If you’re a member of Musical U or familiar with this show then you’ll know we have a pretty firm stance on the idea of musical “talent” and its implications for the adult music learner. We’re always excited when we have the chance to interview someone who’s considered “talented” or “gifted” and see what we can learn from their backstory and their own attitude to music learning.
On paper, Robert’s a classic case of the child prodigy, a talented musician who saw great success at an incredible pace as both a pianist and then a conductor. And I wouldn’t for a second detract from that or question his amazing abiltiies. But as you’ll be hearing, there is some interesting subtlety to the story. And as Robert would be the first to tell you, all of his accomplishments and the praise he receives – it has been earned through hard work, not just an effortless “gift”.
He’s also a very experienced music teacher and so has some very helpful insights and advice for the adult music learner in particular.
We talk about:
- How to choose the right instrument – and how to know whether you have or not.
- The particular challenges of learning music as an adult and how to overcome them – the pep talk he used to give his new adult students on day one that proved to be worth its weight in gold for them.
- Robert’s views on talent, nature versus nurture, and what that means for the average adult music learner.
It comes across clearly in his own podcast that Robert is a lovely guy with wisdom aplenty to share and so I knew this conversation would be a fascinating one. Enjoy.
Watch the episode:
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Robert: Hi. I’m Robert Emery from Backstage, with me, Robert Emery, and this is Musicality Now.
Christopher: Welcome to the show, Robert. Thank you for joining us today.
Robert: Thanks for having me on.
Christopher: So you have an incredibly impressive career as a performer, as a musical director. And I’ve read a little about your official bio, but I’d love to hear it in your own words. Where did you come from as a musician to become this top level performer, and now musical director?
Robert: That’s a loaded question if I ever heard one!
Christopher: Justify yourself, Robert!
Robert: Yeah. Justify myself. Well, I guess I fell in love with music at a really young age. I started playing the piano at about the age of seven, but I always loved music from before that. There was always a piano in my house, which was sort of passed down from generation to generation. A really bad piano; it was completely so out of tune you would not believe.
Robert: I just sort of fell into music, really, and just carried on playing and enjoying music throughout the whole of my life. I’m one of these really lucky people in life who gets to earn money doing what I love. I mean, I’ve fought for it over the years. I’ve worked bloody hard to get where I need to get. But it’s always been a very clear goal in my head of where I want to be, what I want to do, where I want to end up. And it’s been like that pretty much since, from day one.
Robert: And so, I just always knew music was my thing. It was the thing I loved doing, it’s the thing I hope I’m good at, and it’s the thing I’ll do until the day I die.
Christopher: Tremendous. And I was saying before we hit record that I’ve been really enjoying digging into your own podcast, Back Stage With Robert Emery. I think, in the midst of learning more about you and pouring through your website and listening to those interviews, I found some really interesting details on your story that, at a glance, I wouldn’t have picked up on. So, for example, I made reference to your paper bio, The Official Story of Robert Emery which, on your website, is a terrific kind of fun and self-deprecating history of where you came from.
Christopher: But on paper I mention it because you’re very much a classic story of the virtuoso kid, like the talented kid who goes on to have an incredible career. And you certainly are that. But, at the same time, there were little clues that there might be maybe more of an interesting backstory to it. For example, in one of your blog posts, which is really interesting … I think it was about choosing an instrument, you mentioned actually those early years where people look back, and they say, “Oh, he could just play it by ear, anything, on piano.” You said it was really more mimicking; it wasn’t that you necessarily understood music intuitively. Could you talk a little bit more about that? What did that early experience of finding your relationship with the piano look like?
Robert: I believe in something that I made up, which is called the duvet of music, or the blanket of music, or whatever analogy you want, which is surrounding yourself with so much music that you have to fight your body and your mind and your heart and your soul to be able to not have that music penetrate you and affect you in a positive way. And I was really seriously lucky that when I was young, at my primary school, we had a dedicated music teacher. We had assembly every morning where we sung every morning, there was a school orchestra that performed pretty much every morning. It wasn’t a private school. I didn’t come from a wealthy family. This was just a local Church of England school down the road in my little village.
Robert: And then when I picked up the idea of playing the piano, with the household piano that I mentioned, which was a semitone out of tune from bottom to top, I just used to listen to top of the pops each week, which was like, when I was growing up it was the big show to watch on TV to see who was Number One that week with the single, and I just … I remember quite vividly watching that program, and after seeing who was number one, going to race to this awful family piano and, just, to try and figure out how to play the tune that I heard. And I kind of remember just being able to play it, with both hands, with chords. I’m pretty sure in reality it would have been one finger at a time to start with, and then next week, maybe, I started doing two hands with two fingers.
Robert: And, just, over time, it just sort of developed naturally of being able to try and figure out what these pop tunes were. And, of course, the glorious thing about pop charts is that most of them use the same keys, they use the same tempos and most of them use the same chords as well. So, actually, once you’ve figured out actually only three of four chords, you can pretty much play 75% of the pop tunes that are out there.
Robert: And I guess the combination of going to the school where we had music thrust upon me every day, having an instrument at home which I could just have a bit of fun with and tinker, which then led me to having piano lessons. And I had them for nearly a year with a little lady down the road. Mavis, was her name. And after a year somebody put some sheet music in front of me and I could play decent … And they said, “Could you play this?” And I said, “I can’t. I can’t read music.”
Robert: And I think what had happened is every piece of music she was going to teach me, she used to play on the keyboard or on the piano beforehand, and said, “This is what you’re going to learn.” And she used to play it, and I used to watch her and listen, and I used to just remember it. And then I could just kind of go and sit there and play it from watching, so I hadn’t actually learned the skill of reading music. In hindsight, this is a blessing in disguise because at the time we thought it was a bit of disaster, because a year after I’d starting playing the piano I couldn’t read a note of music. But, in hindsight, I think it gave me a really great ear, to be able to listen to music, and to be able to recreate it very quickly, and have a good memory for that.
