, it opened the door to suddenly think, my gosh my body could become a huge ear in a way. And I didn’t have to overload my ears. I think that’s been a key factor, is that I don’t immerse myself in music in any other time than when I’m actually participating myself, because I just don’t want to overload the body. There has to be this segregation. When I play a snare drum it’s a new experience again. When I play a marimba it’s a new experience. What this has done is that I don’t actually have a favorite instrument, so when I’m in front of a woodblock or a cymbal or a marimba or a vibraphone. If the next instrument I’m due to strike is a triangle, that’s my favorite instrument because it affects the body in such a different way. A woodblock and a triangle are two completely different sensations and the body has to be really aware and focused. It has to listen. So, listening doesn’t mean through your ears, listening is something that you share throughout your whole body. You have a very different experience of that when you’re the participator, and you’ve got a greater emotional content to draw upon when you’re that participator rather than being the passive listener. Someone up in the balcony will have a very different experience from someone in the first row or tenth row or on the side. None of us are experiencing anything in the same way. We’ve always got a different perspective on it. So that opening up of the body was a key element.
Are you actually able to feel the pitches?
Well, to feel the difference between a C and a C sharp, I mean, you could if that pitch was truly isolated. But if you are playing the chord of C major you wouldn’t feel the C and the E and the G and so on. It’s a sensation. Because notes can fly by so quickly there’s no way that I can pick up a series of pitches. It really is just the sensation that will change from instrument to instrument, from dynamic to dynamic, from mallets or sticks you were using to different mallets and different sticks. So if I strike the pitch C on a marimba, let’s say, with a medium stick that will give you one sensation, if I use a very hard stick that will give you another sensation. But they’re both the same pitch with the same touch. So it’s like a pool of insects, moving all the time where there’s never a set pattern. And that’s what sound does. It’s always constantly moving throughout your body and you can’t quite pinpoint what that is, the journey of the sound, but you can pinpoint the attack, and that’s very important. The art of listening is really to experience then what happens after that attack so that you can link up the next sound.
It sounds like this is not only applicable to deaf drummers, but to all drummers to improve their experience of music.
Oh yes! Anybody can approach it this way if they want. It’s not a mystery, it’s not a secret, it’s something that is completely and utterly simple. But to apply it and to take that time to concentrate, and it does take concentration, it’s there for us all.
You’ve written and spoken publicly about common misconceptions about deafness, what are some of the major problems with the public’s understanding of it?
Well I think it’s not just the public, I think it’s the media more than anything. They’re sometimes big culprits in saying, “just tell me what you hear.” Well, if I asked you the question, “what do you hear?” I don’t know if you would be able to just put that into words whereby the interviewer could just put that into a tiny little nugget. And that’s what they want. They want you to say, “I can’t hear anything” and that’s not true, so we can all get a myriad of sounds. If I see something move, if I see the air conditioning vent move, or if I see a little tassel move, I’ll hear sound because the eye will give me the illusion of sound. For example, there are two people in the corner now. I’m glancing at one of them at the moment, and he’s scratching his head and he’s frowning and he’s leaning over. I’ve got the sound. I’ve got the sound in my system and I just sort of eavesdropped on his movements. Now if I wanted to I could eavesdrop on the conversation, but I won’t do that! But this whole body language has given me the sound world.
Switching over to your influences as a youg musician, you grew up in Northeast Scotland. How (if at all) did the indigenous musical traditions there influence your own musical style? What else shaped your approach to music performance and composition as you grew up and began to pursue music as a profession?
