by Lauren Vogel Weiss
“It’s important to grab on to any opportunity that comes your way, but you also need to practice the art of creating your own opportunities.”
Evelyn Glennie is a percussionist of many firsts: first full-time solo percussionist in the world; first to perform a percussion concerto at London’s Royal Academy of Music; first to give a percussion recital and concerto performance at BBC’s Henry Wood Promenade Concerts (“Proms”); first percussionist to be awarded the Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE); and the youngest person ever to be elected to the PAS Hall of Fame.
So instead of looking back on the career of Evelyn Glennie, we can only review her life and accomplishments thus far. Many more decades of music lie ahead for this energetic Scotswoman.
On June 25, 2008, Dame Evelyn met Queen Elizabeth II to officially accept the honor that had been bestowed upon her the year before. Evelyn was also distinguished with the title Officer of the British Empire (OBE) for her service to music in 1993, at the tender age of 27. “I’m fairly young to receive either of these honors,” Evelyn humbly explains, “but I’m delighted to accept them. There hasn’t been a knighthood given to a percussionist before, let alone a solo percussionist. We are still figuring out the best way to use this title, but it will obviously help us with the charitable, educational, and corporate work that we do.”
From Dame to PAS Hall of Fame—how does it feel to be given this percussive honor? “It was a delightful surprise!” Evelyn smiles. “PAS gave me a lot of inspiration in my early years.” She first attended PASIC ’85 in Los Angeles, accompanying her mentor James Blades (who had been inducted into the PAS Hall of Fame a decade earlier). “That experience was incredible! The hugeness of it all, meeting new people, and being in a different country, as well as a different climate; the whole package is something I won’t ever forget. James Blades was the person who introduced me to PAS, which was a priceless gift.”
Evelyn Glennie has performed clinics, concerts, and master classes at six PASICs (1985, 1987, 1989—which included her North American debut with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra—1991, 1994, and 1999), and attended others as “just another PAS member.” She served on the PAS Board of Directors (1994–99), and in 1994 she spoke at the Hall of Fame banquet in Atlanta and will do so again in Austin, this time as one of the honorees.
“It’s important to take a moment to pause and reflect about what has been done in the past, where one is now, and where you want to be in the future,” says Evelyn. “It’s a personal time to reflect on the impact you might have on other people as well. I don’t know if age plays a part in it, because I feel as though I haven’t really achieved very much and there’s still so much to do! I’m looking forward to the next 20-odd years.”
Evelyn was named Scotswoman of the Decade in 1990 and Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year in 2003, to name a few of the 80-plus awards she has to her credit. She has received over 20 honorary doctorates from universities around the world, and in 2006 she was recognized with Sabian’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Evelyn Elizabeth Ann Glennie was born on July 19, 1965 in Aberdeen, Scotland, the youngest of three children and only daughter of farming parents. She began studying piano at age eight and two years later began to play clarinet. As her hearing began to deteriorate (Evelyn is profoundly deaf), she switched to percussion at age 12.
The percussion teacher at her secondary school, Ellon Academy, decided to give Evelyn a chance. “Ron Forbes was a sensitive person and he had a great deal of patience with me,” she told Modern Drummer in a 1989 interview. While she was trying to tune timpani, he suggested she put her hands flat on the wall to feel the vibrations the tuned interval created. “I could feel the vibrations in my hands and lower parts of my legs, so I got the pitch that way. I can also put my fingertips on the edge and feel it that way. There are countless ways of really hearing a particular instrument.” Evelyn adds that, over the years, “I have developed this technique to an immense degree.”
Thanks to her perfect pitch and the fact that she performs barefoot (or in stocking feet), Evelyn “hears” the vibrations through her body. Together with her deft lip-reading skills, lilting Scottish accent, and amazing musicianship, she has conquered any preconceived notions of her impairment. It is also important to note that Evelyn does not consider herself a “deaf musician” (nor is the fact included in her concert programs) but rather a musician with a hearing impairment. (For more details on her views on hearing disabilities and how deafness has affected her, visit her Website, www.evelyn.co.uk.) The New York Times has called Glennie “a musician, pure and simple” and stated that “her musicianship is extraordinary. One has to pause in sheer wonder at what she has accomplished. She is quite simply a phenomenon of a performer.”