Robert: I even developed perfect pitch, over that time. The only problem with my perfect pitch is because my household was a semitone down, then my C in my head was actually everybody else’s B! So I had to retrain that over the years to go up to concert pitch.
Robert: But it’s all to do with this blanket of music, this just being surrounded by music. And I firmly believe that if you can do that to a child at a young age, keep him doing it, then it will pay off.
Christopher: Fantastic! I so love that metaphor of the duvet of music, and engulfing yourself in music in that way.
Christopher: And I know you’re a fellow father, and probably have been thinking very carefully about your own kids’ musical upbringing, as I have.
Christopher: And I think that’s a wonderful way to think about how to encourage them musically without imposing strict expectations on them.
Robert: The joyful thing about kids … And my son Teddy, he’s three-and-a-half or three-and-three-quarters, the joyful thing about that age is that they are just like a sponge, and they don’t know right from wrong until you tell them, and they don’t know good from bad until you tell them. And so, for Teddy, his mum used to be a choral scholar, and I love writing music for choirs, and I love choral music. Not necessarily religious choral music, but just choral music in general.
Robert: And so, from a very young age Teddy has watched Carols from King’s, which here in the U.K. is like the big event that happens on Christmas Eve. It’s the carol service which is beamed to the nation, with arguably the best children’s choir in the world, of King’s, in Cambridge. And he’s watched that since he was, well, three months old was the first time he saw that, and then he watched it a year later. And he regularly asks to watch Carols from King’s, and we’ve got it stored on the TV. And he’s now even going to the same school that the King’s … Well, he’s going to King’s, when he’s four. For him, that is music. He loves choral music.
Robert: He listens to other stuff as well. His mum was playing on the BBC Proms two nights ago, so he was listening to Mendelssohn and he loved it. But then again, we’ve put on really dodgy music, like “I’ve Got A Brand New Combine Harvester”, and all sorts of stuff. And he still listens to kids’ stuff as well, but he’s got a really wide spectrum of music, and of what music can be. And because of that, he just loves it all. And that’s a prime example of start them young. Don’t force it upon them. Don’t say, “You must learn this instrument.” Just expose them to the wonders of music and let the music do its job.
Christopher: Fantastic advice. And I think it can sound trite but children are so inspiring. And I think particularly in this context where we’re talking about musicality and how to learn music, when I look at the way my daughter will make up songs and happily sing them to herself, without ever it crossing her mind that she might sound bad to other people, or her songs might not be good, it’s just so instructive for us I think.
Christopher: And I made reference there to your article about how to choose an instrument. And you had a fantastic perspective in there, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind sharing? If a parent, or indeed an adult, is thinking for themselves about how do I choose the right instrument, what would you say on that topic?
Robert: I think this is a topic which is actually easier than people realize. I taught music for a long period of time. Everybody has probably an opinion that I went from, going from a boy to a man, and then all of a sudden I had a professional career as a conductor, as a pianist, as a composer, as an orchestrator. They miss out the gigantic step, which is I taught for 10 years. And I was doing, at the height of my teaching, 60, 65 hours a week teaching. I was pretty full on.
Robert: I think one of the reasons I taught so much is because I had so many clients. And one of the reasons because I had so many clients is because I have the opinion that there are two elements to learning a musical instrument. Actually, this is relevant whether you’re a three-year-old or a 33-year-old or a 63-year-old; the two elements are the instrument and the teacher. It’s as simple as that. If you find that you like the instrument but you’re getting bored, then that means your teacher isn’t doing their job properly and you probably want to find another teacher. It’s irrelevant what qualifications they have, in that scenario. It’s irrelevant how many recommendations they have. They might just not be right for you. We all learn in different ways, and we all teach in different ways, and so they just might not be right for you.
Robert: Likewise, you might find that you have an incredible teacher who you love going to, but actually you can’t stand playing the instrument. That probably means the instrument is not right for you. And those are the two scenarios: end of. It’s no more complicated than that. And everybody tries to … There’s a really shocking statistic, I’m not going to tell you what the percentage is because I can’t remember exactly, but it’s a really high statistic, here in the U.K., of the number of children who at one time have a music lesson and then something like 80% of those children give up within the space of 18 months. And it’s not because music is boring, it’s because they haven’t found the right instrument, or they haven’t found the right teacher, or a combination of both.
Robert: And so, that is the crux of it. If you can find the right teacher, who inspires you, who knows how you learn, who knows how you tick. And as an adult don’t forget that learning is a very different skill than what my little three-year-old, Teddy, can do. Because three-year-old Teddy is lucky that you can show him something once and he’ll absorb it and go, “Yeah, I can do this.” And he doesn’t have any inhibitions about being scared, or about thinking, “I need to put the pizza in the oven!” He’s fine. He just does what he does. And he lives in the moment. You teach an adult the same thing, they want to know why, how, who, how can they practice this, when can they schedule this in when they are in between courses, of putting the pizza in the oven, and getting the soufflé ready. Teaching an adult is such a different skill from teaching a child: we must never forget that.
Robert: And so, likewise, you get amazing teachers for children, and you get amazing teachers for adults. And sometimes they can do both, but that’s it. Anybody who tries to make it more complicated than that is just making life harder. If you find a great teacher who inspires you, if you find the right instrument that makes you tick and gives you a thrill to play, then you’re onto a winning streak.
Christopher: I love that. It’s been a small running theme on this show, as I’ve spoken to people who have achieved top professional level on an instrument, it’s remarkable how often in their backstory they started on a different instrument, thought they weren’t musical at all, experimented a bit and found, “Oh, actually, that one clicks!”
Christopher: And I love the way you broke it down there because I think, as you say, adults have their own stuff going on when it comes to learning music or learning in general, and I think we are typically a lot quicker to blame ourselves when things aren’t working, whether explicitly and consciously or not. If we’re not going well on violin we assume we’re not musical when, actually, it may just be that we’re a trumpet player at heart.
