How I got where I am today: Evelyn Glennie

Published: 06 Mar 2015

Dame Evelyn Glennie has been a pioneer ever since taking her first footsteps into a musical career. From her early days at Ellon Academy, the 49-year-old has racked up an astonishing array of ‘firsts’, awards and accolades, including 15 honorary doctorates, an OBE and latterly a damehood.

Her profound deafness has made the headlines throughout her life, but here she tells Andrew Youngson about what she considers the far greater challenge she has had to tackle – forging a career path that didn’t previously exist.

When did music start to feel like a potential career path for you?
I think probably when I was at school in Ellon Academy, every child had the chance to learn an instrument free of charge. I had already been playing the piano and clarinet up until that point, but it was wonderful to see the opportunities within the school – the orchestra, the band, choir, recorder group and so on. So that really fuelled my interest a lot more.

What have been your career stepping stones?
I think really, it has to start with belief, that’s the first thing. So for me, it was very important to keep the aim simple. The aim of ‘I want to be a solo percussionist’ – that was it, rather than trying to put too much on your shoulders. That meant that it is very clear for everyone around me. Because success doesn’t happen in isolation. It’s a team effort.

Dame Evelyn Glennie

So what happened next?
Because the career did not exist – there was no such thing as a solo percussionist back then – I knew I had to practice the art of creating your own opportunities. The amount of time I would spend practising, meant I had to also spend an equal amount of time creating opportunities, because they weren’t going to come to me just because I did eight hours of practice.

How did you create your own opportunities?
It basically meant things like, looking up as many of the amateur orchestras in London – because I was studying in London by that time – and play with them in the percussion section.

And then at the end of the rehearsal or concert I would ask the conductor, ‘have you ever thought about performing a percussion concerto?’ And they would always say, ‘are there any?’ And I would say ‘yes’. So that was planting seeds really, until one of them said, ‘OK we might consider that’. It only takes one person to start the snowball.

So that was one of the things. But the other was, I obviously realised there was very little repertoire. So I bought the British Music Yearbook which listed many composers and I wrote letters by hand – this was before e-mail – and asked if they would write a piece for me.

What I hadn’t realised was they needed to be paid for that. So that then launched me into the world of commissioning, which I knew nothing about.

Did it work?
Well, one thing slowly led to another. Some composers said ‘thank you but no thank you’, others said ‘absolutely, and my fee is X, Y and Z’, and others said ‘I’ll write you a short two- or three-minute piece for you’.

What I ended up with was a whole selection of pieces, many of them short, that I could use for workshops, demonstrations, lecture demonstrations, radio appearances, after-dinner appearances and things like that where people just want little ditty pieces. That gave me much more experience of performing.

When did you start to get noticed far and wide?
I was in an unusual position, because during my student days I had two pretty major television profiles made – one was for ITV called ‘Good Vibrations’ and the other was for the BBC, called ‘The Will to Win’.

Not every student has that possibility, so that was unusual, and it meant that the general public were aware of me.

What about key performances that helped propel your career?
It’s hard to pick key performances because they were all firsts. For example, in 1989 I gave the first ever percussion recital in the history of the Proms, and in 1992, it was the first ever percussion concerto in the history of the Proms.

So in a way, every performance was a stepping stone, and you had to see that a little workshop for five-year-olds was just as important as playing at the Albert Hall or something.

Being a pioneer must be energising. How much did that motivate you?
Very much so, because there was a sense of being on a mission. There was a purpose and a clear aim.

It was about making sure that, whoever came along next saying they wanted to be a solo percussionist, no-one was going to pooh-pooh them.

Are there any mistakes you would address given a second chance?
I’m pretty even keeled about that sort of thing. The main mistake was a financial one. When I bought my first ever one-bedroom flat in London, I just paid the asking price because that’s what we did in Scotland. The estate agent probably thought I came from heaven that day. (Laughs).
And the other thing also was: don’t assume that people are doing a good job. You can’t micro-manage everything, but you need to keep a good overview, and keep communication going so you have a good understanding of what’s going on. Because I’ve been bitten by agents in the past with finances and it all came from assuming they were doing the right thing.

You have a great team around you now. But how self-directed can you be?
It’s always important to have control of your own career, and to have your own direction. It has to be steered by the individual, but it’s completely essential to have a team of people who are right for the roles they are in.

You’ve led such a busy career all over the world. How do you avoid exhaustion?
In the early part of my career it was a process of saying ‘yes yes yes’ to everything, but it was about finding that peak when it feels like, ‘you know what? This is too much now’.

And that’s a good point to get to, because then you can take a step back and look at things, and think, ‘what can I weed out here’? Because, ultimately, everything you get an opportunity to do, you have got to ask yourself, ‘can I make a difference?’ And if you can’t, then don’t accept it. Give yourself space, and don’t feel guilty about it.

This is your 50th year. What are you looking to go on to do next?
What I’m trying to do is bring everything I’ve done in the past and bring it together under one umbrella. The aim is to create a centre called, ‘Teach the World to Listen’, because that has been the spine of my whole career really.

What will the ethos of the centre be?
Because of the diverse projects and people I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with over the years, you realise that listening affects everybody.

It starts with listening while the baby is in the womb, and it ends with listening. It affects every business, every relationship and every household. All of the decisions you make stem from listening to yourself – your internal chatter.

I think we’re losing the ability to really listen, and I feel that this is an opportunity where I can bring together the musicianship side, the instrument collection, the realisation that listening affects us all, and to run workshops, lectures, performances and therapy.

That sounds fantastic, and really brings everything you are about together. Looking back at your career, what achievements are you most proud of?
What I’m most proud of is being able to sustain the career, and being able to put it in a position whereby nobody can question whether it’s possible.

Things like awards and so on are important things to happen too, and help you stop and look at the landscape. And they also give you that motivation to keep going.

But I remember when the damehood came along, and people just assumed, ‘well that’s the end of the career’. And I got very annoyed at that. Why do we assume such a thing? This is just the first step and aim that’s been taken care of. So now it’s on to the second aim, which for me is the centre.

So retirement isn’t on the cards?
Now that we’re living longer, the sense of retirement doesn’t have the same connotations. It’s just not on my radar. It feels completely normal to think, ‘you may live to 100, and you may still be working at that point’. Thinking that is so important because it keeps you flexible and motivated.


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