Evelyn Glennie is the first person ever who made a full-time solo percussion career in the world.
She lost her hearing when she was about eight, and instead of quitting music, she embarked on a career and on a mission: teach the world to listen.
In this episode we talk about:
– What is the advantage for an average person to engage actively in rhythm?
– What is listening about?
– How to listen with the whole body.
– How to approach drumming technique considering the particularities of our body.
“It’s just so important to bring technique to your body, and not try to force your body into a technique, otherwise, you’ll always come across a brick wall somewhere along the line, and this is why you get confused thinking that it’s about practicing more and more.“
– Evelyn Glennie
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Transcript of this Episode
Hi and welcome to a new episode. Today my guest is a true legend already in her lifetime. She is a multiple Grammy award winner, she is a Ted Talk speaker and she has been given more than 100 awards internationally. But this is just the icing on the cake. The real thing is that she was bringing a new paradigm of listening to the world. She lost her hearing when she was about eight and instead of quitting music she embarked on a career. She is the first person ever who made a full-time solo percussion career in the world. It’s a true honor to have her on my podcast today. Welcome, Evelyn Glennie.
Listening is so much broader than just music. If I’m listening to you with my heart and with my body, I need to be empty in my thoughts and I need to be still. And maybe music is a perfect way to learn that ability, especially the way you listen to it.
Yes, I mean, I feel that in order to build the listening bridges, in a way it’s for me all about presence. It’s just literally being there and presence means being engaged. So if you’re having a conversation with someone, for example, I’m speaking with you right now, and you are the most important person in my life right now. This is the 100 percent activity that I want to be engaged with at this point in time, and that’s really important, otherwise, we’ll lose so many layers of the onion in the experience of that engagement, and with the experience builds the story of someone, and we all have a story to tell.
So I don’t think listening is about putting it into some sort of method or this is how you do it. There’s no “how-to” really about it. It’s just simply being present and then making the decision as to whether you want to be engaged with that. So it’s something that in a way we can all do, any moment of the day should we choose to, and we don’t need a special room. We don’t need special acoustics, we don’t need special equipment, we don’t need anything other than ourselves and making that decision.
What I found when I was watching your performance is that you move very differently from any other musician. With my MegaDrums Project, I’ve played with Airto Moreira, Zakir Hussein, and all these great people. But you are music. It seems like your hearing makes you so acute in your movements that there is no separation between you and the music.
Well, perhaps I don’t know why that’s the case, but I do remember when I started percussion from the age of 12 at school, there were very few tutor books, method books, exercise books, and being brought up in the northeast part of Scotland in a farming community, we only had one music store in the nearest city which was Aberdeen. That store really sold pianos and organs that people bought for their homes in those days, and so percussion was just non-existent, as far as instruments and mallets, books and things like that. It meant that my teacher, would take a piece of Bach or Chopin or some ragtime music by Scott Joplin or Scottish traditional music and so on, and he would ask us to look at that, maybe a phrase from that particular piece of music, and then he would ask us to think about the key signature of that piece of music. So let’s say it was in G minor or E major, or whatever it might be, and then he would ask us to look at the rhythm of that, the tempo of that, and the dynamics of that, the feel of that, the texture, and all of the musical ingredients also inherent with any instrument that we play. So let’s say we took a piece of Bach or something and it went on and on like that. So if you dissect the rhythm, you would simply get da da da da da, and it would go on and on forever throughout most of the piece. However, when he said “think about the field of the key signature” so let’s say G minor, so it’s a slightly kind of darker key, but it’s not a threatening minor key. It’s something that still could be very easily major, it’s still something that’s approachable. It’s not a rich key like a B minor or an A flat minor, or something like that. So it’s quite an open key.
It’s sort of a welcoming minor key and all this kind of thing. And so we would translate that piece onto our snare drum and with that, we ended up using all sorts of ways and angles of the sticks in order to get the feel of the G minor, and the feel of the different colors of the ebbs and flows of the phrases that we saw.
So all of this was dealing with sight-reading, it was dealing with general musicianship, it was dealing with our natural physicality through the instrument, and so on.
Now he could have said “Right, Evelyn, this is a snare drum, please hold the sticks like this, please make sure your feet are this apart or whatever your arms are at a more or less 90-degree angle, etc.” So you’d have to try and remember all of these things and then you would strike the drum and ask for permission, is that right or wrong? So thankfully my teacher was so open by actually having fewer materials, fewer percussion materials, but a lot more musical materials, and so I’ve always sort of struggled, I suppose, with the feeling that with percussion people see rhythm as the most important thing. I think that all of the musical elements are important and when we think of rhythm we’re still dealing with resonance, we’re still dealing with texture, we’re still dealing with color, and so on. And so forth when we deal with texture there is rhythm in texture, there are all sorts of things, and that resonance that goes on. So I feel that all of the musical ingredients like our senses are completely and utterly linked and move like a kaleidoscope.
