Interview with Philip Howells - Percussionist of BSO Resound

Posted on: 10 June 2020

'Seeing Evelyn Glennie perform on a set of
flowerpots while vocalising an impromptu sequenza, set my imagination on fire”

 

Philip Howells is a percussionist and a member of the Royal Philharmonic Society Award-winning ensemble BSO Resound, the disabled-led ensemble at the core of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Philip spoke to us about his journey into music and how he looks after his instruments whilst maintaining a busy performing career.  

How did your journey into music begin? Who introduced you to it and which instrument did you begin with?

I was introduced to the music of the British composer Gustav Holst at the age of five: the first CD I listened to was The Planet’s Suite alongside Edward Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance, recorded by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. As a child, I also watched a BBC programme called Music Time and I remember the show featuring segments where you have to clap to the beat — it turns out that I was spot on!  From that point, my parents decided to buy me a junior drum kit and that was the very first instrument I played...and destroyed. I was far from ready to take on the musical world!

I began learning music at the age of 11 whilst attending a comprehensive school in Pembroke. I studied with two teachers at the time: Roger Phillips (drums) and Melanie Walker (tuned percussion) they helped assist me in learning and mastering both instruments. Believe it or not, I managed to take up cornet before I got a chance to find my true calling on percussion and at one time, even the trombone! Learning both of those instruments was short-lived however as my ears would end up hurting when I attempted to play a note.

When did you realise that a life in music was what you wanted?

It would have to be when I went to Cardiff to attend the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama Brass & Percussion Workshop. I spent a week with percussionists Simone Rubello and Nick Baron, brass band conductor Dr. Robert Childs and jazz pianist Keith Tippett. The week culminated in a final performance, where I played as part of the Buy As You View Band (a.k.a. Cory Band). The band made so much noise that I’d almost gone deaf! There were moments that stood out to me — in particular, it was the first time I got a chance to conduct. I find it hard to look back at the videos of my “conducting prowess” as I just end up laughing in how badly I botched up gestures and giving players cues! It was from that point that I began to take part in more ensembles to help expand my horizons. I was asked to be involved in brass bands, I joined a percussion ensemble, applied for National Youth ensembles and was featured on the BBC for being self-taught on the piano. Spending a week at the RWCMD certainly made an impact in how I was going to move forward.

Philip owns a lot of percussion instruments and is still collecting more. © Kevin Clifford

Tell us about the instruments you play…

There are quite a lot of percussion instruments that I own… and I’m still collecting more!

  • The marimba is the instrument that I primarily gig with: it’s a lovely instrument with notes made out of wood, with resonators suspended underneath to amplify the sound. My parents bought the four-octave Adams marimba for me back in 2006, and I was hooked to practice on it ever since. Recently, I travelled to London for a Kolberg five-octave marimba, and it was a beast to try out! It was hard collapsing it and fitting it into the car! If I’m performing at a particular venue, I make sure to carry the four-octave marimba with me as it is easier to set up and collapse without worrying about its condition.
  • The first piece I played on the vibraphone was Blues for Gilbert by Mark Glentworth. A vibraphone has the same design as the marimba but the notes are made out of metal which allows it to create a sustained sound. This sound is created by the pedal underneath which you can control by using your feet, similar to a piano pedal. I managed to purchase my own vibraphone when I was in Manchester on an open percussion day event.
  • I remember playing a piece entitled Helter Skelter, with the Goodwick Brass Band, on the xylophone and it received such applause from the public! I’d started having xylophone lessons back in 2002, alongside the glockenspiel, and bought an Adams model xylophone to continue further: it was the model that I used until I started studying at Trinity Laban. Eventually a change of xylophones was necessary: I bought a new Majestic xylophone after I was impressed with the Majestic snare drum. I have tried out at Ev-entz and was quite impressed with the frame design and the pitch-perfect sound, along with the snare drum
  • The timpani are a set of kettle drums, and I’d like to own a full set of four. My first lesson on the timpani was with Phil Girling at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama: those lessons were in preparation for an audition at Trinity Laban and fortunately, they paid off well! Every single day spent at the college I was preoccupied with the timpani set in all its glory.
  • The drum kit is also another instrument I primarily gig with, especially with bands. The first drum kit I had was a second-hand drum kit which was bought locally. It was a red drum kit and one of the earliest memory I had with it was drumming to ABBA’s Does Your Mother Know at school, alongside Stereophonics Have A Nice Day: every time I hear this song play on the radio, it always takes me back. I now play drums in a band alongside a bass player, electric guitarist and a vocalist.

