Evelyn Glennie is the world’s first full time solo percussionist, whose mission in life is to teach the world to listen. Her TED talk entitled “How to truly listen” has been viewed almost five million times. And if that wasn’t remarkable enough, take a peek at the description or presenter bio for that TED talk and you’ll discover that Evelyn actually lost almost all her hearing at the age of twelve.
One might assume that a deaf musician must just be playing from memory or from instructions – which would make it a strong example of the kind of “robotic playing” we often talk about getting away from on this show. But Evelyn actually represents the polar opposite – her deep focus on listening and feeling each and every note makes her a prime example of just the kind of truly intentional, expressive playing that we celebrate and seek to encourage here at Musical U.
Evelyn has given deep and careful thought to the topic of listening – and sound, and music, and how our relationship with each of these can transform our lives and the lives of those around us.
From her TED talk to provocative sound art installations to YouTube teaching videos and of course her professional performing career, Evelyn’s work just sparks of passion, creativity and wisdom – and so to say we were eager to pick her brains about musicality and the listening skills of music would be a huge understatement!
In this conversation we talk about:
- The remarkable way her first percussion teacher introduced her to the instrument and helped her connect intimately and instinctively with all that it could do
- How thinking about your performance as a “sound meal” can be the gateway to providing a more compelling experience for your audience
- Why musicians who get very good at “musical listening” in the specific, concrete, practical ways can actually lose sight of a far more fundamental and important kind of listening.
Like the best musical performances, we think Evelyn’s comments in this interview will hold you rapt as you listen – and then leave you with a lingering sense of wonder and curiosity to bring back into your own musical life.
Listen to the episode:
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Evelyn: Hi, I’m Evelyn Glennie and my mission is to teach the world to listen. And you’re listening to The Musicality Podcast.
Christopher: Welcome to the show Evelyn. Thank you for joining us today.
Evelyn: Thank you, thank you very much.
Christopher: So, you have perhaps one of the most interesting musical origin stories, as it were, that I’ve come across. And you shared it wonderfully in your TED talk. But if any of out listeners haven’t seen that amazing presentation, could you just tell us a bit about your own musical start, what it looked like for you to learn music?
Evelyn: Well, first of all, I’m a farmer’s daughter. So, I spent my first 16 years on a farm. That really was my orchestra in a way, the sound world of the farm, the sound world of the countryside. And I think when you’re in that type of environment, you very quickly learn about patience. And you’re also trusted with sound. So, you’re connecting with livestock, you’re connecting with machinery. All of that has its own sound world.
And when you’re a young person and you’re given tasks to do on the farm, basically the sounds around you are sounds that you have to pay attention to. Not just through the sounds that they create that by the motion of that sound, so if you’re seeing the wheels of a tractors move, you’re not necessarily picking up the sound first of all. But you’re picking up that movement, and that movement will generate the type of sound. So, whether you need to back away or whether you need to go in a particular direction, or whatever it might be.
That actually had quite a bearing I think, on my whole appreciation of sounds. So, it didn’t really come from learning music first of all, it came from just paying attention to the environment that you’re in. And I think that really has allowed me to, I suppose, think about sound appreciation. First and foremost, before thinking about musicality, or indeed, a sound appreciation of music in itself. So, that’s a question we can all wonder. A bit like, “Well, is noise music or is music noise?” What comes first, really?
I remember we had a piano in the house, and it was more of an ornament than an instrument. And that obviously, the curiosity of a youngster, went on the stool and started, you’re just sort of tapping away and banging away on the keys. But I just loved the frequency range of the piano, the fact that you had very low sounds. And when you’re a child, everything is quite exaggerated. So, the low sounds were really low, the high sounds were really high.
The low sounds were big and fat, the high sounds were all tingly and star-like, and sparkly and that kind of thing. So, it was really again, just creating whatever emotion happened to be inside of yourself. And when I turned eight years old, my parents decided that as I was picking up little advert themes from the television, that was our medium, I suppose, that we had. We didn’t have record players or anything like that at that point. I remember picking up little advert themes, and believe it or not, my parents could actually recognize them after a while.
So, this was all done by ear. And they then decided that perhaps it’s time to get some more formal education and have a piano teacher. And that’s what happened, and I loved it. I actually really enjoyed playing the piano, I went through all of the grades on the piano. I enjoyed the process of just seeing the piano as a companion. It was just something that I wanted to be with. I just felt that it was kind of a companion, a friend, just a way of expressing yourself.