Listening is such an important element in our lives and if you look around the world now so many people are just talking and talking, but no one is really listening. I think this is a subject that goes way beyond just music, but music is such a beautiful test ground to how we can listen.
Your way of performing is based on listening because your movements are so different than any other musicians I have ever heard. So you are music as you move and I’m so happy that we can play a few of your features now. This is Michael Daugherty’s Dreamachine, and it’s the beginning where you play really like you would be dancing.
This is so incredible. When I saw this for the first time, I was like wow.
Now we also share some passion which is collecting instruments. You have a much bigger collection. So what is the meaning for you to have all these little entities around you?
Well, I think that once I started percussion from the age of 12 and when my teacher asked me one week to perhaps trying to purchase a pair of drumsticks, and then a week or two later a pair of xylophone sticks, a week or two later a pair of tiffany sticks, and so on, I knew that I would be a collector of something. And it’s not long before you build up a collection of mallets and sticks, and then small auxiliary instruments such as triangle and tambourine, and cast nets, and so on.
I think you then get the bug of wanting to increase the collection. But I think for me it was once I started traveling around the world to different territories, that I realized the scope of percussion, and of course, you were often meeting the instrument makers as well and that was fascinating.
I remember going to the apartment of a drum maker in Caracas, Venezuela, and he lived in a really tiny tiny apartment but there he was in his living room making these extraordinary beautiful long Venezuelan drums. That was quite special to meet his family, to see how he was making these drums, and then, of course, in those days you were able to just sort of put them on the plane back home again and it’s not quite so easy to do that nowadays.
But it’s fascinating how global percussion is and how sociable it is. It can be shared with all demographics, all people from all backgrounds, all ages, all situations. It is absolutely the most approachable family of instruments.
You also said that your favorite instrument is the snare drum. When I listened to your story, your teacher as you were in your first class took away your sticks and told you to explore the drum. Was it your first drum?
Yes, it was indeed my first drum and he didn’t even give me a stand for it so it was literally the drum that I walked home with. So yes, maybe that contributed to the fact that it’s one of the instruments that I probably play most days, one way or another. The shape of the snare drum is round, it’s compact, it can be handheld, it can be put in a stand, it can be put on different surfaces, and it’s also an instrument that you imagine more or less one general sound to come from it. A short sound either with the snares on or with the snares off, but actually once you do peel away the onions of that snare drum, it becomes this fascinating instrument that not only orally is interesting but physically is interesting. And when you think of all the different ways of playing the snare drum like the traditional ways, whether it’s American, the Irish, the Scots, the Basel style of playing and so on and so forth, the orchestral way of playing, the more military side, and the history of the snare drum… it’s really a fascinating instrument. But I just like the fact that it’s so compact and it uses so many different techniques that you don’t necessarily transfer to so many other instruments.
All right. Now I have a little clip here from you playing the snare drum. I’ve never seen someone playing snare drum like this.
So amazing what someone can do on a snare drum, really!
So, there’s another thing we have in common, actually. I found that you have a movie about Korea. I’ve been three years in Korea learning, not only from Kim Duk Soo, who is the founder of Samulnori, but I also learned with Kim Sog Chul, who is a real living shaman.
It’s a fascinating place, I might say. That was certainly my first time in South Korea… so many years ago. I think it was back in the 1990s. And it was for a BBC series of programs where different people went to different parts of the world. So I had this opportunity to go and it was just really one of the most extraordinary trips, and of course musically, for which the documentary was about exploring the traditional music in South Korea. It was absolutely fascinating.
And you went to all the places that are really the epicenters like Bulguxa. I was meditating there for a long time. I was learning the big drum Buk, like the Taiko. You see the monks playing like a butterfly, right?
Did you ever pursue Django for a longer time?
Not really. I think what I’m inclined to do is if I do come across an instrument perhaps that I’m not familiar with, and certainly the Korean instruments I was not familiar with at the time, but then once I have them home as it were, I then begin to just experiment myself. So with different sort of techniques, different mallets, different ways. I’m very aware that in order to learn the traditional ways of playing so many percussion instruments is that you do need to devote a large part of the time and actually be in the territory where that instrument is from, and really listen surround yourself and stick yourself in that tradition. To be honest, my journey as a performing musician has not allowed that amount of time in the schedule so I think that a lot of the things that I do when I’m approaching instruments, it’s almost like a child seeing an instrument for the first time.
So there are no rules. There are no regulations or methods, and you just instinctively do what you feel you want to do with it, and it could be completely absurd, and that’s fine. But nevertheless, a lot of those things are actually very useful when you come to composing music for media such as films or television, radio and so on because it’s all about atmosphere and sound, and just things that you wouldn’t necessarily do at a concert platform.
