Evelyn Glennie: Meet One of the World’s Best Percussionists

Evelyn Glennie the percussionist
Glennie in action! Image courtesy of Graham House.

There’s much more to Dame Evelyn Glennie than being one of the world’s top solo drummers and an awesome lady. Born in 1965, since the age of 12 she’s been profoundly deaf.

To get around this disability, she usually plays barefoot so she can feel the vibrations and better understand the flow of her performance.

All incredibly impressive! And she’s happily still performing to this day.

On the Brilliance of Evelyn Glennie

Glennie was in Methlick, Aberdeenshire, to a musical family. Her father played the accordion in a Scottish country band.

And it’s these north-east Scotland music traditions that were important for her early development, with her first instruments being the mouth organ and clarinet.

Glennie began losing her hearing at the age of eight due to nerve deterioration.

After seeing a doctor, she was fitted with hearing aids and told to attend the Aberdeen School of the Deaf (which she refused, instead remaining with a mainstream school).

And it’s this that led her to get a better understanding of sound. As she explains in Deaf, sound, and music:

“From the age of 11 and during my school days I wore hearing aids and a phonic ear in the classrooms. However, I discovered that turning up the volume on hearing aids made the quality of hearing not always better but often more confusing. At first, I thought the only way to hear better was for everything to be louder, and of course, that was not the case at all. When things become louder, they actually became distorted and confusing. Everything was much more painful to decipher and my balance was affected. I learnt that by taking off my hearing aids I heard less through the ears but much more through my body. My body acted like a resonating chamber.”

The idea of a musician losing their hearing makes for a dramatic and profound consideration. Obviously, there’s Beethoven’s hearing issues as a famous comparison.

But it’s also a topic explored in films such as It’s All Gone Pete Tong (2004). And in 2019, Sound of Metal is another recent example. Hollywood loves the idea of an underdog overcoming (or dealing with) adversity.

She explained her stance in her 2015 Hearing Essay:

“My hearing is something that bothers other people far more than it bothers me. There are a couple of inconveniences but in general it doesn’t affect my life much. For me, my deafness is no more important than the fact I am female with brown eyes. Sure, I sometimes have to find solutions to problems regarding my hearing and its relation to music, but so do all musicians. Most of us know very little about hearing, even though we do it all the time. Likewise, I don’t know very much about deafness. What’s more, I’m not particularly interested. I remember one occasion when, uncharacteristically, I became upset with a reporter for constantly asking questions only about my deafness. I said ‘if you want to know about deafness, you should interview an audiologist. My speciality is music’.”

So, yes, it’s clear she takes the approach of working around (and with) her hearing issues.

And this has helped her developed a unique style of playing. Again, she’s got a lack of footwear throughout her playing. As she’s said:

“I perform barefoot. This allows me to feel the vibrations through my feet. In fact my whole body is like a huge ear in that I can use it to register rhythms, textures, dynamics and so on. Pitches can be registered by feeling them if they are played in isolation.”

To watch her, you’ll see she’s typically standing up, very active, and moving around a wide range of drums. Behold!

Bear in mind your average drummer just sits behind a kit going “dun dun, clank, dun dun, clank”. That’s what most drummers do. It’s boring.

Glennie is way beyond that, she’s essentially a percussionist meets performance artist.

She’s famous for the range of sounds she can get out of, for example, a snare drum. Some of her shows have consisted of her, a snare, and letting her skill set rip.

But there’s also educational material going on, as the percussionist encourages you all to go out there and thrash out a beat.

You don’t need a drum kit. You just need some household implements and things to bash them with. Have a gander.

Glennie is very popular, too, often getting rapturous applause for just turning up to places. Whether that’s a symphonic orchestra or for a theatre production.

But she puts her all into it, wherever she is in the world, such as with this performance for the Orquesta Filarmónica de Medellin in Medellin in Colombia.

This gets going from the two minute mark with some serious welly.

The awards have come thick and fast over the last 30 years, ranging from the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Best Soloist of the Year (1991) through to Rhythm Magazine’s Best Studio and Live Percussionist in 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2004.

To which you might say, “Yes, so what? I drummed my fingers on a desk last week!”

Well, more recently she bagged the Best Classical Instrumental Solo at the Grammy Awards in 2014 and the Polar Music Prize in 2015.

So, yeah, you get the impression. She’s bloody good, is what!

If you’d like to know more, Glennie also runs a podcast called the Evelyn Glennie Podcast. It’s aim is to help all of us listen a little bit better for a greater interpretation of sound.

Touch the Sound: A Sound Journey with Evelyn Glennie

In 2004, there was actually a German documentary film about the percussionist.

Directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer, it followed Glennie around with her daily life as a musician. Despite her disability issues.

Touch the Sound explores how she’s able to “feel” the music she creates, which has allowed her to become a leading solo percussionist.

Perhaps most notably, she plays her snare drum in Grand Central Station in Manhattan. That clips right at the top of this post!

The documentary was well received by critics, who viewed its efforts as a creative attempt at a biographical film.

8 comments

    • So you’re now officially mad? Kudos! And yes, tinnitus is a common and ringing issue for many of us. Simon and Garfunkel sung about the Sound of Silence. Those lying bastards!

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