So, there was never this feeling that, “Oh, heavens, you have to plod through exercises in scales and you have to shut yourself in that room.” That wasn’t the kind of environment really, that I was brought up with. So, I suppose again, there was this sort of trust that my parents had, that I will deal with the preparation in my way, in my own time, and in a kind of system or method. Not that those are words that I really like to use, but just in my own way.
But I really liked-
Christopher: I’m sorry to interrupt, could I just ask were your parents musical themselves? Do they have some experience or some insight into what learning music could be like?
Evelyn: Well, my father actually believe it or not, had a very good ear. But he couldn’t read music. And although he played the accordion in a dance band for weddings and things like that, he stopped when myself and my brothers were born. So, we never actually saw him play at all. And my mother on the other hand, did not have a good ear, but she could read music.
Evelyn: So, she was of the type that had to kind of be pushed in there and made to do things. I was never really made to do anything, and not just simply because I enjoyed doing it in the first place. And I enjoyed the curiosity both of creating sound … I enjoyed the curiosity both feeding emotion through this instrument and kind of almost seeing the instrument as an extension of your own body. And that’s why the kind of friendship thing came, you had this thing that was almost like a secretive thing to you. But that’s what happens when you’re young.
But anyway, I also remember that I was never really very good at theory. And that was the side that I did have to sit down and really work at, that didn’t feel as though it came naturally to me. So, there was this very odd kind of balance going on between practically being absolutely wide open, but the theory, I really struggled with. I really did, and of course I need that to get through the grades on the piano. So, that I didn’t enjoy. And I couldn’t find a kind of soft way to deal with theory. I couldn’t find a way that was enjoyable somehow. It just seemed too … strict, everything had to add up to something.
Whereas when you’re just playing, nothing really has to add up to anything. It adds up to how you’re feelings at the moment. So, even although you’re reading something that’s on the notated page, well, it is just a guide to actually how you’re expressing it at that particular moment. But I remember when I reached the age of 12 and I was having real problems with my ears, and I was looking for something to go alongside piano playing. And I kept piano going as a joint first study when I became a full-time student in London.
So, I put my name on the list to try percussion when I went to secondary school. And lots of people wanted to learn percussion. So, I had to wait my time. But once that time did come, I picked the sticks up and it just literally felt an extension of my limbs. It just felt completely natural. And it’s one of those things, that why does somebody learn the bassoon or the cello, or the organ or sing, or whatever. There’s just something that is very hard to express, whereby it just simply feels like the chemistry is right.
But I remember my teacher in the first lesson. I was all gung-ho, trying as many different things as possible, but he basically said, “Evelyn, please take this drum away and I’ll see you next week.” And of course I was so perplexed of that, and slightly disappointed frankly, because I was really excited about this. So, I walked from up to the farm with this drum. There were no sticks and no stand, just the drum. And I spend a week with this drum, not knowing at all what to do with it. But then bit by bit I sort of struck the drum, I tapped the drum, I scraped the drum, I beat the drum, I tickled the drum.
I did all sorts of things, I turned it upside down, on its side, whatever, whatever, and popped it on different surfaces. And I found that actually, wherever I put this drum, it resonated quite differently. So, if I put it on the grass, on the lawn for example at home, it was quite dead. However, if I popped it on the kitchen table, the wooden table, it really resonated much more. Or if I popped a cushion over it, it would just be a very muffled kind of feeling. And I remember the next week going back to my lesson, and then my teacher asked, “How did you get on?” I said, “Well, I’ve no idea, I don’t know what to do with this thing.”
And he knew I was a farmer’s daughter. He said, “Evelyn, please create the feel of a tractor.” And I thought, “The feel of a tractor? Well, I know what the feel of a tractor is. But there’s a whole orchestra of tractors in my head. So, is this tractor stationary with the engine off? In which case, the feel … is complete stillness. Or is it an old rickety tractor going up a hill? Is it a brand new spanking fancy tractor, whereby the engine is just like a piece of velvet?” Or, “What is this tractor? So, is it in first gear, is it in third gear, what’s going on with this tractor?”