At age 16, Evelyn auditioned for and was accepted by both the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. She chose the Academy (RAM) and moved to London. There she studied with Nicholas Cole, Principal Percussionist with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and met James Blades. He encouraged her to explore new areas of percussion. In 1986, she traveled to Japan to study with Keiko Abe for a month.
In 1984, during her second year at the Academy, Evelyn entered a national percussion competition and won the Gold Medal in the Shell/London Symphony Orchestra Music Scholarship. She also received the James Blades Prize twice—one year for timpani and the following year for percussion—as well as the Queen’s Commendation Prize for all-around excellence, both musically and academically. And just before graduation in the spring of 1985, at the age of 19, she performed “Concerto Palindromos” by Kenneth Dempster—the first percussion concerto performed at the Academy and her first commission.
During this time, Evelyn was also the subject of a BBC documentary, A Will To Win, and a Yorkshire TV documentary, Good Vibrations (also the title of her 1990 autobiography). The following year brought another documentary, The Glennie Determination by Radio 4, along with expanded national and international publicity.
In 1987, Glennie was invited to join Sir George Solti, Murray Perahia, and timpanist David Corkhill for a tour featuring Bartók’s “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.” The piece was recorded by CBS Records and won a Grammy Award in 1989. She also appeared on Béla Fleck’s Perpetual Motion, which won the Grammy for Best Classical Crossover Album in 2001, and she has received two other Grammy nominations as well.
She performed a Promenade recital at Kensington Town Hall in July 1989, the first percussion recital for that esteemed musical event, and later that year she recorded and released her first solo album, Rhythm Song. Evelyn was well on her way to earning her living as a solo percussionist.
Nearly two decades later, Evelyn has two dozen recordings to her credit, the most recent being The Sugar Factory with [guitarist] Fred Frith, taken from the film Touch the Sound. Evelyn describes the art-house film as “the explanation of sound.” The film is a sensory journey showcasing Evelyn performing in a variety of locations around the world. “It’s a hugely important tool. We just need to take our time to listen to the sounds around us. Listening is about being attentive and paying attention.”
She has performed in over 40 countries on five continents, often giving more than 100 concerts a year. This year has been relatively calm with just six-dozen performances plus numerous speeches and other non-performing events. Evelyn has concertized with almost 200 different ensembles (not counting repeat visits to particular venues), including all the top-tier orchestras around the world. She used to travel with literally tons of equipment but now makes arrangements to have the instruments provided for her at each venue. Having spent years traveling with a full-time percussion tech, she is now assisted at different points along the way, usually to set up a new concerto receiving its first performance.
This past spring Evelyn added two new works to her repertoire of 120 concertos (56 of them written especially for her): “Conjurer” by John Corigliano and “Tongues of Fire” by Christos Hatzis (written for both Glennie and Hatzis’s wife, Canadian percussionist Beverly Johnston). “Conjurer” was co-commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony (where it received its world premiere on February 21, 2008), Nashville Symphony, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Gulbelkian Orchestra (Lisbon, Portugal), Dallas Symphony, and the National Arts Orchestra (Quebec, Canada). Originally called “Triple Play” for its three movements featuring wood, metal, and skin instruments, the title evolved into “Conjurer” after the first performance. “The conjurer is the soloist,” explained Corigliano during a backstage interview in Dallas, “and the pieces of wood, metal, and skin are objects that she brings to life through hitting, stroking, or bowing. They become magical.”
“I asked John to write a concerto back in 1999,” Glennie recalls, “and it took nearly ten years for this project to happen. We worked closely together through e-mail, and he flew to the UK to be in the studio with me before the first performance. He was also at all the rehearsals and performances we did in Pittsburgh and Nashville. That was invaluable.
“It’s been a really good collaboration,” she says with a smile, and adds, “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this particular commission!”
Three weeks after her performance of the Corigliano concerto in Dallas on May 4, Evelyn played “Tongues of Fire” by Hatzis with the Vancouver (British Columbia) Symphony Orchestra, followed by concerts in Calgary (Alberta) the next week. “This is a very different piece of music,” she explains. Written for full orchestra, including percussion—the Corigliano is for strings only—it includes a recorded pop song, “Eternity’s Heartbeat,” in the same-named second movement as well as an improvisation between the soloist and concertmaster in the third movement.