Well, as a youngster, I mean I was brought up on a farm in the Northeast of Scotland and back in the ‘70s we didn’t have computers and we didn’t have DVD players and things like that. So a lot of the entertainment that happened in the home was connected with your family, making music, whether you could play anything or not, it could just be singing a traditional sort of song. If visitors came ‘round, like aunts, uncles, or cousins, we would inevitably end up singing. If someone could play the piano they would play the piano, but it was all Scottish music, and that was as normal and as natural to me as anything. We weren’t looking for the next great musician, this was just a part of our upbringing, and the way life was. Of course, now the family structure for many people has broken down, it’s very fragmented. And of course, we’re experiencing the technology world that’s moving at such an incredible rate that is making entertainment accessible to all of us, but in a much more isolated way. So we can all listen to music much more than ever before, we have access to it, but it’s not a shared experience anymore. We don’t really talk about it, other than through Twitter or through Facebook. It’s more electronics upon electronics. Really, it was this connection with other people that was very important, the sharing of music making. I think the link between what happened in the family environment and what happened in school was seamless because music happened in school. By the time I left primary school at the age of eleven, all of the pupils there could read music. They could all read music, they knew the basics of music. They knew what a treble clef was, then knew what a bass clef was, they could read rhythm, they could sing songs, they knew pitches, they knew how to notate the music. I mean, that’s extraordinary. So when we went to secondary school, high school, from the age of twelve onwards we had a basic knowledge of the musical vocabulary so it wasn’t such a frightening experience. You wouldn’t think, “Ooh, I’d love to try percussion but I can’t read music,” or, “I’d love to try to play the violin, but I can’t read music.” We had those tools, but also the school offered every child who walked through the doors to be given the opportunity of learning a musical instrument. So when I was twelve years old I saw the school orchestra play, all new pupils got this assembly whereby the school orchestra played, and I looked at the orchestra and I thought it consisted of people like me, my age group. I was very influenced by that, and I thought I want to be a part of that, and I looked around the orchestra, I looked at the strings and thought no I don’t want to play a stringed instrument. Wind, I’d already played the clarinet for one year but had given that up, so no. Brass, no I already had a brother who was playing the trombone. So I thought the percussion looks quite interesting, and I asked for a lesson through the school, and that was the beginning.
Other than a month of marimba study in Japan in 1986, you’ve never had a solo percussion lesson. What other ways have you learned your craft? Were you virtually self-taught?
Yes. I had a very good teacher from the age of twelve to sixteen at school. He treated all of his pupils as sound creators, first, musicians, second, and instrumentalists, third. So, what does a musician do? A musician creates sound. And in order to create sound you need tools, so the percussion are the tools in my case. That opened up all sorts of opportunities, really. When I went to the Academy of Music in London, that was when all the walls seemed to come up because they would not accept that it was possible to be a solo percussionist. I had a fantastic three years there of orchestral playing and working with a lot of living composers, contemporary music and things like that. I knew that being in an orchestra wasn’t where I wanted to be. It just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was very clear with myself, and I kind of still am, with the aims that I have. I wanted to be a solo percussionist, that was the aim. If I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t be involved with music. It was very clear-cut, really. So, not having the opportunity to do solo work at the Academy meant that I had to very quickly learn how to create your own opportunities. The art of creating your own opportunities was really important. I had to build programs up, practice in a corner, but I knew in my mind that there was an audience out there, there was no question about that. And then I spent one month in Japan with [prominent Japanese composer and innovative marimba player] Keiko Abe so that was where the month comes from. But, other than that there have been no formal lessons in solo percussion.
That says a lot about music in schools. It’s so important to have kids start to learn music at a young age, and it needs to start in the schools.
It does, and the earlier the better, of course. We’ve got that curiosity and a free spirit that is very infectious. I’m absolutely a big believer in that, too.
Would you talk a little about your practice routine?
(Laughs) No routine, I’m afraid. There is absolutely no routine. That word is not really in my dictionary because it’s impossible to have any routine in the kind of schedule that I have. And in a way I’m quite happy about that because I always find that if there’s a routine you’re kind of hostage to that. Sometimes I’m asked whether I have a routine as regards to what I do right before the concert. Do you read a book, do you do yoga, do you do this, do you do that, do you do X amount of practice? And that spells hostage to me. Maybe to some people it’s like a security blanket, maybe to others it’s absolutely necessary and it really does help. I’m not that kind of person anyway, even when I’m giving concerts. Nothing’s quite routine, I never quite know. I want to be prepared, but not prepared enough. There’s that element whereby the audience is so much part of the performance that they dictate what’s actually to happen. It’s hard to put into words, really, because each performance is very different, but I do find that I listen to the moment I’m in, I’m in a venue that can be very different depending on the venue, so I worked up to that venue. I can’t really explain it anymore than that, but every time I’m at a place I listen to my self. Sometimes I feel like I really want to pick up a pair of sticks and do something, and other times I think no I just want to sit here and stare at the walls. Other times I might want to write a little something in my notebook, or read a good book. Sometimes I might want to drink a lot of coffee before a concert and other times I won’t touch it. I can’t tell you why; I’m just listening to myself and what feels right for me to do at that time.
What does it mean to you to be given an OBE (Order of the British Empire) and a Damehood?