So, I had then then permission to express this tractor through the drum, in any kind of means possible. Using hands, feet, whatever I wanted to use. But it was my tractor, and my expression of the tractor. And that has a huge bearing on, basically, how I progressed from there on in. It could have been a different environment, if my teacher said, “Here are the sticks, please make sure you hold them at this angle. Please make sure your arms are at this degree. Please make sure your feet are this way, apart.” Or whatever it might be, and I would probably strike the drum, look at the teacher, and ask for his permission if that was right or wrong.
That did not happen. From the word go, this drum belonged to me. And therefore, what you express through that drum or any other tool that you have, is your expression. It’s your sound, and that’s what makes the difference. So, you’re not asking for permission, “Is it right or wrong?” You’re saying, “This is my experience.” So, it’s coming from the inside out, rather than outside in. Rather than waiting for the teacher to say, “Da, da, da, da, da,” and you feedback into yourself and try and do it, what my teacher was asking me was, “Look, you explore what’s inside of yourself. And give that to me in a week’s time.”
And that was the difference, it was just this different direction of the giving. And that has allowed me really, to, I suppose, sustain this curiosity 30-odd years later, 40 years later. In everything I do, because I still get excited by picking up a strange object and seeing, “What are the possibilities?” It’s like going back to that first lesson. There’s no rule book here. It’s just simply what is in your system that you want to explore, and get out, and maybe fall flat on your face, and you get up again and you see the other possibilities. That’s what really, it’s about.
Christopher: That’s fantastic, there is so much there that I want to unpack. But I’ll start with a question that’s front of mind for me. Which is, was it just good fortune that you had a teacher who encouraged you in that way and let you lead and experiment? Or did he recognize that curious spirit in you, or why was it that you didn’t just arrive on lesson one and start playing paradiddles or single stroke rolls?
Evelyn: Well, I think it was a bit of everything. I think it was the skill of the teacher and the trust the teacher had in a young person’s mind. It’s still elastic at that age, and it’s really respecting that. And making sure that that is fed as much as possible, and believed in, and respected, and listened to. So, he was quite remarkable in that way. And also, it was the environment that I was brought up in. This is a country environment, so we did not have percussion stores in the nearest city. We did not have music stores, we did not have people coming in and giving workshops and master classes, and all of that sort of thing. We did not have access to percussion repertoire, or indeed percussion exercise books.
We had very, very little material as regards to things directed towards our instruments specifically. But because of that, we had so much more. We had the imagination. So, the imagination had to think outside of the box. Basically, for example, we on a snare drum or on a tambourine, or on a pair of castanets, or on a triangle, or on a bass drum or something, we would play Bach partitas. So, can you imagine the phrasing of a Bach partita? If I go something like, “Dege … dege,” that kind of thing, whatever it might be, it could be anything.
It could be a song, it could be an aria, it could be a jig, it could be whatever. But if you plant that on a non pitched instrument, you’re still thinking about the phrasing. And with that phrasing, you’re not just thinking dynamically. But you’re thinking about sound color as well, you’re thinking about so many different ingredients that go beyond the basic ingredients. So, you think about time and you think about rhythm, and you think about playing the notes that’s there and so on.
But actually, all of these subtleties are more towards speaking through you instrument. So, when we speak, I don’t speak to you like this, do I? Do I not, do I do, whatever. So, that would be absurd. In the same way that I wouldn’t necessarily play, “Dup … dup.” But I might play, “Bum … bum, da … da, dum … dum.” And with that, you’re suddenly changing how you stick something. The sticking that you use, or rather than a hand to hand, you’re actually expressing the feeling of what you want to get through. So, I suppose by having, as they say, less, meant that we actually explored so many different other avenues in order to play our instruments.
With that, and I remember my teacher taking maybe a phrase from a piece of music, so again that it could be a bit of Bach, “Da … da.” And he would say, “Right, let’s make this more happy. What can we do to make this more happy? At the moment, it sounds maybe a little serious, or it might be it’s got a more masculine feel about it. How can we make this slightly lighter? Or more cheeky, or a bit grittier, or how can we make it more march-like or whatever it could be?”
Therefore, we would think, “Well, does it need to be in another key?” So that, “Aha, what would happen if we tried it in A major as opposed to B major? B major is kind of beautifully and silky, but A major is just a bit more string-like. Would that work?” So, this was dealing with transposition, without thinking, “Oh, can you transpose this up or down? Or, X, Y, or Z?” But, “How can we make this more string-like. Or, how can we make this more snowy? Or, how can we make this more dark,” or whatever. It’s using those kind of terms through our music making and our discovery that I think was really important.