Christopher: So you had a great article touching on this and the challenges of learning music in general, and particularly for adults. And we like to talk on this show, both about the pros and the cons of being an adult learner, because most of our listeners are approaching this is an adult. And one of the other things you touched on there was fear of making mistakes. Could you talk a little bit about that, and what we can do about the fact that we maybe are more afraid of making mistakes than a child would be?
Robert: So I used to give adult students a pep talk on day one, and it would take up half the lesson. They used to be very annoyed and felt shortchanged, but weeks later realized that it was worth their weight in gold having this pep talk. And the pep talk went along the lines of, “You’re an adult. You’re going to ask, “Why?” I’m going to tell you it doesn’t matter. You’re going to say, “Yes, it does because I need to know.” And I’ll turn around and say, “No, you’re not ready for that yet. This is a big jigsaw puzzle that you are starting to put together, and I’m halfway through putting together my jigsaw puzzle and I’ve been doing this for 20 years. So don’t try and figure out why piece Z fits in, when you’re still at piece A.”
Robert: “And when I turn around and say, “I’m not going to tell you that yet,” you have to accept it, wipe it from your memory, and let me just carry on and do my job. Because if you do that you’ll learn quicker. You’ve got to trust me. You will learn quicker and you’ll get to where you want to be quicker.” So that’s the first thing I say. The second thing is, “What do you want to achieve?”
Robert: As a parent, when you are giving lessons, or enabling your children to have lessons, i.e., paying for a teacher for them, then what you’re trying to achieve is giving your child the opportunity to learn something that they may love. It’s kind of irrelevant if they go on to be a professional musician; that happens to one in every 20,000. But as a parent your aim is to give your child as much exposure to as many different things as possible in life, and one of that is music.
Robert: As an adult, you don’t give yourself that opportunity. And as an adult it’s very rare I find anybody who learns music and says they’re doing it because they want to give themselves exposure to many different things in life. They’re doing it because they have a goal in mind, and that goal is different for everybody. Sometimes it’s the goal that they want to be able to play one piece of music, which could be a piece of music for their son or daughter’s wedding. Or maybe their mum or dad played it to them when they were younger. For other people it’s they want to conquer a fear of performing, and they like the idea of doing that. There’s so many different reasons why an adult wants to learn music. So part of my … second part of the pep talk was always, “What do you want to achieve?” You have to have a goal here. And then, figuring that out is important.
Robert: And then, the third part of the pep talk was, “How much time do you want to give this?” Because I don’t want to be the annoying teacher who turns round and says, “You have to practice an hour a day,” when you only have five minutes. And then, for six days out of seven you feel guilty that you only did five minutes instead of an hour, and then, because you feel guilty you have a negative association with the instrument. And because you have a negative association with the instrument, you end up quitting quickly. And that’s no good for anybody.
Robert: So, how much time can you realistically give to this? And how much time do you want to give to it, I suppose, is more important. And if they say, “Five minutes a day,” then you turn around as the teacher and go, “Great. That’s brilliant. Now, I’m going to teach you what you need to do in those five minutes to maximize your time, maximize your effort to get the biggest reward possible.” And if they turn around and say they want to spend five minutes but the goal is in six months to play Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 then, likewise, it’s your job as a teacher to turn around and go, “Yeah. That ain’t going to happen!” So, you know, “You need to turn it to five hours a day and then we might- might be able to give it a chance.”
Robert: It’s all about having an open dialog, an open conversation. And, politely, I’ve forgotten what your question was now, because I’ve waffled on about what adults-
Christopher: You were sharing this pep talk you gave people on day one, and I agree, it’s worth its weight in gold. I think that jigsaw analogy is perfect. I give a similar pep talk on day one of our foundation’s course, which is trying to kind of rebuild people’s musical understanding from the ground up. And I talk about the beginner’s mind, and how this course is only going to work for you if you’re willing to come into it not understanding and be okay with that for a little while.
Christopher: And it will pay off, if you put a little bit of trust in us we’ll get you there. But you can’t come into it immediately questioning, and trying to connect all the dots, and worrying that it doesn’t quite make sense in your head yet, because you don’t have that opportunity. And you’re absolutely right that that’s a uniquely adult problem, isn’t it, because children don’t expect to understand everything immediately.
Christopher: So in that episode where you were talking about the challenges of learning an instrument as an adult, you gave some very specific advice for practicing that I wonder if you wouldn’t mind sharing here? One piece of it was this idea of being realistic and not too ambitious with the amount of time each day.
Robert: Yeah. I think, as adults, we like micro-achievements. You tend to find that the people who struggle with productivity, if you kind of analyze them they are the type of mindset who are always trying to achieve the big goal, and up until that point everything is irrelevant. You tend to find that the people who achieve the most and are most productive are actually the ones who spin it on its head and say the end goal is the thing that’s irrelevant, and it’s the micro-achievements that are the key to continuing on a right path.
Robert: And you can use that analogy with weight loss. You can use it with fitness in particular. I, personally, I really hate exercise. I really hate it with a passion. I’ve never been very good at it. I hate the feeling, everybody always says, “Oh, it’s great! You get endorphins and you feel on top of the world.” I go, “No. I feel tired and knackered, like I can’t possibly do any more.” And I’m such a stubborn guy. I’m the one who sits on the floor in the middle of an exercise class when everybody else is pumping away, and I go, “No! I don’t like this. I’m not doing any more.” And everybody else is looking for that micro-achievement.
Robert: And so, I’ve just a got new app on my watch called Seven. And, for me, it’s great, because it says, “Let’s do seven minutes a day if we can.” And so, I do seven minutes of exercise a day, and then I feel like I’ve done some exercise, which is great. And over the week that adds up, over the month that adds up, probably not as much as it should do. But, nevertheless, it’s better than doing zero because I hate the idea of doing an hour workout.
Robert: It’s the same with learning an instrument as an adult, is that it’s the micro-achievements which are the things that are going to keep you energized, and keep you interested, and will help your productivity. So don’t look for the end goal, look for, “I want to do five minutes of practice a day. If I can do that, at the end of the week I’m going to allow myself that bottle of Rose that’s been sitting in my fridge.” Whatever it might be.
