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Passing The Baton: Thomas Pilsbury and Caroline Pether

Welcome to the third instalment of Passing The Baton – in which members of the RBC community interview each other.

Each week, a member of RBC staff or a student will interview a colleague to gain some insight into how the Coronavirus crisis has affected their life, both professionally and personally. The interviewer will then “pass the baton” to the interviewee who will go on to present their questions to the next person along, until finally closing the loop with an interview with our first interrogator.

Thomas Pilsbury and Caroline Pether

This week, RBC Violin Tutor Caroline Pether talks to second year MMus Trombone student Thomas Pilsbury.

Caroline Pether (CP)

I’m realising from talking to students how different everyone’s living situation is; some have moved back into family homes, some are house-sharing with friends and some are living alone or with strangers. I’m interested to know what your personal experience is and how you’re finding it.

Thomas Pilsbury (TP)

I am in a fortunate position because for the six years of my time here at RBC, I have commuted from home. I live near Cannock, Staffordshire so I commuted via the train to New Street Station. It feels that nothing has changed that much in terms of living, although I have to admit practicing at home is a new situation which I have had to acclimatise to and I don’t miss the train journeys!!

The only real change is that I have taken a temporary night job at the local Tesco, helping the staff get the stock onto the shelves during the lockdown. I feel like I am helping in some way and still gaining that social interaction which we need in this current time.

 

CP

I’m discovering that motivation to practise is much more challenging in these conditions. Are you experiencing this also? If so what helps you to stay focused in your preparations for your final recital?

TP

There hasn’t been much loss of motivation as such. I still want to practice however I have the opposite problem which is I have been doing too much practice and I have been in danger of damaging myself from doing this. I have had to rethink my practice routine and have worked it so it is in tandem with other activities such walking the dog, relaxation and any jobs that need doing.

For my final exam, I am doing a mock opera/ballet audition with a rather hefty list for both bass and contrabass trombones. I plan to work on at least three excerpts a day and aim to improve a certain part of said excerpt (whether that is slide co-ordination, register, intonation, rhythm etc.) I also work on basics and playing a little tune at the end of the day to unwind. For me I have been playing some jazz solos off the George Roberts albums and having that down time helps refresh my focus for the next day.

 

CP

What do you do to unwind in the evenings? Got any good book, film or TV recommendations?

TP

I listen to music in the evenings. I am finding the lockdown a great opportunity to listen to pieces that I have not heard before or revisit music that I haven’t heard for a while. I have been listening to film scores, chamber music, opera, Bax symphonies, the list is endless at the moment! I have also been talking to my girlfriend a lot in the evenings as well.

I do have some recommendations:

Books – I always enjoy reading Spike Milligan, his sense of humour always makes me smile and laugh when times can be bleak. I would highly recommend any of the seven war memoirs. They are not only a good laugh but also open to your eyes to what Spike went through during that time.

Film/TV – I am a killer for a film with a great soundtrack! I would happily tuck into films such as Star Wars, Godzilla, Lord of the Rings and Avengers. TV is a bit harder as nothing tends to catch my eye. I did start watching Brooklyn 99 after hearing recommendations from friends and I have been watching that for a cheesy laugh.

Avengers

 

CP

I see from your biography that you were about to do your first pro gig with CBSO in March before Covid-19 took hold. Gutted for you but I’m sure you’ll have many more opportunities like this once concerts are up and running again. What piece(s) were you going to be playing with the orchestra and was it music you love?

TP

I was to perform in one of the bass trombone parts to Hurwitz La La Land Suite as part of the CBSO’s film music concert. It was music that I wasn’t familiar with and I liked it upon the first listen.

It is a shame that the concert got cancelled given the developments with Covid-19 however I have accepted that this situation will pass and life will start again when this is all over. The opportunities will come around again; in the meantime, I am going is plug away on the trombones and use it as a time to consolidate my playing, however long that may be.

 

CP

It’s a bit of an orchestral cliché that brass and string players have opposite personalities and temperaments; sometimes the physical distance between us in orchestra fuels the idea that we’re from different worlds - let’s do something to bridge the gap! I’ve always loved the brass sound but I confess I have a very poor knowledge of brass repertoire outside of the symphonic repertoire. What would you recommend I listen to?