Right. And I’m so fascinated when I see you playing. There’s a video about you playing the cajón in a very unusual way, with sticks and with all… This is all based on something so important for humanity which is, curiosity. I always see you curious, and if we would approach life curious every day, everything would change in the world.
It’s so true. I mean, at the end of the day there are extraordinary people out there who do extraordinary things on percussion, and ultimately you just cannot be a master of everything at all… And that’s not why I want to be a percussion player, why I want to be a musician… I’m curious about sound and it just so happens that my ingredients happen to be percussion instruments. And therefore, I have to follow the kind of instinctive curiosity, and also physically what I have to play with. I’m 5.2 tall, so if I’m playing something on the marimba that has a massive stretch, or on multi-percussion that has a massive stretch, and I know in my mind that the type of sound I would like to achieve, but because the body is not long enough, it’s not about more hours of practice that won’t solve the situation. It’s all about also listening to the machine that we have at play. So I have this shape of hands, or this length of arms, and so on, so everything I do has to absolutely feed through the natural kind of mechanism of the physical body. And it’s just so important to bring the technique to your body, and not try to force your body into a technique, otherwise, you’ll always come across a brick wall somewhere along the line, and this is why we get sometimes confused about what we must practice more and more. Of course, we have to practice, and of course, we have to rehearse, imagine and visualize. That ultimately, it absolutely starts with being completely at home with what you have available physically.
That’s such an important message for everyone who teaches music at music universities. They should really embrace that kind of attitude because there are so many people just trying to get better by training more and more. Of course, as you said, you have to practice.
I have another thing that I found from you. There are two steel barrels and you look like an explorer, somebody in the ocean, exploring what is coming out of that. So I just want to play a little part in that so people understand what we’re talking about.
What would you say, what is the advantage for an average person, who is let’s say an engineer or whatever, to engage actively in rhythm and sound? Would you say everyone should try this approach?
Yes! I mean, it’s interesting because we actually do it every single day of our lives. As soon as we
are aware of our breathing, then that is a rhythmic force. The natural progression of a day has its rhythm and at night, our dream patterns, and so on. We are rhythm, actually, so we don’t have to find it. We are absolutely a rhythmic force in the universe. But again it’s how often we define these things that all rhythm only belongs to music or rhythm only belongs to a machine that’s working well. So we always imagine rhythm to be dissected in this kind of way. But really rhythm is the most natural thing that we can engage with. And it’s often once we stand still or sit still, and just be with our own internal thoughts, that actually we are very aware suddenly of our natural rhythm. This is why John Cage’s 4’ 33’’ is such an extraordinary piece of music because suddenly it catapults us all. We’re thrown up in the air with our own individual rhythm, so we’re not now collectively being coerced by a wonderful melody in B flat major or something. That’s why we get such a reaction to that piece. It can throw us completely and it’s absolutely fascinating. So I do feel that, as you mentioned earlier, the world is a really noisy place. It’s a noisy place as far as all of our senses are concerned. We have a lot of oral noise, we have a lot of visual noise, a lot of movement. We have a lot of noise that we can taste, there’s a lot of noise we can smell, a lot of noise we can touch, and it’s slightly overloaded. So we begin not to have the patience to just want to engage with something or someone. So really, our rhythm, all have to start from internally, and as I said before, we don’t need anything special to do that. It’s just literally an awareness of getting this in moderation within our daily lives. I actually find that I spend a lot of my evenings just sitting, looking out a window, even if it’s dark outside. I literally just look out the window and I don’t think about anything, in particular, it’s just whatever comes into my mind at that point in time. And it could be that I’m standing or sitting there for maybe an hour, two hours. But it’s the most precious time. I don’t put it in my diary so it’s something that I don’t say “you must do this.” If I feel like doing it, I do and it really happens most days, even if I’m in a hotel room or something. That time is absolutely essential. It doesn’t have to happen in the evening, but it seems to me that naturally that’s when I just sort of decide to put everything else aside in the day, and that’s the time that I’m just me in the world really.
Wonderful. It’s like getting out of this compulsive thinking that logs in over the day, or emotional reactivity. It’s becoming empty, entering into this emptiness where everything is in this emptiness, which is the miracle of life, actually.
It’s true and I think actually that has a bearing than on when you approach an instrument or an object. You kind of see it as an open-source, clean slate. But of course, that sound already exists, you’re not actually inventing a sound. So that metal barrel is already there in front of me, the sound is in the metal barrel, and it’s just up to us to try to detect where those sounds are.
Wonderful. What is the next project if you look in the future?