Robert: So that’s the first one, micro-achievements. Secondly, do some common sense. If you’re going to set yourself a goal for five minutes a day, what you want to do is put a timer on your watch or on your stopwatch or on your phone for five minutes. Sit down at your instrument, stand up at your instrument, play for five minutes. Do your five minutes of practice. When your timer goes off: stop. Walk away. And the stupid thing about adults, and children, is that we always want what we can’t have. And so, your watch is saying, “Your time’s up. Walk away.” So, as an adult you go, “Hold on! I could do another five minutes.” But if you set a timer for 10 minutes, then after five minutes you’d be, like, “Oh! I’ve got another five minutes left.”
Robert: So it’s just about spinning these things on its head, and walk away after five minutes. Make yourself want to do more, but you’re not allowing yourself. That’s a really great mindset to have. And carrying on through to the next day. So, micro-achievements. Small doses is great.
Robert: And then, lastly, I would say, a big generalization here, but you’ve got to find a practice method. Anybody who goes into learning an instrument who doesn’t have a practice method is just destined to fail. You don’t go into a job without having a method of how to handle the stress, or the task at hand. There’s a method for everything in life, and music and music education and learning a musical instrument is no different, you’ve got to have a method. So do your research with that. Spend a bit of time.
Robert: The method that I love is very practical, it’s creating spreadsheets for yourself. It’s micro-practicing, micro-achievements. It’s about knowing what you want to achieve, creating a plan on a spreadsheet of how to get there.
Robert: So, for instance, for me, when I was studying at the Royal College of Music, if I had a difficult passage … And I remember quite vividly the third movement of the Rach 2 Piano Concerto that I was learning, I was having trouble with one of the section because it’s so fast, and my fingers were just clumsy. And I remember creating a spreadsheet, and over the period of about three weeks, every day the spreadsheet would give me bars to learn and a metronome mark. And that metronome mark would just get faster and faster and faster every day. And if I couldn’t play it at that speed, with the metronome mark, I would have to stay on that metronome mark until I could play it. Or, I’d go back a couple of steps. And eventually, within three weeks, I reached my goal. And I do that because it’s methodical and there’s a plan in place. And I’m pretty sure without that plan I would be just the guy who just tries to play it fast from day one and it doesn’t work. And I get frustrated and eventually I give up and shout and swear at it. So, create a plan.
Christopher: Terrific! So we’ve told a little bit of your own backstory, which had you on this trajectory to become a top level concert pianist in the classical world. And you’ve also alluded to a period where you were teaching. But musical theater is huge part of what you do now. When did that first enter the picture for you?
Robert: Very early. I think I was 10. And I moved to Lon … Well, I didn’t move to London, I grew up in Birmingham. And I was in love with my swimming teacher. My swimming teacher was about 25, 26, and I was actually in love with her as a 10-year-old boy. And she was really kind, and she said, “Look, for your birthday, for your 10th birthday I’ll take you to London to see a show.” I’d never seen a show before. And I went down to London to see Joseph at the London Palladium.
Christopher: So wait, sorry. Just to interject for a moment, you managed to get a date with the swimming teacher?
Robert: Yeah! Yeah, I was a cheeky little kid!”
Robert: Yeah. I did. I mean, I swim really badly as well, so I don’t even understand how that worked.
Robert: So, anyway, she took me down to London for the day to see Joseph. And I saw a matinee performance. And I loved it. I loved the spectacle of it. I loved the music. I just loved the combination of dance, theater. Just everything about it just ticked all my boxes. And, at that moment, I had the program, and as a 10-year-old kid. There were two names in the program. One was Mike Reed, Musical Supervisor, and the other one was Mike Dixon, Musical Director. Now, as a 10-year-old kid I had no idea what the difference is, I just know that they were both involved in the music. Well, I circled their pictures, and I wrote in the program … I’ve still got it, “This is what I want to do when I grow older.”
Robert: There was something written in the stars at that moment, because eight years later I moved to London to live, to go to the Royal College of Music. And I needed to find a job to give me some cash in my pocket, to keep me going and pay for my bar bills! So I found a job as a local church organist in a place called Chiswick in West London. And the first Sunday I was there the vicar said, “I’d like to introduce to you somebody who I think you … might be useful.” And Mike Dixon walked down the aisle. And I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “God, this is the guy who was in that photo that I circled eight years ago. And he looks a bit older now, but this is incredible.” Anyway, so I got talking to him, and he was very supportive of me.
Robert: And the following Sunday the vicar came up to me and said, “Hey Robert, there’s somebody else I’d like to introduce to you.” And Mike Reed walked in. And it turns out they both lived in the local area, they both had links with the church. And I couldn’t believe that within a week of moving to London, the two people who I had circled as a 10-year-old boy, appeared in my life. And they’ve both been champions ever since. Mike Dixon gave me, I think, probably my first ever professional job in the West End, which was on Zorro. Which was a long time ago now. And Mike Reed has become one of my closest friends. He’s the godfather of my son. And I spend months and months and months a year working with him, doing so many different projects together. And they’re both just wonderful people.
Robert: My trajectory of life has been stemmed from that moment as a 10-year-old kid. And I’m not a particularly religious person, but I am a spiritual person, and I’ll let you take that however you want. But in my head there is something about, at that moment, as a 10-year-old kid, something happened to me, and the stars aligned. And eight years later, I was really lucky to have met these two people who came into my life. And, really, have substantially changed my life ever since. Yeah, I’m a lucky boy for that.
Christopher: Incredible. And you mentioned there, you weren’t sure at the time what the difference might have been between a musical director and a musical supervisor. If others in the audience are similarly confused, what is the difference?
Robert: So the musical director is also known as a conductor. So that’s the person who will conduct the performance on a daily basis. The musical supervisor is a relatively new role within the musical theater world. I would say it’s only been around for 25, 30 years or so. And the role of musical supervisor, now, is to be the link between the composer and the production. The composer is an interesting thing, because as a composer of musical theater it’s pretty rare that you write all the music. Now, I know that sounds a bit shocking for most people, but the skill of writing vocal arrangements, and the skill of writing dance arrangements, is a very different skill from being able to sit there in your own little world and compose these wonderful tunes and medleys that you hope people will sing.
