It began with a ringing in her ears. At the age of eight Evelyn Glennie complained of sore ears and hearing loss. Three years later she got a hearing aid, but found it distracting and discarded it. A musically gifted child and a promising student of piano and clarinet, she had perfect pitch—the ability to identify or sing a note by ear. By age twelve she was profoundly deaf, meaning she could hear some sounds but the quality was extremely poor.
“I was beginning to become an angry person,” she says.
Born in Scotland in 1965, she grew up with her parents and two brothers on a farm near Aberdeen. While watching some classmates play percussion at a concert, she had a revelation. She realized it might be possible to express emotion with percussion instruments. “Everyone thinks that percussion is all about rhythm,” she says, “but every instrument is about rhythm. I was interested more in the color and emotion.
She began lessons with a percussionist who had her put her hands on the copper ball of the tympani to feel the vibrations. When he tuned two drums to different pitches, one high, one low, she learned to discriminate between higher and lower pitches. “Higher sounds are in the higher parts of your body,” she says. “Low sounds are in the lower parts of your body.”
Eventually, she learned to distinguish smaller and smaller intervals. She now perceives the quality of a note through the vibrations she feels in her hands, wrists, lower body, and feet. In 1982, after mastering various percussion instruments, she applied to the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London. She met with considerable resistance.
“There’s no solo literature for percussion,” they said, “and no one’s done it before.”
They didn’t reckon on Evelyn’s determination and single-minded sense of purpose. After being accepted by the RAM, she began practicing silently, studying the music to memorize and internalize it, a habit she continues to this day. In 1985, she graduated with honors from the Royal Academy of Music, having won RAM’s highest award, the Queen’s Commendation Prize.
Aware that her limited hearing might rule out playing in an orchestra, Evelyn set her sights on becoming a percussion soloist. In 1986, she made her debut at London’s Wigmore Hall. Subsequent television broadcasts of her virtuoso performances led to wider recognition. Her first CD, a recording of Bartok’s Sonata for two Pianos and Percussion, won her a Grammy in 1988.
In 1990, she published her autobiography, Good Vibrations. That year Modern Drummer magazine readers voted her Best Classical Percussionist. In 1993 she was awarded the OBE (Officer of the British Empire), extended in 2007 to “Dame Commander” for her services to music. She has also hosted Soundbites, a series of BBC-TV programs featuring interviews and performances with musical guests.
Evelyn owns more than 1000 percussion instruments, but when asked which instrument she would take with her if stranded on a deserted island, she said: “I think the snare drum would be my instrument. Yeah. I love the snare drum. Just me and my snare drum would be fine.”
When she began her career in 1986, solo literature for percussion was sparse. Since then she has commissioned 160 works for solo percussion. In performance she plays barefoot to feel vibrations through the floor and in her body. She performs in colorful, theatrical costumes. A mesmerizing performer, she moves with catlike grace between as few as 20 or as many as 50 instruments. Critics praise her virtuosity and musicianship.
Of her performance with the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble in 1996, the Boston Globe music critic wrote: “She has technical command, timbral imagination and theatrical flair. [Her encore] was astounding for concentration, velocity, rhythmic clarity and impetus, and for the variety of sounds she could draw from two sticks and one drum. The end was heralded by an extended crescendo, which Glennie then surpassed by an equally extended, perfectly gauged diminuendo into silence.”
Of her Town Hall performance in New York City in 2005, the New York Times music critic said: “A snare solo [Prim] might seem an unpromising prospect, but ... always an energetic and intensely focused performer, [Glennie] made the work’s rolls, rhythmic patterns and hard thwacks into something both musical and dramatic.”
You can read much more about Evelyn--and watch her perform!--on my website.
I think we should make every month Women’s History Month! Why stop with one?