My best teacher - Evelyn Glennie

10th April 2009 at 01:00
A no nonsense taskmaster taught the percussionist to paint pictures with sound

It's a toss-up between my percussion teacher and my class music teacher. I went to Ellon Academy, about 15 miles north of Aberdeen, and every first year had an oral test to find out if they were musical. My hearing at the time was poor, so I scored a pretty low mark, but I'd been learning piano from the age of eight and wanted to have another instrument to go alongside it. I asked to have percussion lessons. At first they said no, but I kept pressing and after a few months they said there might be an opening.

Ron Forbes was the peripatetic percussion teacher and he asked me to do a couple of things, which I did fairly easily because I was used to reading music, so he sent me home with a snare drum, but no stand and no sticks.

I started tapping it and pinching it and scraping it, and the next week he asked how I'd got on. I said I didn't know. He said: "Now create the sound of a storm. Now create the sound of a whisper." Suddenly I had this picture I had to put into sound. This opened up my world. It was the best lesson I ever had. After that it was just constant exploration.

The instruments at school were really basic, so we had to make a lot out of them. At every school concert we were given the opportunity to perform, in solos, duos and ensembles.

When I was 16, I decided I wanted to be a professional musician, and I thought the world was full of solo percussionists. Those opportunities at school were key to forging my career, and Mr Forbes was an integral part of that whole mindset.

He was an Army chap, hugely good-looking, lovely coloured hair and so well turned-out. He took us down to the Schools Prom at the Royal Albert Hall. It was my first time in London and it took forever on the bus, but the experience was unbelievable. I owe a lot to him.

It wasn't a school where you felt unbelievable pressure to perform; there was a good balance between creativity and sharing. The pupils would play alongside the teachers in the orchestra, and very often the good pupils were better than the teachers. We were given a lot of responsibility, and that can fill you with confidence. We did a lot of performing. My mum still goes to school concerts.

Then there was my class music teacher Hamish Park. He realised that I really enjoyed composing in the style of Scottish traditional music. One week he would write a piece, the next week I would, and we would compare each other's work. At the end of term he always made sure one of my pieces was performed, but I had to orchestrate it, write the parts out and conduct it. If you can imagine the feeling a young person gets when their music is played - I can still feel it now.

Hamish Park gave so much to the school. He was a real taskmaster. Discipline was everything and he stood for no nonsense in class. He made sure homework was done, and because he gave so much of his own time he expected that sort of discipline and focus in the classroom.

He was very gracious with his time and he was always good with parents. He was an old-fashioned shirt-and-tie man, well-groomed, authoritative, and you had complete respect for him. I kept in touch with him, but he died several years ago.

Mr Forbes retired to Crete 15 years ago and he hasn't been replaced. It's a real shame because you need to have somebody to switch you on, to fish around for that thing that makes you tick.

Dame Evelyn Glennie is a solo percussionist and composer who has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12. She is a patron of Artis, which sends performing arts specialists into schools to stimulate creativity. Visit She was talking to Nick Morrison.

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