Robert: So a musical supervisor is traditionally the person who has taken the work from the composer, and is working with the director and with the choreographer in putting together the show. Because the director or the choreographer might say, “We need an extra 20 bars here for a dance routine or for a quick change,” and it’s probably not going to be the composer who goes away and does that. It’s probably going to be the musical supervisor who will link all of that together. And, essentially, the supervisor is the one who is responsible for the quality of the music in the production, and he is the boss of the conductor and everybody else who is there in the production.
Christopher: Terrific! Thank you. And you’ve a great episode on your show where you really unpack the role of musical director and what it takes to bring a show to its first performance and beyond.
Robert: Yeah. It’s crazy.
Christopher: I mean, for anyone who’s curious. It does sound a bit crazy.
Christopher: And you mentioned conducting, there, as the heart of the musical director role. And there’s a great anecdote, or a line or two, on your bio on the website about when you first conducted. Can you talk about how you came to add that to your skill-set and what that was like for you?
Robert: That was revolved around money, actually, to start with. I was a trained pianist up until the age of, sort of, 17, I wanted to be a concert pianist and piano was my life. And what changed was me getting into the Royal College of Music. I did a quick calculation that I needed about 18 grand a year to be able to live in London. And I came from a single parent home, didn’t have any money, so I knew that I had to find 18 grand a year to live in London. And I desperately didn’t want to go and work in a bar or a McDonald’s or something. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I just wanted to make money out of the gifts that I was given.
Robert: And so, before I moved to London I decided to put on a concert series, where I would hire an orchestra and … I mean, this is the great thing about kids, and I’m classing me, as a 17-year-old, still a kid, because you don’t really think of the big consequences. So I thought do you know what? The producer gets a lot of the money here, when they’re producing concerts, and the conductor gets a lot of the money here when they’re conducting a concert. So why don’t I just do both, and then I can get more money, and I can then try and live off that whilst I’m at college. And so, that’s what I did. I hired the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, or, in fact, I persuaded them to give me their services for free. And then I found a venue and did the same thing, and the venue was free.
Robert: And I carried on being a cheeky chappie young 17-year-old kid, persuading everybody to give me stuff for free. I persuaded BBC Television to do a live broadcast for me to promote the concert. And then, I thought, well, I’ve got to conduct this, and how hard can it be? Let’s get a stick. Let’s learn the beat patterns. And let’s go! I’ve got youth on my side so if I’m rubbish everybody will go, “Ah, it’s cute! He’s a 17-year-old kid.” So, you know, you can’t lose. So that’s what I did. And I did a few performances. They were sold out. I raised enough money to get me through two years worth of college.
Robert: And I just realized in that moment I loved conducting. It was something that I felt at ease with. And so, I went to the Royal College of Music as a pianist. I only did one semester and one term in conducting and that was it. And to be honest with you that was pretty useless. I came out of college going, “I don’t want to be a concert pianist.” A concert pianist has to be on the road 365 days a year, they’re by themselves. They have to practice six or seven hours a day, in a practice room, by themselves. They end up playing the same music again and again and again. I thought, that’s not a life for me.
Robert: I want to be a conductor who gets to go and meet interesting people, work with interesting people. And that way I can conduct musical theater, or I can conduct a straight classical concert, or I can conduct a concert which is broadcast on TV or radio or whatever it may be. But it’s constantly different music, and that’s what floats my boat really. It’s about keeping things interesting for me. And that’s how I became a conductor.
Christopher: Wonderful! Well, what made me want to ask the question was partly because, clearly, it was required for your transition to musical director, but also because you did a great interview with Stewart Copeland on your show, the drummer from The Police, and you talked about conducting specifically. And you unpacked it a little bit, and touched on what I think a lot of people are curious about and don’t really know about, which is, is it easy? Like, if you’re a good musician, if you have a good ear, do you just kind of pick up the baton and wave it about naturally and instinctively? And so, I was curious to know how much a learning curve was there for you?
Robert: I’m a great believer into throwing yourself into a deep end of a situation and forcing yourself to sink or swim, and hopefully you swim. For me, there wasn’t really that steep a learning curve. I mean, don’t get me wrong, as a 17-year-old I wasn’t conducting a Mahler Symphony. It was all relatively simple stuff. 1812 Overture, that sort of stuff. Which, it’s not easy, but it’s not the hardest work in the world to conduct. And there wasn’t a steep learning curve for me. I just learnt on the job. I’m the guy who runs by the rule of “Fake it till you make it.”
Robert: A conductor is the leader of a group of people, so as the leader you’ve got to be confident. Try not to be too cocky, but you’ve got to be confident, because if you don’t have confidence you are admitting to all those people around you there’s something not right here, and then that’s going to affect their performance. So I’m a great believer that as a conductor you have to have this internal confidence which is unwavering. And whether that’s as a 17-year-old kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing, or as a 27-year-old who is being thrown into the West End to conduct a musical, you’ve just got to go, “Yeah. I know what I’m doing here.” Even if you don’t, you’ve just got to say, “Yeah. I know what I’m doing.” And you’ve just got to figure it out. End of story.
Robert: And, again, people try and make these things more complicated than they are. And if you’ve got a good skill-set as an all around musician, I believe that anybody can do it. It’s not the hardest thing in the world.
Christopher: Interesting. So I’m going to try and be careful about how I word my next question, because I know you’ve done a lot of work with TV shows like The Voice, and Britain’s Got Talent. And you’ve worked with some of the people who’ve won those TV talent shows. In our conversation you’ve talked about luck quite a lot, you’ve talked about having a gift, you’ve talked about the hard work that’s required, and you’ve talked the idea that anyone can do it. I’d love to just ask you straight out, what do you think, or how do you think about talent in music?
