top of page

Evelyn Glennie: Teaching the World to Listen

Evelyn Glennie's world of sound began like most of ours—where we grew up, whether in urban or rural areas. While the city environment may have immersed you in the clamor of passing automobiles and overhead airplanes and the joy of laughter and squeals of neighborhood children, the rural setting, like Evelyn's family farm, most likely produced an orchestra of sounds through livestock and machinery and the tasks that busied your hands, feet, concentration, and imagination.

“Growing up on a farm and being around livestock, you have to be aware of the surroundings and be responsible for that,” said Glennie. “You also learn about patience because you can't force nature. One thing prevalent throughout my career is knowing that things don't happen in five minutes.” She speaks of patience, completing the given tasks, and seeing them through “from the beginning to the end,” organizing your time and developing that time frame over months and years. “So, I think that it was an incredibly healthy upbringing. There’s no doubt about that. But I certainly appreciated that more in my later years than obviously just being on the farm as a kid.”

Throughout our lives, we grow through discovery, making the freedom to discover pertinent to learning and progressing knowledge. Glennie’s introduction to the drum involved “freedom of discovery,” thanks to her teacher, who told her to take the drum home for seven days to discover it, from its construction to the sounds it produced. Therefore, her first experience with the drum was not through rigid posture and positioning but through striking the drumhead and the sides of the drum in various ways and receiving the vibrations through her body. This changed how Glennie thought about dynamics because she connected with the resonance, not just the impact, and this allowed her to go to the extremes of dynamics and deal with time differently because she connected what she was feeling to her natural body state.

“I think it just allowed me the realization and the permission to believe that I was part of that sound, that it belonged to me,” said Glennie. “It wasn't just something you could copy from somebody else. It was a sound you could experience even on a recording, belonging to that moment.”

In some instances, you are the instigator of the sound, and in others, you may be the listener, Glennie explained. “They are two completely different things. If you're talking from an audience point of view, you'll never have that close relationship with the vibration as the player will. What the player can do is acknowledge the resonance and suspend that resonance in a physical motion or simply that motion of listening, paying attention to the space that they're in. The audience will grasp the body language and what to feel from that sound.” She adds that everybody is present at that moment, “which makes live performances also difficult to record. In my case, I don't see there being any techniques or systems because we are dealing with a moving thing,” a vibration, if you will, changing from “space to space, from person to person, from moment to moment, instrument to instrument, and piece to piece.”

Glennie said you could line up different bass drums; even if they are the same size and make, they will still differ. But you must pay attention and listen for those differences, which is challenging.

“Listening is very tiring,” she said because you’re finding the balance between what you hear and what you're listening to. “Hearing is something you can react to immediately if registered, but listening isn’t always about sound. Listening is about bringing the other senses into play and connecting all of them. You can be with someone who has no speech, yet you are listening to each other. That is what's so fascinating about listening. It belongs to all of us and can be accessed by all of us,” whether deep or shallow listening in short or lengthy periods. “If you compare the listening to the occasion of a baby just being born, the listening is incredibly heightened. If you listen to a dying person over a period, the whole pace of your listening changes and that, I think, is interesting. Your listening has its extension and its release.”

Glennie often performs barefoot but stipulates that she doesn’t do it all the time “because of the different environments and the type of floor, as in stone or tile, that can get very chilly.” It's more about balance,” she said, more about realizing what sound is and “the feet are incredibly sensitive. They really kind of act as your resonator but also your balancer.” She detailed how you negotiate weight and, “in this case, the weight is the sound. You are balancing all of that through your feet,” which provides the grounding for the rest of the body to “maneuver like a bit of bamboo.” She expounds on the nature of the instruments she plays by the frequency from very low to very high and how the attacks are varied.

“The fortissimo on a triangle is very different from the fortissimo on a bass drum. So, with percussion playing, the body's being attacked in different ways than when you're playing the violin because you know that most of the sound is on this side of the body. You know the position of the arms and the hands, but ultimately, you've got this thing stuck to your body, so the feet are crucial to try to act as that stabilizer.”

Glennie, a Polar Music Prize, Sonning Music Prize and three-time GRAMMY recipient, who has received 28 honorary doctorates from various United Kingdom universities, clarifies the difference between good performance and honest performance, which is doing the very best you can and playing “literally how you are at that moment and time.” It's about letting yourself be yourself in that performance and saying this is how I want to interpret the piece at this moment. She said everybody has different opinions about what you do, and that's life. “There will always be bits and pieces to attend to that need developing, and it can be something as simple as not judging the interpretation right in a particular section.” It doesn’t have to be about wrong notes but feeling that you didn’t perform in the way you wanted to. “I think your relationship becomes more detached when you're trying to strive for a good performance. An honest performance is about your relationship with the piece of music and the occasion you find yourself in at that moment.”

Founded earlier this year, The Evelyn Glennie Foundation’s mission is to Teach the World to Listen in many ways and in many landscapes. One project of the foundation is The Sounds of Science, being rolled out in schools in Birmingham, England. “Students are dealing with 10,000 years of man-developed sounds, so they're exploring many subjects including geography, history, science, technology, music sound creation,” and how humans have changed the world – from the first stone tools to the discovery of Newton’s laws of motion and gravity, the nuclear age and beyond. The project is a collaboration with composer Jill Jarman and world history author Christopher Lloyd.

However, the core of the foundation is about listening in different ways.

“We are looking at the musical landscape, the business landscape, social, religion, you name it landscape, right across the board,” said Glennie. “To be clear, it is not a music Foundation. It is literally a foundation about listening.”


Meeting the Queen

In 2017, Evelyn became a Companion of Honor, an exceptional award granted personally by Queen Elizabeth II to a select few. Glennie said this of the late Queen of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth:

“She was quite a small lady in height wise but a very private lady, utterly charming, and incredibly professional. Of course, the Monarch is never allowed to express their opinions, so she was neutral on everything. She continued her duties until the day before she passed away and was very devoted to the country, and you really felt that. I felt very privileged to have had the chance to have met her on several occasions.”

38 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page