But all of this was coming from piano repertoire, violin repertoire, flute pieces, and you name it. But at all of this at the same time, the improvisation, the listening skill, the feeling, how things felt like to play. Exploring that sense of touch, which then, that explores your sound colors, and you dynamics. And your trust in how you use your instrument as well, so you don’t become hostage of, “Well, I must be seen playing it like this.” Or, “I must remember to do X, Y, or Z.” It’s just I suppose, putting on a jumper or a coat, and you’re putting on your instrument. You know what I mean?
You’re kind of making it fit for you, it’s your body, it’s your imagination, it’s your length of arm, it’s your size of hand, it’s your stature, and so on. And that’s what the instrument has to fit, really, and it is just like putting on a piece of clothing and thinking, “Aha, yup, this is my instrument. This is how it fits for me.”
Christopher: Wonderful, well I’m always really intrigued when I speak to someone such as yourself, who has this … who highly values that emotional connection with the instrument. And the value of creativity and learning, and emphasizes that learning can be joyful, it can be something you actually look forward to doing rather than a forced to do. But who has also reached the highest levels in terms of performance, and I wonder, was there ever any conflict for you? I think that you maybe touched on it there when you talked about how transposition could be taught for a purpose, rather than just for the sake of it.
But I’m wondering, there is a value in developing the instrument technique, does that just happen by implication when you immerse yourself creatively like that? Or does it take a skillful teacher to kind of word in a syllabus as it were, to all this enjoyable learning? Did you ever have a clash between I want to be a very polished performer and, I love this free exploration with the instrument?
Evelyn: I think yes, and I think we … I do feel it’s important to have the sense of curiosity and freedom, but also to have that support system of the teacher. Whereby, they are literally that, the support system. And they can just guide here and there, and just sort of poke around here and there at the needs for that particular individual. It’s when there’s a … And I should also say that it is important as a performing musician myself, and as a professional musician, to at times be under real stress. To understand about stress and release, stress and release, stress and release. That’s really important.
So, to know what it feels like to be nervous. And I get nervous before performances, of course I do. But it’s then how I use those nerves or how I recognize those nerves, and how I own those nerves, and see those nerves as just a natural progression of the performance. That I get nervous, but I know that there’s going to be then the release factor. And I think health-wise, that’s extremely important to have that balance. So, that works for me.
But I do feel that it is important to just have those moments where you’re kind of out of your comfort zone, I suppose. And because sometimes people think that, “Ah, you’re a musician, that must be fantastic. Oh, it must be such a great, great life,” and everything. And yes it is, of course it is, but we’re not playing our instrument every single day in the way that we want to, every single day. Those are compromises if you’re performing with other people and so on. Or it could be the acoustics that you’re in, or the quality of the instruments that you’re playing and so on.
There are lots of different factors that happen all the time actually, that you’re always having to compromise in one way or another. However, the feeling of giving, giving the sound meal all of the time, is something that overrides all of these other things. In my own case, I mean, as a professional musician, I know that I’m in the music business, obviously. And I’m here talking with you and your viewers today, however, I haven’t yet touched my instrument. So, I haven’t yet done any practice or playing, or rehearsing, or anything like that. Because I’ve been dealing with the actual business aspects.
And that’s a reality. Now, I’d love to forgo all of that and just play my days away. But, that’s not the reality of the kind of profession that you’re in. So, I do think early on, it’s important to … understand that it’s not all roses. And even whether you’re a professional or an amateur, to put yourself in these slightly more stressful situations, I think is pretty crucial. You learn a lot.
Christopher: I loved the way you framed that, as tension and release, or finding that balance. I think that’s a really valuable way of looking at it. You used an expression there I’d love for you to explain a bit more, which was a sound meal. That you’re providing a sound meal, what does that mean?
Evelyn: Well, a sound meal is exactly that. I mean, if you walk into your kitchen and you’re preparing a meal, cooking a meal for people, then I don’t know, you may have vegetables, or your fish or meat, or whatever it might be. But everything is there and you put it all together one way or another. And you prepare it all, and lo and behold, it’s there on a plate for people to enjoy. And that’s what we do as musicians. So, we have our instrument, we have the tools that we need in order to bring this sound meal together, we have the music, we have the lights, we have the this, the music stand, and our spare reeds, or mallets, or whatever it is.