Robert: Well, the nature versus nurture syndrome: good question. I think people look for a black-and-white answer, and I don’t think there is one. I think there are people who are born talented, and whose role it is on this Earth is create music. I think you can look at somebody like Mozart for that, who was writing symphonies at the age of seven. There’s a statistic somewhere isn’t there, about 10,000 hours is what you need to spend on any topic to become a basic expert in that topic. And there’s no way Mozart had 10,000 hours up until the age of 7, to be able to write a symphony. And 10,000 hours is roughly seven years worth of work.
Robert: So I think there is definitely something within us, that you can be born musical, and you can have that in you. And whether you choose to use it or not is another matter, but you have it in you. And I think I’m probably one of those lucky ones who, for whatever reason, was born like that, and I had it in me. Now, that doesn’t mean to say, though, that because you are born with a bit of talent means that you don’t have to work for anything, or you don’t have to learn and actively educate yourself. Because the two are very different things. Mozart still had teachers in music, he still had a piano teacher, and he was still learning all of his life. If you look at his scores, he was still writing stuff, throwing them away because they were rubbish. Writing new stuff, throwing it away and trying to improve it. So he was constantly learning. We all constantly learn. So just because you’re talented doesn’t mean that you’re lazy and that you don’t have to educate yourself.
Robert: I think there are people who are born with talent. I also think, though, that you can get to be a phenomenal musician without being born with that talent, if you are prepared to put in the hard work that is needed, and if you love it enough. You’ve got to have both. You can’t just do the hard work and actually secretly hate it, because music is about passion, and it’s about heart, it’s about soul, and if you don’t have passion and the heart and the soul for it, you’re never going to be the best musician in the world. And it just won’t click, it won’t work.
Robert: That’s why music is such a special thing. If you look at these incredible artists like … Well, anybody, like Pharrell Williams through to Simon & Garfunkel, or anybody, these people had their heart and soul into what they did. And you’ve got to have that. And if you have that, whether you’re talented or not I still believe you can be a great musician.
Christopher: That’s really interesting to hear. And I think part of what prompted me to really want to ask you this was on your podcast sometimes it seems like you use the word talented almost synonymous with skillful. Like I think you talk, for example, about having talented players with you in the pit, in the theater. And I guess because you’ve been in the world of music education in a serious way, and you’ve been in the world of musical theater, which is, alongside maybe classical orchestras, probably the epitome of this romantic notion of the superstar and that talent, as it were.
Christopher: I was curious to know, do you think everyone is seeing it in a black-and-white way, and when they say “talented” they mean born gifted and that’s that? Or do you think people have an appreciation of what you just described, which is maybe there’s a bit of a gray area or a spectrum and it’s a combination of nature and nurture?
Robert: I think those who are not a professional musician probably believe that they are not lucky enough to be talented, and they weren’t born with that gift, and therefore they have to work harder than a professional musician or a talented musician would be to get where they need to go. And I think that’s a misunderstanding, and I think that’s an inaccuracy in life. Because I know plenty of professional musicians who, I would call them very skillful but probably not the most talented in the world.
Robert: For me, somebody who is talented and gifted is somebody who is able to do things which are almost untrainable. I’ve got a friend of mine who you can say, I don’t know, “Play the Harry Potter theme in the style of Renaissance music, or in the style of George Gershwin.” And he could just do it, just there and then. There’s a talent for that. That’s a gift that my friend has got. And it’s very difficult to teach that skill. I guess it would be possible over time, but I just know he didn’t spend the time learning it like that. So that is a gift. I know plenty of musicians, professional musicians, who are skillful because they’ve worked very hard to get where they need to go, against all the odds, because they don’t have a natural God-given talent. And I know other musicians who are lazier and can get to the same place because there’s something in them that just … they can just do things.
Robert: Talent’s a really interesting topic. It’s a really interesting thing. There is a downside to being a gifted musician, and that is, it is possible and it’s very easy to become lazy. Because when I was a young kid, and I hate to say I was a talented young kid because it sounds so arrogant, but I was the kid who I could hear something once and I could play it. I could read something on a page and I could play it. And I’m sure there are plenty of other kids who could do that better than I, but I could do it pretty damn good. And so, what it meant is that I didn’t really need to practice, as a child.
Robert: And I kind of think, how great could I have been as a piano player if I’d have actually applied myself and practiced? And instead I rested on my laurels, I was a bit lazy, I hated practice. And that is an example of where having a gift isn’t the best thing in the world. Because if I’d have started at the same age with no gift and had worked bloody hard for it, then maybe I would have been a better pianist than I am today. Who knows? But there are pros and cons to both sides.
Christopher: Gotcha! Well, thank you for delving into that and being willing to be pick it apart, because as you say it’s not just black-and-white. I always want to make sure on this show we’re not oversimplifying for our audience. Our listeners, our viewers are smart, capable people who want to know the truth from these things. And I think it’s so interesting to take a case like yourself, where on paper it may seem very simple, and dive in and see, well, actually, where is there truth, where is there a bit more of back story, and what can we learn from that for our own potential in music?
Robert: As an adult learning a musical instrument, you have to put the work in. Talent or not talent, you have to put the work in. Even now if I’m lucky enough to be asked to play, I don’t know, Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, I learnt that when I was 11, and I’ve got a recording … Look on the internet, there’s a recording of me as an 11-year-old playing that. And I juxtaposed this recording with me as an 11-year-old, with me playing it in a concert when I was about 28 or so, and I just flicked between the two constantly. And, you know, me as a 28-year-old had to work much harder than me as an 11-year-old to get there. And that’s me knowing the music for 15 years, me knowing how to play it for 15 years, me being 15 years old wiser, more experienced, and yet I had to work harder to achieve the same level as an 11-year-old kid. And that’s because as an adult, our learning capabilities, they shrink, simple as that! It’s one of the slightly twisted things in life.
Robert: So talent is almost irrelevant, I would say. You have to work at it, talent or no talent. And if you do that then you’ll be successful at whatever you want to achieve.
