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A Fascinating Conversation with Dame Evelyn Glennie

Thursday, 26 January 2017

  • Dame Evelyn Glennie with pupils
  • Dame Evelyn Glennie group percussion
  • Dame Evelyn Glennie with musicians


Pupils, parents and friends of Bolton School enjoyed a fascinating evening in conversation with Scottish virtuoso percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie.  

The evening opened with a dramatic and arresting Icelandic snare drum solo from Dame Evelyn; her incredible playing transfixed the Great Hall audience, after which she said "I was just testing the acoustics of the hall”. 

Three Bolton School Girls’ Division pupils with a passion for music posed questions to Dame Evelyn, who has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12.  Before asking the questions, each of the girls, Sally Cowling, Jaqueline Jones-Humphrey and Hafsa Syed, all multi-instrumentalists, explained where their musical passions lie. 

Considering what advice to give to a young person who wants to become a performer, Dame Evelyn recalled her own very special music teacher when she was aged 12 who asked her to create the “feel” of a tractor on the drum rather than the “sound”.  She explained that there are many musicians that can play pieces note perfect but very few that are brave enough to add in expression and their own personality.  She told the audience to always think about the sound of colour and the mechanics of what you do – the drumstick should be treated as an extension of your body, otherwise your body is detached from the actual instrument.  She also advised the young musicians to create their own opportunities. 

Mr Forgrieve, a percussion teacher at the School, wondered how she managed to commit to memory such intricate and long compositions?  Dame Evelyn said the pressure of performance is usually enough to help her with memorising, although for a recent extended track she had built a story and emotion for each section of the music. 

Dame Evelyn has made it her lifetime mission to teach the world to listen and when asked about this she said it is important to take time to digest each bit of music, almost like you are tasting it. She explained that it is about slowing the body down, paying attention and listening to the detail. Proper listening takes time, it is about what we allow our system to digest and almost becomes a sixth sense.  Introducing the Great Hall to a Waterphone, she showed how through this interesting and eerie-sounding instrument sound continues its journey long after you think it has ended. When you pay attention, everyone has a slightly different interpretation and this can be affected by where you are in relation to the instrument. 

Reflecting on leading out 1,000 drummers at the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games she said it was an unbelievable experience and an extraordinary example of teamwork. She said a lot of hard work had gone on behind the scenes too – a very early start on the day and because of enhanced security checks, she did not get home until 5am in the morning! There had also been lots of long rehearsals, often in the rain, in preparation for the event to ensure all was perfect on the night. 

Asked which instrument she liked best, Dame Evelyn picked up the Spring Drum and gave other instruments to the three interviewers and Mrs Price, Director of Music in the Girls’ Division, and together they made up a sound story. She said she likes to focus on each piece of music as if it is the greatest piece of music ever. 

Renowned for taking her shoes off to perform, Dame Evelyn explained that it made her feel “more planted” and was something of a security blanket. Without footwear she felt completely balanced and attached to the ground. She said that sound carries upwards and she feels it in her feet first. She recalled how she had recently played at a UN event and two amputees with false legs, who had been stood nearby, said it felt like their legs were dancing! 

Considering the question of how to deal with pre-performance anxiety, she thought this could be conquered by knowing that you have done your very best in preparation.  It releases the stress if you know what you are going to do. She said she always feels a sense of great responsibility before a concert but also sees it as a chance to grow from the experience. 

Dame Evelyn spoke about how, for her, sound is like your diet, which you need to monitor and ration. We all need to occasionally close off all sound and listen to the quiet and ourselves. She ended the evening on this very theme with a Great Hall rendition of John Cage’s 4 minutes 33 seconds of “Silence”.  For the first part of the movement, she asked the audience to focus on the noise resonating around the rafters of the Great Hall; for the second part, the audience were asked to look into themselves and to listen; for the final part the congregation listened to one another.    

Dame Evelyn has released over 30 solo albums and has been given many titles and achieved many awards.  Most recently, she was elected as one of the two laureates for the Polar Music Prize of 2015. She has received 15 honorary doctorates from universities in the UK, an OBE in 1993 and was promoted to DBE in 2007. She was appointed to the Order of the Companion of Honour (CH) in this year’s New Year Honours.

In 1982 she was Scot of the Year and won the Queen’s Commendation prize for all round excellence in 1985. She was awarded the Best Chamber Music Performance in the Grammy Awards of 1989 and was voted Scotswoman of the Decade in 1990. In 2002 she won the Walpole Medal of Excellence and a year later the award of Musical America Instrumentalist of the Year. She was voted as best studio and live percussionist from Rhythm Magazine in 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2004. In 2006 she was given the Sabian Lifetime Achievement and was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 2008.

In 2004 Dame Evelyn was featured in a documentary called Touch the Sound and her story is told in Good Vibrations: My Autobiography. She is an Ambassador of the Royal National Children’s Foundation.

Much of her life is taken up with touring and she spends up to four months a year in the United States. She has performed with a wide variety of orchestras and contemporary musicians, including Bjork and Mark Knopfler, giving over 100 concerts a year as well as master classes and performances in schools. 

The lecture was the latest in a series of Arts and Science presentations which are taking place at Bolton School Girls’ Division in the evenings and are open to the general public.  The next one will be given by the renowned Particle Physicist Professor Jeff Forshaw, University of Manchester, on Monday 27 February.

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