Tuned in to a soloist's life
Evelyn Glennie's life story is featured in one of the plays at this year's festival. She talks to Julie Morrice about her career as a professional solo percussionist
If you visit Evelyn Glennie's website you get some idea of the extraordinary life of an international musical star. Below a colourful map of the world you can click open her concert schedule until May 2003. Last month she was in North America at the end of a 10-week tour which took her zigzagging across the continent like a hyperactive bee. One night, an opera gala in Los Angeles, the next giving a world premi re performance in Chicago. Then New York, Buffalo, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Alabama, New Mexico, with a final flourish in Winnipeg. Just scrolling down the list gives you jet lag.
She is spending one day at home in Cambridgeshire before heading off to Madrid at the start of a European tour. Her summer will be spent dotting between Zurich, Dresden and Cardiff, with a month in Australasia sandwiched in between.
When I telephone, the office is in turmoil because a lorry-load of marimbas and glockenspiels is running late for the ferry to Spain. But when we finally talk, her still-couthie Aberdeenshire accent and her down-to-earth manner are as homely and calm as if she had never left that corner of the world.
The north-east beginnings of Glennie's life are explored in Playing from the Heart, a play which has been running at the Bank of Scotland Children's International Theatre Festival in Edinburgh this week. It deals with the crisis that envelops a family when they find their eight-year-old daughter is losing her hearing and shows the determination and vision that allow a profoundly deaf child to become a professional musician.
Glennie is delighted with it. "When I went to the first performance in London, I had a whole mixture of feelings. I was quite emotional and yet I felt calm, almost detached," she says. "I found myself thinking about what the rest of the audience must be feeling. With most biographical plays you're dealing with history, but to have the subject still there, alive and kicking ..." She trails off.
Glennie hopes the play is more than just her story. "It's about trying to open as many doors as possible. It's relevant to anyone who is striving for something."
Alive and kicking could almost describe Glennie's musical style. Single-handedly she has brought percussion off the back shelf of the orchestra, inventing the solo percussionist as a centre-stage performer and inspiring comosers to create concertos for the panoply of drums, bells and xylophones that make up her instrument.
"I'm naturally interested in the theatrical side," she says. "I want all the senses to be fed. I want to give the audience more than just an aural experience."
In the occasional workshops she does with young people she is less concerned with technique than with giving them the chance to experiment. "They should be painting and creating through sound. The main technique for them is to use their imagination."
Her early musical education was brought on by Ron Forbes, her percussion teacher at Ellon Academy, and her class music teacher, Hamish Park. "They both brought out the best from all their pupils. They found a way to expose our interests and encourage them."
Scottish traditional tunes were the first music Glennie knew. Her father played the accordion by ear and her mother played organ and piano. At school, Glennie was encouraged to write pieces in a traditional Scottish style. "I built up a body of music and then, for Christmas or summer concerts, I would have to orchestrate the pieces and then direct and conduct the school orchestra. I had to see the piece the whole way through."
Glennie is concerned that such opportunities are no longer available to pupils. "My percussion teacher retired seven or eight years ago and no one has filled that post. Schools in the north-east are not receiving percussion tuition. Who knows what talent is being missed. That's a huge concern of mine. We have had an amazing system of music education and we're destroying it."
If anyone ever showcased the quality of Scottish music education, it is Glennie. It would have been easy to have stifled the ambition of a profoundly deaf pupil, yet she found encouragement.
Having achieved her ambition of becoming a professional musician, Glennie says that her deafness is now no more important than the colour of her hair.
"The deafness has been so emphasised by the media, but it's important for me to concentrate on the music. The play deals with the situation of an eight-year-old who is desperate to play music and communicate through music. That is not who I am now."
I ask her what she is most proud of having achieved. "Just doing what I do, being a solo percussionist," she replies. "That's what I set out to do and I wake up each morning and I know I'm able to do that. Everything else is an extension of that."
Playing from the Heart is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until tomorrow, June 2, tel 0131 248 4848Evelyn Glennie is in Shadow Show, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, July 7www.evelyn.co.uk