It’s all of these things, and we pop them all together, and we mix this with that, and mix that with that, and don’t know though what. And then lo and behold, when the time comes, we give this sound meal. The piece of music or if it’s an improvisation, or whatever it is, but we give this sound meal to our customers. And we just allow them to digest this meal in any way that they would like. So, some people sitting up in the balcony may have a fantastic view of everything on stage, but not necessarily such a good aural experience than the people sitting, let’s say, in the stalls or something. I don’t know.
So, we can’t assume that everybody is digesting that meal in the same way. And I think with music of course, we have so many different mediums of digesting the meal. Sometimes it’s without the visual aid, so sometimes it’s just aurally. Sometimes we feel really satisfied when we have that aural experience and the visual experience. Sometimes it’s even more unhoused if we’re sitting in the front row. As opposed to right at the back and we’re kind of, “Ooh, ooh, who’s that playing the bassoon?”, or something. And so, we’ve got to think about that too. But yeah, that’s what I mean by a sound meal.
Christopher: Terrific, and that touches on a couple of things I was looking forward to talking with you about. And the first of those is what you just describe there, which is that you can listen with your eyes as it were. I’ve heard you explain this a few different ways, and I think it’s something we often overlook as musicians. We think, “What will I wear for the gig?”, maybe, but we don’t really consider how important that visual sense is. I was reminded of this a few minutes ago when you were talking about seeing a tractor on a farm, and there’s a visual connection to the sound. And you can have one without the other and still know what’s going on. I wonder if you could talk a bit more about this aspect of the visual information that affects our experience of music? And maybe, how we should be thinking about that as musicians?
Evelyn: Well, I think that an audience member knows when they’re given something really honest. So, that isn’t about a good performance, a bad performance, I’m not talking about that. I mean an honest performance. And that’s a feeling, really. You can feel that when you see the person. It’s not necessarily about what is being worn as they’re playing, it can just simply be presence. And presence is a form of listening. So, that musician on that platform, or whatever they may be, is very much listening to the audience. Now, the audience may not be making any kind of sound at all, it’s the presence of the audience.
And we all know that when there’s the presence of the audience there and their participation as receivers of the sound, actually that’s something to us as musicians, as far as our interpretation is concerned. And it almost becomes as though we’re talking on this tightrope, because the nerves are kicking in and we want to do our best, and we’re sort of concerned about all sort of other things. Will we forget a piece of music, if it’s not an improvisation? But all sorts of things can kick in that can just sort of make us wobble on that tight rope.
But actually, when we do appreciate the audience being there, their presence, it’s then it opens up the experience as though we’re all sharing this piece of music together. We’re all discovering this piece of music together. And that’s really important, so it isn’t a case of them and us, or them and me, or whatever the situation is. It’s really, “Now, here we are. We are all digesting this sound meal together.” And I think that can really make a difference to how we connect physically with our audiences. And how then, true that performance actually is.
Because you can then allow to take chances. You can allow to still keep asking questions during the performance. Not just during a practice period or a rehearsal period, but during a performance keep asking questions. And yes, it may mean that your go, “That didn’t work!” But anyway, the fact is that you put yourself in that situation. And when you make that a kind of, oh, what can I say? Almost like an attitude in a way, the risks that you take become so exciting. They become really … it’s like being on fire. People want to be part of that, really, they want to feel as though, “What’s going to happen next? What now?”
Rather than, “Ah, yeah, I know this piece of music. Yeah, yeah, I heard this before,” but it’s, no, you’ve never hear this piece of music with this person before. So, every time we play, it’s as though we’re giving a world premiere. Even if we’ve played a piece a million times before, we have not played it in front of this audience. Therefore, it’s a world premiere.
Christopher: Tremendous, and I think you touched there on the other aspect of a sound meal that I wanted to different into. Which is, it’s easy to say “play it musically” or “play it with expression” or try and get the audience on board. What does that mean in practical terms? I love the way you talked about it earlier in our conversation, in terms of the different kind of dimensions of music you could explore, of making it happy or making it sad, doing more than just playing with the timing or playing the correct notes. How do you think about this if you sit down to prepare a new piece, how do you think about, how will I shape this musically? I guess, I’m curious in advance of the performance, and also in the moment when you’re trying to kind of make that connection with your listener?
