UNKNOWINGLY HEROES - SIMON COWEN
Updated: Jun 15, 2020
The third instalment of the 'Unknowingly Heroes' series features a player that started his musical career in the brass band movement, and still holds a strong affinity for it. I first heard Simon Cowen play on a CD recording featuring Douglas Yeo, Bass Trombonist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and immediately realised that this was playing that I aspired to.
NH: I didn’t realise until quite recently that both our early trombone playing days included stints with the Cheshire Youth Brass Band and Youth Orchestra. I have fond memories of my all too brief time with David Lancashire and Peter Room in Hartford. Tell us a little about your early playing days, your teachers and what it was that attracted you to the trombone.
SC: It’s interesting you mention the Cheshire County Youth Brass Band, Peter Room and in particular the very wonderful David Lancashire. David came along to the Philharmonic only a few months back to listen to one of our concerts. For me and my brother (Rick, co-principal Trumpet) it was akin to having royalty in the audience! We met up with David during the interval and had a lovely reminisce of all things Cheshire Youth. He’s such a wonderful human being who looked after us all and helped inspire so many of us young musicians back then. It was a true honour and sheer joy to see him again after so many years, God bless him.
I guess I haphazardly stumbled upon the trombone at my very first brass band rehearsal in Leigh, Lancashire. I was around the age of ten and I’d been having lessons on the humble baritone at the time. My teacher suggested I join a brass band to help accelerate my very slow progress, so I did. I turned up to Leigh Parish Hall and was plonked down on the 2nd baritone chair. Talk about a fish out of water! The rehearsal seemed to go at breakneck speed and I simply couldn’t keep up...with any of it. I only knew a handful of notes, had no idea what bar’s rests were, let alone how to count them and I vividly remember sitting there, counting down the minutes till my parents came to pick me up and take me back to the safety of home!
At the end of rehearsal, however, the man that had been sat behind me during the rehearsal, the man that I’d heard on numerous occasions spitting healthy gobs of phlegm, tapped on my shoulder and said, in a broad Leigh accent “The’s no future in playing one o’ them lad! Thee wants to get ye’self one o’ these.” He was one of the trombone players and he unlocked the slide, spat on it twice and played a gliss! He took me over to the conductor and said I’d asked HIM if I could play the trombone next rehearsal! So, there it began. Next rehearsal I was sat with a trombone in hand so I just spat on the slide and off we went!
NH: Am I correct in thinking you continued your studies at the Guildhall? Tell us a little about your time there and what effect it had on your approach to playing.
SC: I did end up at the Guildhall, after four very happy years at Manchester’s Chetham’s School of Music under the trombone guidance of the very brilliant Christopher Houlding.
My teacher, once at the Guildhall, was Eric Crees who was really part of the same trombone family tree as Chris Houlding, so in fact it was quite a smooth transition from four years with Chris studying the Lafosse plus the basics to four more years in London with Eric, studying the Lafosse plus the basics. This might have bothered some players but it didn’t deter me one ounce - I have no apology at all in declaring that I was a complete addict to practicing nothing other than the very basics of trombone playing! This hasn’t really changed as it goes, other than nowadays my practice schedule has diminished quite substantially due to work commitments.
Looking back, the Guildhall around the time (early 1990’s) was a real hothouse of some fabulous trombone students. Byron Fulcher, Graham Lee, Roger Cutts and Rob Holliday were all in their final years so we had an incredible wealth of talent and skill to look up to at the time. I actually used to spend a great deal of time, unbeknownst to them, standing outside their practice rooms just to listen to how they went about their routines. Doing this was truly priceless and taught me so much about the importance of sound and basic fundamentals. These guys sounded extraordinary to me and made the trombone sound beautiful but so easy!