I think it’s unusual for musicians. I mean, singers and conductors probably get those sort of things but not percussion players. So I was very honored and very surprised, particularly getting it at a relatively young age, especially the OBE which was in my twenties, really, and normally you would get a Damehood when you’re quieting down. So I was very honored to get that, but I didn’t want people to think I was retiring or something. The first step of creating a full-time career as a solo percussionist has now been established, other people are doing it. So they don’t have to explain what it’s about, they don’t have to prove what it’s about. When you mention concert pianist, concert violinist, concert percussionist, end of conversation. That’s really been taken care of, so now I feel as though the world is open to me as regards to now what do I want to do. It’s great being the age that I am because you can look back on what’s been achieved and what’s been done but you’ve also got years in front of you to really be productive. And it’s a fantastic moment to be because you are looking back and looking forward. As far as learning from younger people, I can now learn from younger people as well as older people. When you’re young you can only learn from older people! It’s a great moment because they’re the ones pushing the boundaries and you have to take note of that and that’s what you want to happen, you’re just part of this evolution. It’s really important to keep encouraging younger people to keep inspiring older people as well, and to keep your own curiosity, too. That’s always a big challenge when you’ve been doing something for a long, how do you keep motivated? It really is just listening to where you’re at. You mentioned to me earlier that you really like this hotel because of the atmosphere, the colors, the design, and so on. And I have yet to listen to this hotel, and I sort of wonder what’s around the corner behind you, etc. and that’s exactly what I do with a piece of music.
How much has gender, namely the fact that you’re a woman and most drummers/percussionists are men, played a role in your career?
To be perfectly honest, no it hasn’t, and I think part of that is because, interestingly, when I started percussion in school there was only one boy and all the rest where girls who were learning percussion. So I was brought up with female percussionists. When I became a full-time student in London it was the opposite: I was the only girl and the rest were guys. And then when I got involved with solo percussion I wasn’t really mixing with other percussionists as such, other than perhaps in the percussion section in an orchestra. Again, I had the experience whereby the principal percussionist of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was female, the timpanist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was female, the principal percussionist of the BBC Scottish Orchestra happened to be female. And these people had been in those roles for years and years, so for me it was very odd to think that it is all male because I have seen many women in the profession. I’m not the best person to talk about this, really! (Laughs). I’ve had absolutely no problems at all as regards to being a woman drummer, but as I say I think it’s because of the arena that I’m in. As a soloist your on your own anyway, and that’s that. For me it’s so important to encourage all people to participate in percussion, and that’s what the family of percussion can do so well, even those with physical or mental challenges. Percussion is absolutely open to them, it is very adaptable indeed.
How important do you think a publication like Tom Tom is for the female drummer family, as a resource and as a community?
I think it’s very important. There are so many avenues to music and so many strands that you can explore, and I think that for many people they may well experience great challenges in being a women percussionist or a women drummer. I’m lucky because of the avenue that I’ve decided to choose, but I think we do get inspiration from each other and we are curious as to what your story may be or what your journey or your adventure may be. I don’t think there’s any harm in that at all. The idea of labeling us, I think that’s where I sort of draw a little line, really, because I don’t want to be labeled. I don’t want to be labeled as a deaf percussionist, I don’t want to be labeled as a female percussionist, I don’t want to be labeled as a classical percussionist, or a contemporary percussionist, or anything else. I simply want people to recognize “Evelyn Glennie, she’s a musician.” And she happens to be a percussionist, and she happens to be a marimba player, and she happens to be a woman. And she happens to be five foot tall, or whatever it may be. Otherwise we can get slightly hung up with those things.
What advice do you have for our readers about being successful as a woman and as a drummer? Is it about harnessing the power of that rarity?
I think that nowadays, because of the internet, we can actually get ourselves across much more than ever before. And for me it’s not being apologetic about anything. If you have the dedication, that dream or that aim or that curiosity to want to achieve that particular thing, go for it! Don’t build on your shoulders all of those thoughts, like, I’m female should I be doing this, should I be doing that. Again it goes back to listening. Listen to yourself and what feels right to you. And what feels right to you today may be completely different on Friday, may be completely different on the weekend, and that’s fine because that’s part of the curiosity and the exploration. Sometimes people might ask me which grip I use on a snare drum or a marimba or something and I say, well what day is it today? Oh, I’ll use the Monday grip, or I’ll use the Tuesday grip or something because it’s just how I feel at this moment in time. If you believe in something rid yourself of stuff and just focus on the thing that you want to be good at and you want to put over. If you’re a chef you want to create the most extraordinary meals so that people have this experience. They’re not piling on themselves that they’re a female chef or a male chef or that they’re a chef that’s come from such a place so they won’t be taken seriously. You don’t need that, just get rid of that, clear your head, and focus on that thing that you want to put forward.
By Sofia Pasternack
Still Images from Video by Cat Tyc