DAME EVELYN GLENNIE TEACHES THE WORLD TO LISTEN

Dame Evelyn Glennie on Marimba
Evelyn on Marimba – image credit James Wilson

Dame Evelyn Glennie has been a patron of Create since 2007. Performing worldwide with the greatest orchestras, conductors and artists, Dame Evelyn Glennie’s solo recordings, which now exceed 30 CDs, are as diverse as her career on-stage. A double GRAMMY award winner and BAFTA nominee, Evelyn is a composer for film, television and music library companies. She was awarded an OBE in 1993 and has over 100 international awards to date, including the Polar Music Prize and the Companion of Honour.

How have your early experiences with sound or music shaped you as an artist?

Evelyn Glennie as a young girl on the farm
Evelyn as a young girl on the farm

I am a farmer’s daughter so when I was little my orchestra was the farm. I was hearing so many different types of sound on the farm: machinery, livestock, weather, my little green barrow with the squeaky wheel. I remember cycling around the farm with tins in my pockets and putting different things in the tins: different amounts of stones or different sizes of stones or pennies. I would go rattling around the farm scaring the animals. 

“When I was little my orchestra was the farm.”

I think those early experiences did form, perhaps without me knowing at the time, a kind of sound landscape that needed patience. I was in an environment where you can’t force anything and it’s very much dependent on natural circumstances. I think that patience really served me well as a musician and being open to those sound qualities has allowed me to experiment. As a percussion player, I’m dealing with so many different instruments. Valuing both expensive and inexpensive things has also shaped me. I can get a lot of enjoyment using found objects and allowing my imagination to run wild.

Asking people to think about their sound environment and how connected they are to that can actually play a part in what you create. I’m always thinking what my sound environment is.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you began to hear sounds through your body?

I think it’s different for every person. As a youngster, I was wearing hearing aids and still assumed that music or sound went through your ears. I was desperate to put my hearing aids up to have everything louder and that affected my sense of touch. I knew that I was a relatively sensitive musician but I found that my sensitivity was being thrown out the window because I was so desperate to hear it how I remembered.

Dame Evelyn Glennie - Image credit Philipp Rathmer
Dame Evelyn Glennie – image credit Philipp Rathmer

This started to change when my percussion teacher struck a drum. He just stood still for a moment and then said, “my gosh the drum resonates! There’s the attack, then the journey of that sound and then it disappears”. He said, “well maybe our bodies also resonate” and he started striking a timpani [kettledrum] and asked me to place my hands on the wall of the music room. I could feel the resonance with a part of my hand. He then played a timpani of a different pitch and, low and behold, there’s just a subtle difference in how I felt the resonance. My teacher began making the intervals much closer until there were just tiny, tiny differences. I was learning the difference between hearing something and listening to something. I was listening to the impact and then giving myself time to digest the resonance.

It was as though the sun came up from the horizon. It lifted this frustration that was building in me. I had no idea I would ever become a professional musician in those days, but I knew that if I couldn’t find a way then music would simply just not be for me. So I was very grateful for that avenue and possibility.

“My teacher began making the intervals much closer until there were just tiny, tiny differences. I was learning the difference between hearing something and listening to something.”

Dame Evelyn Glennie - Image credit Caroline Purday
Dame Evelyn Glennie – image credit Caroline Purday

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We love your Book ‘Listen World’. Who did you write it for and who do you want to read it?

The Listen World book is bringing together a lot of the writings, speeches and presentations I’ve done. It’s targeted towards teenagers because I think that’s an age when we can close ourselves off in many respects and yet we’re eager to look out and be open. There’s this tussle going on with our feelings when we’re teenagers. They need to be listened to. Even if there are very few words coming out of teenagers, ultimately they want to be listened to. That doesn’t mean you need to agree with everything they say but listening is at the crux of development. I felt the book might be useful to them.

What is the difference between listening and hearing?

Listening, for me, is not connected with sound. Listening is paying attention to all the ingredients that are around you: listening to the environment that you’re in and how it is connected to yourself and the people you’re with. Hearing is something that can be measured, but listening … someone can be as deaf as anything and they can be an excellent listener. I think that’s the main difference for me. Sometimes if I give a masterclass, you can have a youngster who picks sticks up and you can almost immediately sense what the sound will be by how the sticks have been picked up and what the posture of the body is. All of this plays a part in what you think the sound might be before anything is struck.

That’s why the work of Create is so incredible, because it’s bringing people together in their environment and listening to what they need and what’s inside them. That’s what I try to do as a performer.

“Listening, for me, is not connected with sound. Listening is paying attention to all the ingredients that are around you: listening to the environment that you’re in and how it is connected to yourself and the people you’re with.”

Dame Evelyn Glennie - Image credit Philipp Rathmer
Dame Evelyn Glennie – image credit Philipp Rathmer

What advice would you give to someone who might feel limited about their ability to participate and get involved in the world of creativity?

I don’t know what advice I would give but I do know that we can all feel limited. We can feel slightly doubtful of ourselves, even in musical situations. I’ve been in this industry for so many years but I have doubts sometimes. It’s just taking that first step. As a musician, if I’m contracted to learn a piece of music I begin by just looking at the first phrase or the first bar. Even if it takes half an hour, you can build from that first step. It’s the persistence and the realisation that you can handle it in bitesize bits.

Why do you think creativity is important in terms of wellbeing and self-expression?

Creativity is the connector between one person and another. If someone has been thwarted in their creativity, the ripples from that are enormous. It’s unforgivable really. I think we’re born as creative people, you just have to look at a tiny little baby and how they manipulate their bodies and how they become curious to everything and how everything is approachable. That’s what I want to keep as a musician: I can’t imagine being a musician and not being curious or experimenting. Creativity isn’t about right or wrong, it’s about finding out about yourself and your environment and other people. That’s why I love the name Create, it’s such a great name because it’s easy to say, it’s easy to read and it’s so relevant to all age groups and all demographics right across the world.

“Creativity isn’t about right or wrong, it’s about finding out about yourself and your environment and other people.”

For many people, music is something you listen to in your free time. But as a professional musician what do you do to relax?

Dame Evelyn Glennie - Image credit Jim Callaghan
Dame Evelyn Glennie – image credit Jim Callaghan

When I deal with music it’s as my profession so overload is something I try to avoid. In my spare time, I like to garden, go to antique fairs and get on my bike and go off exploring. I also like to metal detect. I found a little brass buckle once in a garden of a 250-year-old cottage. I’m trying to persuade my oldest brother to let me metal detect at his farm at the moment. I find lots of old bits. Bits of gates, horseshoes galore. Nails of all different sizes. I absolutely love that you can do it in all weathers. You can do it by yourself or with other people … it’s a bit like being a musician really.  

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You’ve been a Create Patron since 2007. What inspired you to be part of the Create journey?

I really resonate with the work that Create does. We all own creativity and we’re all creative. But what we don’t all have is the opportunity to express our creativity. That’s where Create comes in and that’s what inspired me to become a Patron.

Create connects with so many different people and I find that really interesting. You develop projects by listening to the people you’re connecting with. You really make sure you understand who you’re connecting with to get the best long-term results. I love the fact that Create plants a lot of seeds and I feel really privileged to be connected with the charity. 

We all have one thing in common: we listen.

Evelyn interviewed Create CEO Nicky Goulder for the Evelyn Glennie Podcast, watch the interview here.