Although I’m a percussionist, I take the time to learn other instruments, including the piano and the ukulele. I have been self-taught on the piano since 2005 and I am learning how to play like Debussy in a way! My family has an upright Petrof piano that I practice on when I have plenty of time to myself to help cool down and de-stress whenever I have a bad day. The piano has been my coping mechanism and has become my backup instrument for gigs and concerts. After receiving a ukulele as a Christmas present I began to try it out, joining a ukulele club and learning more chords; I also started figuring out finger placements for each chord, which I was more accustomed to on the piano.

 

How do you take care of your instruments as a busy performer? What can go wrong with percussion instruments if you don’t look after them?

As a musician, I take care of the instruments that I carry with me everywhere I go. Occasionally I’ve spotted people neglect their instruments, for instance not taking good care of them during transport. In one instance, I turn up on time for a rehearsal and spotted a drink on the drums — it set me off, that did!

One rule: never let other people you don’t trust help you. There have been occurrences when the cords break due to being overstretched after being collapsed and set up — it’s always good to prepare replacement cords in case such a matter arises when you’re playing in a concert and the inevitable happens. When I’m transporting tuned percussion, I find that it’s best to protect every single part of the instrument either with blankets, cushions or even cases to preserve their condition on the go. If I don’t protect my equipment, who know how many scratches and bumps those instruments develop!

Philip enjoys introducing percussion to school children with BSO Resound. © Deep South Media

Is there a performer who inspired (or inspires) you?

This is quite a tough question because there are several performers, musicians and professionals that I have been inspired by!

In terms of marimba players, Nebojsa Jovan Zivkovic. His selection of pieces were the first I practised on marimba, and his repertoire has left an impact in how I perform on marimba with 4 mallets. Plus, one of his pieces features a solo djembe so, here’s another instrument to collect!

I met Ney Rosauro at the Royal Northern College of Music, and he kindly autographed one of his own pieces that I own. I was heavily inspired by Keiko Abe. Her repertoire requires a lot of concentration and attention to musical detail: in every concert, I always make sure to include at least one Keiko Abe piece to play.

And finally, Evelyn Glennie. The first time I saw her live was at Folly Farm Theatre in Begelly, Wales. Seeing her perform on a set of flowerpots while vocalising an impromptu sequenza set my imagination on fire. She was the sole reason behind my love for percussion over other musical families.


Finally, you perform such a range of repertoire (from BSO Resound to brass bands and percussion ensembles) tell us about one or two of your most memorable performances…

I have played in so many performances during the past 19 years, I feel old having to remember them all! There are a few memorable performances that do stick out to me.

Performing at the BBC Proms twice in a decade has felt important. In 2012, I performed as part of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, in collaboration with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, in Leonard Bernstein’s Mass — it was quite a big production as the piece featured a blues band, children choirs, a set of singers and two orchestras. Although I played a small role, in my mind, it is not inconsequential: the performance meant so much to me moving forward. In 2018, I was a part of BSO Resound with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra during a Relaxed Concert. It felt nostalgic to once again fall into the cusp of being a part of a big orchestra and really display my skills as a percussionist. I think Mr Tumble also agrees!

Another memorable performance that stands out was performing Bartok’s Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion at the Harwich Festival in St. Nicholas Church. I performed this piece as part of the Trinity Laban Percussion Ensemble and lugging all that percussion to the event was certainly an exhausting effort! There have been long rehearsals with the pianists, breaking down every section of the piece, rearranging the percussion setup and working with another percussionist to share instruments to tackle this hard task. I found all of this quite a challenge (I like a good challenge), but in the end the audience loved it!

 

BSO Resound is supported by Allianz Musical Insurance in its mission to inspire the next generation of disabled talent through its performances and workshops across the South West and beyond. Find out more about BSO Resound and the ensemble’s forthcoming performances.



BSO Resound is supported by Allianz Musical Insurance in its mission to inspire the next generation of disabled talent

 

 

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