“It’s a completely different type of musical language,” elaborates Evelyn. “It’s allowed me to experience some techniques that I don’t use very often, such as the bending of notes on vibraphone, which is very effective in the slow movement.” Since the piece was premiered by Beverly Johnston last year at the Scotia Festival of Music, Evelyn was able to bounce some ideas off another soloist. “Normally you don’t have that opportunity. I went through the piece and decided what the setup should be for my particular needs, and then had a chance to compare that setup with Bev. I have to travel with a piece, so I need to play the piece without duplicating instruments, otherwise it is more weight and expense. That was probably one of the main differences between our setups. But I still went through the piece as though it were the very first time it was performed. No matter how old the piece may be, if it’s the first time for me to perform a piece of music, then I have to view that work as a new composition.”
In addition to being a performer, Evelyn is also a composer in her own right. “But I’m not a composer with a capital C,” she says with a smile. “I write music for television, radio, and media purposes, which is a very different type of writing than for the concert platform. This allows me to use some of the unusual instruments in my collection [1,800 and counting!] that I may not necessarily travel with. It’s also a chance to collaborate with other people who might be more involved with the electronic side of things. But I think composing is a very valuable thing to do, and it really allows you to delve into sound and connect sound to imagery.”
Branching out from music, Dame Evelyn is also a popular motivational speaker. The day before her Damehood investiture ceremony, she was in New York City as one of the keynote speakers at the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) 2008 International Conference. “I talked to them about how to listen,” she elaborates. “My whole profession as a musician is about listening and what it entails. I explained how I use listening as a professional musician and how they can use it within their work environment.”
Another speech at the beginning of July was for the National Health Service in London and centered around her film, Touch the Sound. “We showed excerpts from the film and I spoke about the importance of sound,” Evelyn says. ”I try to let people know that it’s all around us; you have to pay attention and focus to digest that sound.” She recently spoke for Cambridgeshire Culture about the importance of music and the arts in education. The “empire” of Evelyn Glennie also includes a new line of jewelry, available through her Website.
Performer, composer, motivational speaker, jewelry designer—and teacher. Evelyn has recently begun to take on a few students. “These are not just percussion students,” she emphasizes. “These are people who contact me for a specific reason. For example, somebody wants to know about the music business, or about agents and record companies. Another person is preparing for a competition or audition and he or she is working on certain pieces of music, so that would be a specific lesson. Others may simply want me to observe their repertoire.” Her fees vary depending on the topics and the number of lessons required.
Does she have advice for young percussionists? “It’s important to grab on to any opportunity that comes your way,” Evelyn states emphatically, “but you also need to practice the art of creating your own opportunities. Do not get used to waiting for things to happen; the sooner that lesson is learned, the better. You’re taking responsibility for your own actions, your own journey, and as a result of that, it’s so much more rewarding and the experience gained is far richer.
“People told me, ‘You cannot be a solo percussionist’,” she recalls. “What would I play? Thanks to my journey over the last 20 years, there is now a body of repertoire to not only start a career more quickly but to sustain one. But that all stems from people saying, ‘No, it can’t happen.’ Once you believe in something, you know it’s absolutely possible to do.”
Evelyn pauses before adding, “We can’t take for granted what we have, or what has been achieved. Things are moving so quickly in this business; it’s completely different than when I started. Every day is an opportunity to take a good look at what you’re doing. You can practice all you want to achieve a high level of playing, but if you let a month go by, it’s almost like you’ve lost five years. Every time we pick up our sticks we have to be better than the previous time we picked them up.”
What does Evelyn consider her greatest accomplishments so far? “The fact that a full-time solo percussionist did not exist before,” she modestly replies. “I don’t mean that in an egotistical way, but I was the first percussion concerto performer and recital soloist in the 100-plus year history of the Royal Academy of Music in London, and at the Prom concerts, too. These were high-profile performances that changed the perception of how people felt towards percussion. Every time you have an opportunity to perform, you’re planting the seed in someone else’s system. You’ve got to respect that and therefore give your best.”
Dame Evelyn has certainly given her best to percussion and music around the world. “It’s important for people to think that I listened to my own voice and had a really good go at what I believed in,” she says. “At the end of the day, there are absolutely countless individuals who play these instruments superbly well, but that just isn’t enough. There has to be that something extra there that really does make the difference. And that particular ‘something’ cannot be described with words.”