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Interview with Neil Brand

Written by: Jack Grove
Published on: 22 Feb 2021

Source: Zinc Media

Neil Brand is a dramatist, composer and TV presenter, known for his BBC Four documentary series including The Sound of Musicals and, most recently, The Sound of TV. He has been a silent film accompanist for 30 years and is visiting professor of film improvisation at the Royal Academy of Music.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in 1958 and grew up on a council estate in Aveley, near Thurrock, which was a London overflow area. My mum and dad had lived in a basement flat in Clapham until they moved there, so as far as they were concerned, they’d landed in nirvana.

How did this shape you?
Not really the place, but the way we lived. My parents were Methodists and because there wasn’t a church, they had services in our house, which meant we had a piano. I grew up watching my older brother and sister play, so it wasn’t long before I decided I wanted to do it myself. My absolute salvation, right throughout life, has been my ability to play by ear – I would come home from the cinema aged 8, buzzing with music, sit down and pick out the tunes on the piano. And although we didn’t have a record player, I was listening to Methodist hymns, which are some of the greatest melodies ever written.

You studied drama at university. Why didn’t you pursue music?
I didn’t think I could as I’d stopped having piano lessons at 15. Not having a higher qualification in music hamstrung me in the first 20 years of my career – not because people asked to see my certificates but because I felt I was not up to it. I had absolute impostor syndrome around working musicians who had that day-in, day-out training. But studying drama at Aberystwyth meant I could play the piano and be in the plays, as I was the musical director for the summer shows. I was teaching people to sing the songs, cooking up the music myself, but I loved the acting, too – my TV presenting is a massive performance of which I’m enormously proud.

So you managed without formal music training?
Actually, when I tried to be a composer, I realised what I didn’t have was basic nuts-and-bolts of understanding music. I only had grade 5 piano and O-level music so, after university, I contacted my old music teacher and asked him to take me on as a private student. I got my grade 6 piano and A-level music and that was it until I was made a visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music!

Why is improvisation important for music students?
Every year, about 2,000 new concert pianists graduate from all the music schools in the world, entering an already massively overcrowded market. Being perfect is not good enough any longer – you need personality. My job is to find what music is in students and [I] use movies to bring it out – rather than saying: “Play me a sunny day”, it’s easier to put a film in front of them and it will inspire something.

You’ve interviewed legends of music and cinema for your BBC Four programmes. Does anyone stand out?
Meeting Mel Brooks was terrifying but wonderful. Everything I loved about comedy growing up, he had done – he was a stand-up comic in the Catskills and [wrote] one of the greatest comedy films of all time, The Producers. But his career had also hit the skids and he made some truly terrible movies, so he had reinvented himself as someone who writes musicals. Beyond his incredible work, I admire that versatility – in my own career, I had problems initially because I could play piano, acted and wrote and was not really taken seriously, a jack of all trades. It’s only in the last 10 years that the idea of diversifying has become not just acceptable but a requirement, particularly in the arts.

The Sound of TV explores how music is central to all sorts of dramatic television, from nature documentaries to quiz shows and reality TV. Is it helpful for composers to have a dramatic training?
Most great composers, particularly for any kind of narratives for TV and film, are very good dramatists and understand drama at a very basic level. One of the things I’ve been thankful to my drama course for is that you’d be given three pages of a play by Beckett, Shaw or Shakespeare and analyse it, line by line, to understand what every character is feeling. When I started as a composer, I realised I had all the tools I needed to bring out that subtext.

You’ve described the importance of music in your own life. Do you worry that young people do not have those same musical opportunities?
I work in a conservatoire, but a similar training can be taught to kids in a very basic way. Sadly, the UK’s education system has suffered massively because many of the music and drama support staff in schools have been kicked out. That matters, particularly for those who do not have the book smarts to make it into higher education. Music and drama get through to these students on a level that is almost supernatural. The kind of confidence it creates to expand your own horizons also means they are more likely to get into higher education. Higher education can also be a stressful time – particularly at the moment – so music, drama and dance are all a great outlet for students.

Do you worry about a lost generation of performing artists as a result of the pandemic?
It worries me dreadfully what will happen to theatre and live music. There is no safety net and my heart breaks for those coming out of drama and music schools who have nowhere to go. Theatre will not take less than two years to get over this, and even if it is even safe to go to a concert in September, it is still probably four or five years to get back to the level we were operating before.