Christopher: Wonderful. As I know you talk about yourself, there are advantages to being an adult learner. And you like to ask on your interviews if your guest has any tips and tricks for staying productive and making the most of their time. Whether you see it as overcoming the challenges of being an adult learner, or just maximizing your potential, I think this kind of stuff is really valuable to discuss.
Christopher: So I’d love to hear, for yourself, as someone who travels, who performs, who achieves such a high level in everything you do, what are your own strategies or tactics or frameworks that help you stay at that top level?
Robert: So I’m the professional musician who turns around and says, “Music is my job and I love it. It’s not my hobby and I make money out of it.” So like any other job you have to have a tool box, exactly like you said, of ideas and ways to be able to be productive. I, personally … Incidentally, there are … Just as a little side note here, I would like to remind everybody that when I went to college, the Royal College of Music, there were, I don’t know, about a hundred people in my year at the Royal College of Music. And there are five or six colleges in the U.K. which are at that sort of same-ish standard. So that’s five or six hundred people a year, in the U.K. alone. And then of course you’ve got the big ones like the Juilliard in America.
Robert: Remember, everybody, that out of those five or six hundred professional musicians from my year, I reckon there’s probably about 10, maybe 20, who are working professionally now, 15 years after I’d left college. So it’s not like everybody trains to that high level and then they automatically become a professional musician. Because there is a massive difference between training to become a professional musician, and then actually making money out of the career that you want to achieve. And the reason why I say that is because … I’ve not gone off on a tangent, they are connected.
Robert: That you tend to find that lot of the people who have become professional musicians, and have a career as a professional musician, as a performer, have done so because they’ve realized that it is a business. They are a business. They are one man, one woman business. And for that they need that tool set of tips and tricks to be able to maximize their capability as a performer, and therefore give themselves the best chance of becoming a professional musician, and having a good career where they can have a roof over their head. And that’s why most people fall away. It’s not because they’re worse musicians. It’s almost at that stage irrelevant how good they are, it’s about the tips and tricks.
Robert: So, for me, I use lots of different things. One of them is called Asana. Asana is an online management tool, you can kind of build it however you want. My life is quite complicated because I always turn around and say, “Well, if I don’t make it as a musician, I want back-up plans to make sure that I can live the life I want to lead.” So I have a few businesses on the side. So Asana really helps me link all of those businesses together with my music, to make sure that I can keep across everything. And I set myself … I actually work on a 12 week year. So what this is, is essentially … We, as humans, with the Gregorian calendar …
Robert: Is that right? Have I made that up? It is the Gregorian calendar? Yeah. With musicians, for the Gregorian calendar, tend to appraise ourselves late December, early January. And what happens is we always have an excellent January. February we start to go downhill. Over the summer we laze off a bit, because we say. “Ah, yeah, well everybody’s away, everybody’s on holiday,” so we kind of calm down. And then, from September through to December we ramp up our work again, and then we sort of appraise ourselves again. And so, you’ve got this really long period of time where you are working. And so, I turn around and say, “Well, I’m not such a fan of that, because that’s not a healthy way for me to be able to assess how well I’m doing in what I’m choosing to do.”
Robert: So I do a 12 week year instead. So every three months is the equivalent to everybody else’s year. At the end of every three months I have an assessment for myself. I make my colleague assess me, in the businesses, and vice-versa. And so, every week is the same timescale as a month for most people on this Earth. And, for me, I manage to get more done because of that. I wake up usually very early; I’m up half past five, six-ish to work. I tend to not stop working until eight or nine at night. And that includes most of the weekends. For me, I try and not check emails all day, every day. I try and schedule three times a day, checking an email account. I’m not so good at doing that, but I try. I always keep my inbox to zero, so that’s like a really cathartic thing for me, that I can wake up in the morning and see there’s 15 emails I need to deal with. I’ll deal with them, and my email inbox will go back to zero emails in there.
Robert: I have a glamorous, wonderful, fantastic assistant who works with me to keep me on the straight and narrow. Who I couldn’t live without. I totally am aware that I’m very lucky to have her managing me and my time. And I’m a great believer in collaboration, in understanding that 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing. And so, I have several agents who do things for me. Yes, they take quite a chunk of money, but they give me opportunities that without them I wouldn’t have in the first place.
Robert: Yeah, I guess that’s about it really. I mentioned about micro-achievements, about trying to see that … For me, I’ve just been orchestrating for a concert that’s going to happen in Switzerland next month in Lucerne, and I had 12 orchestrations to do. And that’s like an hour’s worth of music to orchestrate, and for a full orchestra that’s quite a lot of work. And the goal isn’t to finish it, because then I would never finish it. For me, the goal is to finish each one.
Robert: But then I separate it into three goals, because I need to do a piano arrangement of it first, then I need to orchestrate it, and then I need to get it all laid out, and PDF’d up, and demos send to people. And so, there’s three steps with each particular track. I have 12 tracks. And so I have three goals to achieve for each track. And each one is on my Asana, online, and each one I can tick off and be proud that its gone. And I scheduled in my time over the weeks, so I know exactly what I need to achieve in the space I’ve got.
Robert: So, essentially, all of what I’m saying is just be businesslike about it. And it doesn’t actually matter if you are a professional musician or not, you can still apply a lot of these rules to an amateur musician. Because the more businesslike you can be … even as a music lover and as an amateur musician, the more businesslike you can be with how you practice, in particular, the quicker you’re going to improve.
Christopher: Fantastic! There was lots of really great, meaty, practical advice packed inside that. I’d love to ask a follow-up question, if I may? Which is you talked about the importance of a conductor having a rock solid confidence about them, and I think everything you just described is tremendous for the practicalities and logistics and organization of being a professional musician. But, obviously, you also play that role of being in the moment, at a performance, doing your thing.
Christopher: And you said something really fascinating in that course that answer, which was, “If I don’t make it in music,” I think is what you said, “If one day I don’t make it in music.”
