RSNO hope to inspire homemade samba bands during lockdown

With their new RSNO Challenges, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra are encouraging families stuck at home to make music using everyday items, writes Ken Walton
Paul Philbert, the RSNO's principal timpanist, poses with a mop and bucket to promote RSNO ChallengesPaul Philbert, the RSNO's principal timpanist, poses with a mop and bucket to promote RSNO Challenges
Paul Philbert, the RSNO's principal timpanist, poses with a mop and bucket to promote RSNO Challenges

One consequence of the current concerts shutdown is that we’re getting to see, up close and in our living rooms, the actual individual personalities that constitute Scotland’s wonderful orchestras. Let’s remember, every one of the 70 or so musicians who sit collectively on stage every week is a highly skilled musician in his or her own right. On, we’ve already featured a few in our popular new Scotsman Sessions initiative. 

One of the most distinctive players on the scene is Paul Philbert, charismatic timpanist of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. He’s hard to miss, visibly central to that orchestra’s heavy-duty back row, and audibly hard to ignore, as his principal role (no pun intended) is to make a lot of noise in the moments that matter.

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Right now, though, what matters to him and his colleagues is finding ways of delivering music into the homes of a self-isolating population. There are personal reasons he’s itching to do something. “This is the longest I think I’ve ever gone without touching a timp in my entire professional career,” he says ruefully.

In the first of a series of RSNO Challenges now being issued weekly via social media to stimulate music making in the home while families are marooned there, Philbert and his percussion colleagues have created the Create Your Own Samba Band Challenge, filmed in the RSNO Centre canteen before the lockdown began. 

“This one was actually the brainchild of our esteemed principal percussionist John Poulter, who directs the samba project,” Philbert explains. “I’ll be featuring more at the forefront of something else we’re planning soon: I won’t say what; I don’t want to spoil the fun.”

Even so, Philbert ultimately steals the samba show. The aim is to get families at home creating their own bands using kitchen utensils, from pots and pans to wooden spoons and salt cellars. In this video demonstration, Philbert is on bucket and wooden spoon, and manages to spectacularly demolish his bucket during his final big solo. 

Anyone who witnessed him do the same to his timps at the Usher Hall a few months ago in the final chord of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony might reckon this repeat demolition job to be deliberately satirical. “Actually, it was another whoopsie,” he admits, followed by a detailed postmortem blaming himself for focusing the “butt end” of the spoon on a single spot. “I’m definitely getting a reputation,” he concludes.

He already has one – for an artistry that combines dynamism and subtlety. It’s a classy combination, even though subtlety isn’t a quality naturally attributed to timpanists. But Philbert does something few other drummers do: he makes the timpani sing. “There are times when you have to be stubborn and authoritative,” he explains. “But equally you must be flexible and sensitive.

“I’ve found that using a lot of air and space in my strike neutralises some of the aggression in the sound.” Like golf, I ask? “Yes,” he replies, “it’s not just about the strike, it’s about the follow through.” That has visual consequences: a balletic physicality that has become the subject of regular interval chat among his RSNO audience fan club. 

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Moving to Scotland, Philbert acknowledges, was never part of the plan. For a start, he’s used to the heat. Born in London to Grenadian parents, his first job was with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, where the regular temperature was a humid 37 degrees. 

“Weather’s always been a thing for me,” he says. “I loved that feeling of going out at about 11am and feeling my skin cooking through my black linen clothes. When I moved back to Britain, and a job with Opera North, I promised myself that was as far from the equator I was prepared to move. Yet here I am in Glasgow, which I absolutely love, but where I live for the summer. Last winter, to be honest, was quite traumatic!”
Desperately missing his colleagues at the moment, Philbert is resigned to reality. “I’m more worried about my students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland,” he says. “They have no access to instruments and the conservatoire is shut for 12 weeks. There’s only so much you can achieve teaching them online.”

But like every musician in Scotland he is just having to be sanguine. While the RSNO is maintaining a collective presence through its online RSNO Friday Night Club – footage of recent concerts is available on the orchestra’s Facebook and YouTube channels – its individual players are looking at every opportunity to keep the show on the road. “Like all my colleagues I’m just keeping calm and awaiting the day I can go back into the RSNO and play my timps. But for the moment, it’s satisfying to be doing something that serves a purpose in a difficult time.”

Details of the RSNO Challenges and RSNO Friday Night Club concerts are on

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