My daily routine of life whilst at the Guildhall was very much the same for the entire four years. I was always up at 6am to walk to college for when it opened in those days at 6.30am where I’d begin my practice session, short break, practice session, break, practice, another break, practice and so on and so on. It was a complete obsession I suppose, but I was content. If I wasn’t practicing, I was thinking about my next practice session. I rarely attended lectures as they got in the way of my practice! Thanks to a couple of loyal colleagues they’d make sure they signed me in!
Each evening after dinner would come the listening. On the nights where the LSO weren’t playing live at the Barbican I’d be sat in my poky old room in the City YMCA listening to my collection of Christian Lindberg recordings.
Many would say it was a bit of a sad existence but it suited me for those particular years.
The therapy ever since has been of immense help!
NH: Didn’t you move to Portugal not long after you left college? Was this your first playing job?
SC: Actually, my job in Portugal came some time later. After the Guildhall I moved back up North and spent the next seven or eight years freelancing with various orchestras around the UK. Much more exciting than that however, was being a part of two wonderful brass bands during that period, Black Dyke and Yorkshire Building Society. These were extremely enjoyable years where I learned a wealth of wisdom from simply observing James Watson and David King.
Sadly I had to call it a day with brass banding as my orchestral work had taken over somewhat, plus as you mentioned, I was offered the job in the Remix Ensemble in Porto. This was a dream job which consisted of flying over to Portugal for around ten days each month, playing some incredibly difficult yet brilliant music with some unbelievable musicians from around Europe. Often we would perform in cities like Paris, Lisbon, Berlin, Strasbourg, Vienna. The whole five years I was in this ensemble has left me with so many happy memories. It was incredibly sad to have to leave but due to my appointment at the RLPO, it was time to move home.
NH: Many years ago, when I was about 13 years old my parents took me to a concert given by the Liverpool Philharmonic Brass section in Frodsham, where I went to school. I remember being amazed by the technical and musical skills of Eric Jennings (Trombone), Alan Stringer (Trumpet) and George Smith (Tuba). They certainly left quite an impression on me. How did you find stepping into these players’ shoes and continuing the fine legacy of brass playing there?
SC: Well, when I started at the Phil’ the very brilliant and wonderful Blyth Lindsay was still
gracing the 2nd trombone chair, after an incredible thirty-plus years with the orchestra. Blyth was a colleague of the three players you’ve mentioned. I’ve heard so many charming stories of times gone by about the past RLPO brass section. Each one of these stories has attached a monumental measure of happiness, humour and joy. Blyth was nothing short of a complete diamond and although he retired from playing quite a few years ago we still meet up with him on very regular occasions.
Blyth was the man to look to and to listen to. He was the man to watch and learn the best way of dealing with all aspects of life within the orchestra. He was always full of good cheer and positivity and one thing was for sure...never did he allow the conductor to get the upper hand! He had a certain stare that would make any ‘uppity’ conductor crumble in its wake. I witnessed this on several occasions and it was a delight to behold.
It’s a somewhat strange feeling - or certainly I felt so - to have your name attached to a specific chair in an orchestra and there comes with it, especially at first, a certain weight upon one’s shoulders and a sense of responsibility. Especially, as you say, aiming to fulfil the continuation of the legacy that has been established. For the first few months in the role I had a mild sense that I was punching above my weight and at any point I’d get ‘found out’, but as time passed and I worked on the ‘belief’ side of playing in that specific role, I eventually warmed to the job and with that came all the joy and satisfaction of playing in and amongst the array of various sounds the symphony orchestra emanates.
The RLPO are a busy orchestra and a band that covers a wide range of musical genres. It’s an incredibly rewarding place to work, full of positive people and we have a wonderful following from our audiences. Occasionally too, some of us may venture in to a local establishment for half a shandy or a dry sherry just to end the day with a bit of sociable relaxation.
NH: Being a brass band player all my life it’s fabulous to see that your section are all ex-brass banders. I have fond memories of Simon Chappell playing bass trombone on my first solo CD, a wonderful player for sure. Didn’t Simon Powell dip his toe into banding at some point too?