Well, that’s a really interesting question, because I think that so many things have naturally changed over time, which happens as a performer, as a musician, and as anyone in any kind of profession. And that again is all about listening. And of course, the global pandemic that we’re navigating through has also changed aspects of the rhythm I would say, of a career, and what you decide you want to do. But I think for me, the next steps, as it were, is all about uh bringing the whole journey together. So I’m working towards the Evelyn Glennie Collection, and this is bringing absolutely everything that we have historically done to this point. And that includes the instruments, the photographs, the clothes, the music scores, the concert programs, the correspondence, all sorts of things, everything so that we can build a story of each element.
So, a tiny example is that when James MacMillan wrote his now very famous percussion concerto Veni Veni Emmanuel, and it’s now the most performed percussion concerto in the world, that when that was written he wanted to use six bass tubular bells or chimes at the end of the piece. Now a lot of the higher percussion companies did not have those specific bells, so this meant that as a performer, you worked with the higher companies, and then, of course, I needed the bells for myself in order to travel around to play the piece myself. So the story of those bells is related to that particular piece of music. And then you can begin to show the score, you can begin to show the instruments what was worn at the premiere, and the broadcast, the recording, the reviews, the program, the previews, etc, etc. And so it all just stems from those bells, or you could approach the piece from another instrument that was used.
And so really it’s making sure that the collection is absolutely accessible to musicians and non-musicians, so that it’s not just about percussion or about music, but it’s also incorporating the spine that runs through it which is listening.
And what’s about conveying your deep experience, your revelation, your wisdom to the younger generation? Are you in for that, like teaching?
Well, it’s so interesting because I think that the virtual means that we have in order to communicate with each other, allows a very open platform to happen. We find that we want to be approachable to all sorts of people who can, or who feel, they can approach us. So that can be primary school children, really young children, it can be pre-school children, it can be children with hearing challenges, it can be children with all sorts of different challenges. It can be to adults, it can be to school teachers, it can be to business people, sports or general people and so forth.
So rather than me feeling as though I need to teach somebody something, I feel slightly uncomfortable with that. But I do feel comfortable in saying that the door is open here and if you want to come through this door, then together we can relate to what is absolutely appropriate to your particular circumstances. And I think that’s what listening is about. I know, for example, some of the repertoire I played when I was a much younger musician absolutely felt right at the time. And now when I try to play it, it doesn’t feel right. And some of the repertoires I tried to play as a younger musician didn’t feel right and now when I play it, it actually does feel a bit better.
So again, why is this? I think it’s the same with people. When we engage with people, I don’t want to bring a system or a method to people and expect it to work. But I want people to come to us and for us to also go to them, and ask the question: what is it? So all of our consultations are bespoke. It’s very important for us to know what is the story of that person and therefore, am I the right person to be engaging with? So it’s a really open kind of discussion that we have
Beautiful approach, thank you for sharing that. I want to close with another wonderful quote of yours, which is: Society cannot continue to disable themselves through their needs to categorize people or make assumptions as of the another individual abilities
That’s wonderful because it’s what’s happening so much right now. People go on each other and get more and more divided.
Absolutely! It’s interesting when we explore new platforms. So perhaps the newest platforms are social media. And so we all have a voice, we all have the same kind of platform that we can express ourselves through. And with all of those wonderful things that can happen through social media, there’s also the yin and yang kind of effect, where there’s a lot of negative things that can come through as well. I’m a great believer… If I believe in anything, is about moderation.
It really is about moderation. You can enjoy as much as you can enjoy, but it’s about moderation. And I think it’s the same when we physically play. You described something so beautifully earlier where you mentioned a big drum that you experienced in South Korea, yet it can be played like a butterfly. We have this image of a big drum, and you feel you need to be really strong and powerful, you need big muscles and all of that sort of thing. The two seem to go together, but when we think about the opposites, it’s amazing then how things can open. It’s always trying to see underneath that surface as to what actually is there. We’re often so reactive to things, very reactive, very quick to decide on something, and you know as a musician as well, we need time, we need patience. We spend hours and hours linking one note to another note, one sound to another sound, and just let that fester for a little while, and then we try something else.
When we meet somebody or try to understand the story, this isn’t a first date. We need many dates in order to really begin to know that person. Every day we have an opportunity to do that, so every day is like a world premiere.
Yes! Evelyn, I thank you so much for taking your time to come to my podcast. Our listeners can find Evelyn on www.evelyn.co.uk
From there you will see the various social media channels, and feel free to contact us. I have a very small team, very dedicated, very approachable, very lovely team. They would be more than delighted to help in any way. And any messages that go to them can also come to me, so we’re very well connected with each other. It would be absolutely lovely to hear from anybody.
I really meant what I said. It’s a big honor to talk to you, having brought to the world what you have brought to the world.
To my listeners, please check out Evelyn’s work.
I wish you a pleasant day, and keep on groovin’.