How We Met: James Blades and Evelyn Glennie

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James Blades, OBE, born in Peterborough in 1901, began his musical career playing in orchestras for silent films, before joining the London Symphony Orchestra. He became professor of timpani and percussion at the Royal Academy of Music in 1960. Now retired, he lives with his wife, Joan, in Surrey.

Evelyn Glennie, OBE, was born in Aberdeen in 1965. Although she has been deaf since her early teens, she entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1982 and has become the world's only full-time professional solo percussionist. She lives in Cambridgeshire with her husband, Greg Malcangi.

JAMES BLADES: I first met Evelyn Glennie in Aberdeen in 1980. I was touring Scotland giving talks on percussion. I was particularly impressed by the performance of one girl, possibly 14 or 15 years of age. Ron Forbes, Evelyn's first percussion teacher, introduced her, saying: 'This is my pupil, Evelyn Glennie, and she is deaf.' To say this surprised me is an understatement.

I was further surprised by her expertise when she joined me in a duet for timpani and a piece for two snare drums. I said to her at the time: 'You must come to London when you are a little older.'

My next meeting with Evelyn was in 1982. This was arranged by Anne Rachlin, the founder of the Beethoven Fund for Deaf Children, who told me of a remarkable young person who, though profoundly deaf and in spite of friendly advice against it, was determined to become a professional percussionist. I was asked to assess her potential and she came to my Cheam studio. It was explained to me that I could converse with her normally due to her power of lip-reading. I recognised Evelyn as the girl I had met in Aberdeen. I asked her to play a rather busy piece for two snare drums, a composition of my own called 'Kopy Kat', which she did, immaculately, at sight. Her sight- reading and performance on the xylophone and vibraphone were uncanny. Her expertise, her charm and her determination left me in no doubt. She was already a 'pro' and would make an exceptional one.

I suggested she should consider studying where she had friends, to which she replied that she had many friends at the Royal Academy of Music. And so, in 1982, she became my student - or I hers. We became and remain firm friends.

Soon after she began at the Royal Academy, I invited her to join me in demonstrations that I was giving to young children. Her stage presentation and friendly approach made an instant appeal, and she was soon launched as a recitalist.

We appeared together often as percussion duettists on television. On one programme I was interviewed and said: 'She will make

history.' She certainly has - never more so than on her solo appearance on a BBC prom. The announcer closed the recital by saying: 'James Blades said she would make history, and she has made it this evening.'

Richard Stilgoe invited Evelyn and me to give a talk to a group of variously handicapped children. I let Evelyn take the complete lead. She immediately made every one of these children, all with various disabilities, feel completely at home. As well as her expertise she has a personality that is infectious.

In 1985 we journeyed together to Los Angeles, where Evelyn was to appear as a soloist at the annual Convention of the Percussive Arts Society of America. My part was to present her and join her in one or two short works. The hit of the programme was Evelyn's composition for marimba, 'A Little Prayer'. Evelyn's playing stunned the audience. There was dead silence for a few seconds afterwards, followed by a standing ovation. Many of the listeners were in tears - Evelyn and myself likewise.

On her This Is Your Life appearance I closed the programme by saying: 'If you continue to charm the world with your expertise, why not Dame Evelyn?'

EVELYN GLENNIE: When I first met James I was about 14 years old and he was giving a big percussion workshop in Aberdeen - I was just one among the rest. I didn't know what to expect. I thought: 'This could be boring.' But in fact he totally captivated us. He had us in the palm of his hand. I was fascinated.

I happened to be one of the ones chosen to go up and play and try instruments out with him, and it was unbelievable, his power of communication. I rushed home and told my parents about it - it was quite an experience. In fact, it was one of the turning points of my life.

Percussion was still a hobby for me at the time, but two years later I decided to audition for a couple of colleges, the Royal Academy and the Royal College. That was when I next met James. He remembered me and invited me to his house for an audition. We went through to his little studio - I'd never seen so many percussion instruments in one place, and I was fascinated. It was very difficult for me to concentrate - while he was giving me the audition I was trying to play and look around at the same time - but it was great. At that age, when I was only 16, I was pretty shy, and it was difficult to see myself being friends with him, especially with that kind of age gap - there's about 64 years between us. But I was still totally fascinated by him. I hadn't really figured that we'd be friends, but seeing his way with people I thought, well, I'm not going to forget him in a hurry.

I then became his pupil at the Royal Academy, and that was great. Most of all, he was the one who really believed I could follow a solo career as a percussionist. Everyone else around me said: 'Oh, you can't do that, there isn't a repertoire, there isn't a role model.' But he always said: 'You go for it,' and supported me by finding the repertoire. He introduced me to the States as well. We travelled together there in 1985, which was wonderful.

I think without James I would still have had that internal determination to follow a solo career, but he was just unbelievably supportive. That was so important, especially from someone who was so senior. He never became out of date with music. Although he may not have been able any longer to show me what to do because his hands wouldn't function any more, his knowledge was incredible and his enthusiasm and his desire to learn more gave me the inspiration to go on. I thoroughly believed in him.

We also became close friends, and that's something that will be there for ever now. I'll never lose that; I wouldn't want to lose it. It's very special.

We keep in touch a lot by letter and I try to see him whenever I can. And I respect the way he has so much history. He's experienced so much. For someone to have worked with Stravinsky or Benjamin Britten, for me, that is amazing.

James has been very individual in his own musical growth, and he's been such a part of the growth of percussion. I feel part of the chain; he has taken percussion to such a level and I'm taking it to another level, just as someone will take it to another level after me, and so on. There is this feeling of transmission that is very strong between us - he has given me the knowledge and the inspiration to carry on.

I suppose I've helped to bring percussion to people's attention, but James really brought the word to people's lips, planted it in their awareness. So many people come up to me and say: 'Oh, the only other percussionist I know is called James Blades,' or: 'I remember when James Blades came to our school and gave a lecture on percussion.' It's unbelievable the number of people who tell me about this. I'm always stunned at it: they remember the occasion, even if it was years ago - even if they aren't musicians.

(Photograph omitted)

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