SC: Yes, oddly and purely coincidentally, we are a trombone section of Simons! Much to the amusement of many a guest conductor. For us, the novelty of this wore off a long time back so on occasion we have to resort to forcing smiles when a new conductor comes from across the water and makes some witticism when addressing the trombones!
Both Simon Chappell and Simon Powell spent time playing with brass bands. Simon Chappell started off in Besses Boys Band and Simon Powell has guested with quite a few bands over the years. Funnily enough, about twenty years ago, myself and Si Powell played in YBS together under David King. Actually, once Simon got the 2nd trombone job at the Phil, David King did come along, with Rosie, to listen to one of our concerts which was terribly exciting yet somewhat nerve jangling for us both! In the bar afterwards I asked Dave if he’d enjoyed the performance, to which he replied “Was a bit insipid Si.” Priceless!
NH: Your love for brass banding continues, but now in a slightly different way? I hear you’ve branched out into conducting?
SC: I did slip in to a little conducting, purely accidentally a few years ago. I’d been reading a rather alarming article at the time about Besses o’th Barn Band, who were struggling for players and almost on the brink of collapse. This upset me immensely as this was a band that was steeped in rich history. On the back of reading the article, I contacted the band’s secretary and offered my help to play with the band if ever they were in need of a trombone player and also to rope in some of my orchestral brass friends to pop down and fill the ranks for concerts or contests when the band required.
I popped down to Whitefield to play at their next rehearsal as they were a trombone short and the secretary walked up to say hello and asked if I did any conducting, to which I very quickly and firmly said no! Anyway, it’s never been a huge struggle for anyone to talk me into something so I ended up with pencil in hand, conducting that rehearsal then for the following three years!
I didn’t make a total clown of myself I’m happy to report, in fact the band did grow in strength over this period. We had four good contest wins, a trip to London for a performance at the Royal Albert Hall alongside the RLPO for a Classic FM concert, and several very enjoyable recordings and concerts. The band also got promoted up a section during this time so once I decided to hang up my conducting jacket, Besses were in a much better place and I was happy to witness this. They are a truly wonderful band and long may they flourish.
NH: What does the future hold for you Simon, and where would you like to see yourself in ten years time?
SC: This is a bit of a tricky question really. Had you asked me this fifteen years ago, I’d have had a very clear idea of where I wanted to be. Without getting too deep, most of my life I have spent chasing a specific and burning desire - to end up playing in a professional UK symphony orchestra. For many people this may not be much of a desire and, of course I understand this, but for me, this is all I ever wanted to do from my mid teens.
This is the reason I spent hours locked up in a practice room. I now realise that this felt necessary and important at the time as hard work was the only way I thought possible to achieve what one wanted to achieve. In a way this is correct, but hard work without ‘belief’ can be a much more arduous journey than ‘with’ that belief. It was only when I started working on that belief that any real form of success made an appearance. Of course, I don’t regret any of the time I spent on long note practice and slow lip slurs and if I look back, it was a crazy amount of time. Maybe, in fact, way too much time; time that I could have spent socialising with friends and colleagues, had I have had that belief.
So, to answer your question, I’m no longer really looking into the future any more as I think I might have tired myself out somewhat, doing that for so many years. I’d say I’m relatively content where I am right now. I enjoy playing my trombone still, although no longer obsessed and I love working with young brass students and witnessing the sparkle in their eyes when they hit a sweet note or play a phrase that they were happy with.
NH: Finally, and somewhat apologetically, I have to ask the one question that all ‘bone players will want to know; what gear do you use, and are you one to experiment and try different manufacturers as and when you feel the urge.
SC: Oh crikey! It’s me who should apologise as my answer to this is very short and rather boring!
For the past twenty five years I’ve been playing on my Conn 88hcl and a rather tired looking Schilke 51d mouthpiece. They are both in dreadful condition I’m embarrassed to admit. The trombone is held together with Blu-tac and sellotape and very recently the trigger has decided to cease working completely!