Christopher: And that just caused me to wonder, like, is there any emotional or mindset self-management required? In the context of all of that practical framework, are there days where you wake-up, or moments before a performance where you’re, like, “I don’t know if I’ve got this.”?
Robert: No. I think the closest thing to ever feeling that … is never the music. Working in music as a field there are two main elements to it: one is the music, the other one is the people. The music is never the problem. The music is what is written on the page, what comes out your mind, your heart and soul. If you’re orchestrating or composing, the music is never the problem because the music is my responsibility, my choice. So I know that if I go into a concert not knowing a piece of music as well as I should do, that’s purely down to me. And I don’t worry about that, because I turn around and go, “Well, that was my choice. I should have spent more time on this.” So I just know not to do that. You’re only as good as your last performance, so it’s my responsibility to have the music prepped.
Robert: The other element which is much more out of one’s control is the people who are around you, and who you have to work with. That can be harder to deal with. And that’s the only time in my life so far where I’ve had difficulties within my job, within my career, of working with tricky, prickly people. And situations occurring with those people where you turn around and go, “Phew! Do I really want to work in this industry? Do I really want, for the rest of my life, to have to work with twits like this!” And that’s the only thing that has made me come close to going, “Is this really want I want?”
Robert: But at the end of the day you always go back to the same thing, which is, well, it’s not the music’s fault. And hopefully you don’t have to work with these people again. So pick yourself up, get on, and just ride that wave.
Christopher: Love it! Well, I think, if anyone’s up to the task of coping with prickly people, it’s the guy who managed to get a date with this 20-something swimming teacher at the age of ten – and finagled a live TV broadcast from the BBC, not very long after!
Christopher: And I loved getting an insight into your world through listening to your podcast. I’d love it if we could wrap up by talking a bit about that show: what you do with it, what it’s for, who it’s for? And that’s Backstage with Robert Emery.
Robert: Sure. So I started this podcast at the beginning of the year, so it’s a really, really new venture for me. And one of the reasons why I decided to do this is because almost every gig I was doing, whether it was working with big, famous artists like Stewart Copeland, or whether it was just me, myself, conducting an orchestra, and I am the name on the stage, the same thing was happening, which is followers would be coming up to me asking for more information of what life is really like, how do you rehearse, what are these people like to work with, what’s behind the scenes. And we are all fascinated behind-the-scenes, that’s why these horrible TV things are on, following policemen around, and following ambulances around. And this awful one, 24 hours in A&E, and seeing everybody’s get their leg chopped off or something nasty! I can’t personally stand that stuff. But there are people who love it, and that’s because we all love behind-the-scenes stuff.
Robert: And I thought, okay, well, if the audience want that, I’m a great believer in I’m here to please an audience, it’s my job. And that has to be on and off the stage. I can’t expect people just to follow me and follow my career and my chosen path when I’m on the stage, I’ve got to connect with them in between those moments. And so, for me, it was a bit of a no-brainer. I had interviewed Stewart several years ago for the first podcast. It wasn’t for a podcast, I just was with him, and I just said, “Look, you’re a fascinating guy. I want to have a chat with you. Can we record it?” So that’s what we did. And it sat on my computer for two-and-a-half years doing nothing, and I just thought, okay, well that’s it, it’s a podcast. And that’s what I want to do.
Robert: To be honest with you it’s tricky, because I’m trying to juggle that with everything else. So from a time point of view it’s very tricky. But from a reward point of view my followers seems to love it. I’m getting some really great comments. And I’ve got some phenomenal guests … It’s not all guest-based, sometimes it’s just me rabbiting on about something to do with music, but some of the guests I’ve got are incredible. And I’m just … Yeah, I’m thrilled with it. I really enjoy it. Even if I’m the only one who listens to it, in the end, I kind of go, “I don’t care,” because I’m just really enjoying doing it.
Christopher: Wonderful. Well, as I said, I highly recommend the show. I’ve been enjoying digging into the back catalog, myself. And that can be found, as can all your projects, at robertemery.com. Is that right?
Robert: It is.
Christopher: Perfect. And for people who are curious to know more, what’s coming for you, apart from this podcast that you’ve launched and will be continuing in? What’s going on in the world of Robert Emery?
Robert: Oh! So I’ve got the gigs in Switzerland next month, with an artist who is quite massive actually on mainland Europe, called Seven. He’s sort of a soul singer. I’m conducting a Hans Zimmer versus John Williams concert in London, in September. And then, I’ve got a couple of gigs … I love this! The concert is called Now That’s What I Call The 80s!
Christopher: Can I come?
Robert: I think it’s going to be incredible. And you know I am a classical musician, but I love a lot of types of music, and the 80s, you put on a good 80s tune and I’m there baby! So I totally up for this when they approached me and said, “Would you be interested in conducting this gig?” So I’ve got that. And I’ve got a similar one, Now That’s What I Call Christmas, happening in December. I’m working with my old mate Russell Watson again. We’ve got a gig in Manchester.
Robert: And then, I’m in the process of writing a new musical, which will be the second musical I’ve written. And I think that will launch in the fall of next year. So that’s taken up quite a bit of my time. I’m doing quite a bit of composing, I’ve got some choral works and I’m releasing an album at the back end of next year as well. So I’m just busy writing all of the material for that.
Robert: And I’m going to start a YouTube series, which I’m really excited about. Which, I think it’s going to be called The Extreme Pianist. And we’re just going to be going into filming that in … I think it’s October. So I’ve got quite a bit of prep to do for that.
Robert: Aside from that, there are a few other projects. We’re doing Music With Art, is going to be an interesting one. That’s approaching art galleries saying we’d like to compose pieces of music dedicated to their major artworks. And that’s up and running. And the first performance of that will be next year.
Robert: Yeah. It just kind of goes on and on and on. Keep me out of trouble. Keep me moving. Yeah.
Christopher: Tremendous! Well, clearly your Asana management board is very full, so I appreciate you taking the time today to join us-
Robert: My pleasure. Thank you.
Christopher: … and sharing your perspective with our audience. Thank you again.
Robert: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me on.
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