Evelyn: I’m not sure, actually. Because I think it just sort of … depends on the situation, I find that as as percussion player, so thinking about myself as an instrumentalist. I’m thinking about the practicalities of the piece of music. This may not everybody something that a violinist or a wind player, or even a pianist has to think about. As a percussion player, if it’s for multi instruments, you have to think practically how do you think this might be set up. So, where would you like the snare drum to be? Where would you like the marimba to be, where would you like that cymbal to be, and so on. And those are things that you will not set yourself or decide upon straight away, that will take up … I mean, that can happen over a long period of time.
It can even change during or after the first performance. I mean, I actually remember giving the premiere of the Christopher Rouse Percussion Concerto, and we had four consecutive nights with that piece of music. And every single night, I changed the set up. Because it was just, “Ah, what would happen if I placed the steel pan over there? Or, what would happen if I placed it with those over there?”, or something. So, I had that opportunity to do that. But then, really, when I look at a piece of music, it’s like reading a book.
So, you look at the shape of the piece, you look at the climaxes of the piece, you just look at the story of the piece knowing that that story will change as well. So, that story, you might be given certain words of that story. But all of the filling in of the words, that really make the story, that will happen over a course of time and several, several performances. And then I’ll begin to simply read through the piece. Some of it, I may be able to read through better than other places in the piece. Some might be sort of really awkward, but then I’ll be thinking, “Okay, so that section I’m definitely going to have to look at from a percussion point of view.”
Or, “That bit, I’ve just got no idea what I’m going to do with that yet,” musically, and so on. And it’s not trying to force anything. I think for me, whenever I learn a piece of music, it has to be a really natural state that you’re in. I have to say that it’s not always possible to be in that frame of mind, because sometimes you get pieces very last minute. You have very little time to learn them, in which case, you are basically in sixth gear. And you’ve all of the sudden got to be a Michael Schumacher, but having never gone into a Formula One care or something.
And you know that, “Right, I’ve got to read this really quickly. I have got to make decisions on this really, really quickly.” But again, you know that they can change over the course of the performances. So, it’s a kind of different state of mind sometimes. But ideally, it’s making sure everything is natural to the way that you work. And again, we’re all different. Some people like to put the piece of music on their music stand immediately when they get it, and start reading it.
Some people like myself, like to sort of read it like a book, without any instruments. And then think, “Okay, what would happen if I did this and that?” And then, read through it, but with no expectations, no mad analysis on it, just sort of let it kind of … just try it on as it were. Try it on and then see what needs adjusting, so you’re almost like a dress maker.
Christopher: Great, and you said something there which was, “What would happen if this, what would happen if that?” If we imagine someone in the position where they’ve practiced to the point that they can play each note a the right time, on the right pitch, with the right instrument. But they’re feeling like this just isn’t working, or, “I’m not sure, I don’t really feel like a musician. I’m feel a bit kind of robotic and rigid.” Yeah, do you have any advice for how they can change their mindset or do anything practical to tap more into that creative, curious spirit you were talking about earlier?
Evelyn: Well, I quite like to, I suppose, play games. And most of those games are pushing your boundaries as regards to the technical aspects or the physical aspect of playing, and what we can do, as well as the sort of sound world that we’re dealing with. So, for example, if I feel I’m getting just a bit sort of same-y with something or a bit … whatever it is, it’s not exciting or something isn’t quite working. Then I could change the sticking completely and I could just sort of decide, “Right, I’m only going to do that with the left hand now. And I know it’s ridiculous, but who cares?” It really then mixes things up for you physically, and it pulls tools out of your system that you didn’t know you had.
And you think, “Ooh, now what would happen if I did that on, let’s say, a pair of cymbals or on a drum kit? Ooh, that’s quite interesting.” And before you know it, you’re exploring techniques and ideas on other instruments that you wouldn’t otherwise had even thought about. So, that goes back again to the days of my school time, whereby taking bits of piano repertoire, and flute and so on, onto a tambourine, onto a cymbal, onto a base drum. I feel that that really keeps me sort of buoyant in a way.
Or for example, for years, I played Steve Reich Clapping Music, which is normally for two players. But where I play it by myself, playing both parts with my hands using four mallets, so it seems as though it’s then four people actually clapping. And then I sort of keep cross time with my left boot. And I thought to myself, I’ve done this for such a long time, now I’m going to do it with both my feet this time. So, do the clapping part, but with my feet. Then do other rhythms with my hands. So, of course, at the moment it’s like a car crash. I can’t do it yet, but the fun I’m having in doing it.