TP

I would recommend listening to brass chamber groups. We have such a wide variety of chamber ensembles that range from trombone quartets to brass dectets and larger.

The big name I would put down on a recommended listening list is the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. This ensemble pretty much defined the standard of brass chamber music around the world. It featured some of the biggest brass names in this country including one of our former Heads of Brass, David Purser. They covered a wide variety of styles from the renaissance all the way up to twentieth century music and the ensemble is incredible. It is hard not to be impressed with this ensemble; my jaw still hits the floor whenever I hear John Fletcher’s Tuba variation in the Carnival of Venice.

I would also recommend listening to Onyx Brass, Septura, Bones Apart, London Brass and the London Trombone Sound to name but a few.

If you fancy something more relaxing from the jazz side, I would highly recommend listening to any albums that George Roberts performed on (he was bass trombone in the bands that played Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald as well as some iconic film soundtracks – his sound is to die for!) and the album Tutti’s Trombones.

A personal from me – listen to the Star Wars Episode 4 soundtrack. If Maurice Murphy (principal trumpet of the London Symphony Orchestra at the time) does not blow your head off, I do not know what will!!

 

CP

I’m all for finding ways to stay positive but it’s also important to acknowledge what’s hard about this chapter. What do you miss most about not being at RBC?

TP

That is difficult for me to answer. I feel that I miss being in the building and performing to be honest. I have felt at home for the last six years in this place and it seems strange that I could not finish my final year at RBC properly. I would have loved to perform my final exam in front of a live panel, rehearsed with my trombone quartet as well as the anticipation of ending the year on a high in the end of year concert. It would have been interesting to have seen what the repertoire was for that.

I miss seeing the people there as well. It feels surreal not seeing familiar faces now given the lockdown and building closure. I miss seeing the brass staff in particular who have been instrumental in my development as a musician over the last six years.

 

CP

One silver lining of this whole situation for me is that I have a lot more time to be introspective. You’re coming towards the end of six years of study having also participated in a number of prestigious and competitive orchestral training schemes (Bravo!) If you could give a 1st-year-undergraduate one piece of advice, what would it be?

TP

For a new first year student, it is a daunting prospect to start at a Conservatoire. You will have gone through the stress of auditioning and your final A-level exams and it is a strange position to be in. You could also feel that you are not good enough to be here – I certainly felt that way when I started.

The one piece of advice I have for a 1st year undergraduate is simply this “IMMERSE YOURSELF IN MUSIC!”.

A wise man once said to me “When you start at the Conservatoire, you must eat, drink and sleep bass trombone”. That is advice I held from day one and I never looked back.

At RBC, we have so many opportunities to get involved in music it is incredible! Whether that is performing in chamber groups, performing in orchestras, working with composers, the possibilities are endless.

We are blessed in Birmingham to have concert venues such as Symphony Hall and the Hippodrome as well as an orchestra like the CBSO. Go and see as many concerts as you can! I still cannot forget going to see the Mariinsky Theatre and Wagner’s Ring Cycle in my first year and last year, the CBSO performing Mahler’s Symphony No.2. I was awe-struck by the music quality and performance.

These concerts are as much educational and inspirational as they are enjoyment. With student tickets and many world-class orchestras visiting these venues – why say no? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a favourite piece or one that is notoriously brass-biased or specifically for your instrument. Go and see as much as you can!

Show that you are keen and enthusiastic about music. Please don’t feel that you are the odd one out if you are. There is nothing wrong with this at all! Show that love, passion, drive and dedication that you have for music. Don’t let anything get in the way of that, even if people think you a ‘nerd’. That didn’t stop me for six years so why hide it?

Do as much as you can in your time at RBC. Go for everything even if you think that you will not get it. It is the experience that matters and you will learn as much from not getting the coveted training scheme seat as you will from getting it. Just remember to be organised, friendly, diligent and professional towards others.

Go forward and believe in yourself. You can do it!

CP

Last question, what is your dog’s name and do you have a photo? Cute animal pics are really cheering me up at the moment!

TP

We have a Border Collie called Frank. We picked him up from a rescue centre near where I live about nine years ago.

I wish everyone the best in this current situation. We must be strong and not give in to what is happening at the moment.

We will see each other again when this is all over.

Frank the dog