And it’s sort of making me realize, the stronger parts of my body, the weaker parts of my body, and where things need to be sort of lining up, and so on. And that really, again, it’s just totally out of my comfort zone. I don’t have to do this, there’s no mad reason for me to do it. It’s not for an exam or anything like that, or for a concept, it’s just simply because want to be curious. To think, “Well, can I actually do this?”
So, I think this sort of boils down to your own imagination and how you’re willing to really push that imagination, or just peel that extra layer from the onion to see what’s underneath, to just sort of open that door and think, “Ooh, what’s through that door?” It’s literally like that, turning the next page, thinking, “Ah, what’s the next chapter?” But that’s really down to the person too, to be curious to follow that through.
Christopher: I love that. I’ll confess, I’m someone who never really felt creative in music. I come from the very traditional play the notes on the page kind background. And so, I’m always looking for ways to kind of trick myself into being a bit more curious, a bit more exploratory? And I love that idea of just treating it as a game, see how you can push your boundaries.
Christopher: And I know a lot of people watching or listening are going to find that really useful.
Evelyn: Well, and I think another thing that I sometimes do is if you’re set in a particular tempo with a piece of music, when … and that’s where you need to be with it, and that’s what it says on the piece of music, or whatever it is. You can really say to yourself, “Well, today, I’m actually going to play this as though I’m at a funeral or something.” And the tempo is ridiculously slow, I mean, absurdly slow. But what does it feel like? What happens to your body physically, what kind of ways do you then play your instrument? How do you sustain those phrases when it’s so, so slow? What happens dynamically to you? It’s the same piece of music, but only the tempo that’s changed.
But a lot more other things will have changed as well. And it’s really taking note of those things, and that’s all about listening. So, it’s not just listening to the sound, but it’s listening to the whole picture of how you operate. What is the engine, the body, actually doing? And where are the bits that need oiling and that kind of thing? So, that for me is good. Or doing it vice versa if you’re playing a really slow piece of music, but absolutely up in that tempo, so that it’s ridiculously fast.
And that makes sure there are some compositional ideas. It may sort of highlight things like, “Oh, my gosh, this finger needs a lot more attention. I hadn’t realized that before.” Or, you know what I mean, just thing physically that might feel a bit uncomfortable. Or you might say, “Wow, that was a lot easier than I thought, and I really quite enjoyed that.” It’s things that you can also share with other people too, so it doesn’t have to be done in isolation.
Christopher: Very cool, and I think what’s clear is that again like we were talking about, this isn’t just let’s be creative and have fun for the sake of it. Clearly, these kinds of exercises are both nurturing your creativity and pushing you to a new level in terms of technique and proficiency.
Evelyn: Yes, it is, and I think also it gives you a slight sense of empowerment as well. And I don’t mean that in an egotistical way, I simply mean it gives you that … feeling that you can, you are allowed to do this. You are allowed to explore, you are an explorer of sound. That’s what being a musician is. We all deal with sound and we are basically presenting this sound world to our customers. So, it doesn’t matter which instrument you’re playing or whatever it is, we all have the same kind of playing field in a way. We have a tool and imagination, that’s what we’ve got. Those are the two ingredients that we all have if we’re embarking on this sort of thing. So, it’s just then how you want to deal with those things.
Christopher: Tremendous, well, I think we’ve kind of touched on it from a few different angles. But I do want to ask you the direct question which is, I guess two questions. The first is, what does listening have to with musicality? If we have a musician who wants to feel more musical, how does listening factor into that. And the second, more broadly, you mission is to teach the world to listen, what does that mean to a non-musician? Or, what’s the significance of listening beyond this kind of world of performance that we’ve been talking about?
Evelyn: Well, that the whole … I mean, we imagine that musicians listen really well. We listen in a type of way, I suppose, or we can be kind of led down that tunnel. And we are quite critical listeners of what we do. We’re quite critical listeners of what other people do too. But at the same time, we can be extremely selfish listeners. The kind of listening that we do as musicians needs time out. So, we need almost that time to … not listen, to yet more music. And that can sometimes be overload, and we sort of forget to listen to ourselves. So, listening to ourselves not as musicians, but, “Well, how am I feeling today?” Or, “What’s going through my mind today,” and how could that actually affect then what we do as musicians?
Evelyn: So, I found in my own situation that I went through, I think around about when I reached the age of 40 or something, where the diary was so overloaded with concerts and things, that I’d got to the point where the last thing I wanted to do was to play. It was just too much, basically. It was too much playing, too much listening of the same kind of thing. And I found that I just needed to back off, so I simply weeded the diary out. And from that point on, it’s been a case of really thinking about the projects we want to be involved with, and why you want to be involved with them.
And that’s really helped my listening actually, so that there’s not this overload that’s going on. There’s not this feeling where you’re just going from one to the next, to the next, to the next, to the next, to the next. And I think that’s really important, so we all have our own … schedule or time schedule of how we operate. Some people like a lot in the diary, some people like much less, some people are much more middle ground. It’s entirely up the individual. But it is important to really listen to yourself.
It’s almost like putting on … in airplanes, where they ask you to put on your own mask first before you can help someone else. And I always remember in the early days, thinking, “Well, that’s ridiculous, you need to help other people first before you put your own on.” But actually, of course you need to put your own on first, so that you’re in a good state to help someone else. And it’s the same with listening, you’ve got to have this engine operating really well before you can then listen further to what needs to happen.
So, that’s important. And I think that again, listening for me it’s about being present. It’s about focus. It’s about concentration. It’s can you imagine us having a conversation … Now, we’re doing this by Skype, but we’re still listening to each other. But wouldn’t it be a very different scenario, if I was on my phone texting? And I was sort of seeing if the lunchman was coming. Or, “What’s going on?”, and I’m texting or whatever. And, “Oh, yes, Christopher. Yeah, yeah, that’s really nice. Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.” It would be a totally different experience.
But being present and wanting to be present, and for that other person to feel the presence, I think is so crucial. And even more so, as we are all busy texting and emailing and all of that kind of thing, the beauty about music and creating music, is that you’re experiencing it with other people. You really are. So, even in the privacy of your own four walls, I suppose it’s the difference between rehearsing and practice. For a lot of us, we think, “Ah, gosh, we’re in this room. So, we’re practicing, we’re practicing, were practicing.” And then we’re leaping to a performance.
But actually, if in those four walls, you think, “No, I’m rehearsing.” So, even if you’re playing a scale, you’re rehearsing. So, you’ve got the audience there, or you’ve got the scenario that you want. And you imagine yourself being in a cathedral where the acoustics are so wet, or in a dry studio or somewhere. You’re imagining yourself in a different environment than the four walls. Then your sense of projection and the decisions that you make as a musician all change.
So, that’s all about listening, it really is. So, it isn’t just about the piece of music that you’re playing. Are you playing right notes, wrong notes, is the rhythm right, is it wrong? Whatever it is, it goes beyond that. It really does. It’s giving. Yeah, it’s a presence, that that’s what listening is.
Christopher: Lovely, well, I was saying to you just before we hit record how inspiring I found your work. And we’ll certainly be linking in the show notes to some of your essays, and videos, and presentations, so that people can learn a lot more about your mission.
Evelyn: [inaudible 00:48:06].
Christopher: I just wanted to say a big thank you, despite that weeding of the calendar, you are a lady who manages to tackle a lot of really fascinating projects. So, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to join us on the show. And also, to ask what’s coming up next for Evelyn Glennie? What’s the future holding?
Evelyn: Oh, heavens. I think it’s really a time of, I suppose, thinking outside of the box. A lot of the projects that I’m involved with are projects that I did not have on my hit list, as it were. For example, last year, I wrote my first ever theater score. That was for the Royal Shakespeare Company, for the play Troilus and Cressida. And that was hugely exciting, and again, quite scary to do, but in a good way. So, I very much enjoyed that. And at the moment, well, I’m preparing a new percussion concerto to be played in Turkey in February.
So, that will be going through the motions of what we talked about in this particular podcast. And it’s just a wonderful kind of way, or a wonderful profession I should say, whereby you never quite know what’s going to happen. You think you have everything planned out and then whoosh, off you go in another direction. And that’s a really healthy thing to do, and I think the older you become, the more important that is to do.
Christopher: Wonderful, well, I highly encourage people to check out evelyn.co.uk, which is your main website. And we’ll have links in the show notes. Very big thank you Evelyn for joining us today.
Evelyn: Thank you very much, thank you.