Australian Music Examinations Board
Australian Music Examinations Board


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Musician in focus: Ian Cleworth

ian cleworth


Award-winning percussionist, music teacher and TaikOz artistic director Ian Cleworth has had rhythm flowing through his veins since childhood. Growing up in rural South Australia during the ’60s, and with a pianist mother, Ian’s first instruments were some rather humble makeshift tin drums and sticks.  



It wasn’t until Ian moved to Adelaide that he had the opportunity to study percussion at the Elder Conservatorium of Music. After completing his degree there, he went to Japan to study the profound and dynamic taiko (Japanese drums). On returning to Australia, Ian joined the Sydney Symphony Orchestra where he was principal percussionist for two decades, all the while still playing taiko, until it ultimately became a full-time venture.


 'Without rhythm there's no real sense of movement and shape.' 


Impassioned about music and the arts in general, Ian is thrilled about the release of the new AMEB percussion syllabus, which is available in November. Some of his works, A bluesy march in Grade 1 and Short piece for snare drum and piano in Grade 2, are included in it. Accustomed to working with top-level professional musicians, and teaching some advanced students, it’s a task that he says was incredibly rewarding. “I’d never composed anything like that before and I really enjoyed it,” Ian says. “It was a challenge to write something that is both musically interesting and technically challenging as well.”


What’s more, he says the syllabus is an acknowledgement “that percussion is a legitimate musical instrument”. “There are a lot of people studying percussion these days and now percussion is very much a fabric of musical life,” Ian explains. “The AMEB now gives the opportunity for percussionists; it gives the structure and something to work towards.” 


He adds that the one thing about percussion, particularly drums, is that rhythm is the foundation of “all of our musical experiences, whatever instrument we play, and whatever genre of music”. “Without rhythm there’s no real sense of movement and shape. Rhythm is an essential part of who we are as human beings. When we study percussion, it really brings out and develops those natural musical instincts.”  


'At its heart, making music should be

an enjoyable and wonderful experience.'

Ian also explains how learning percussion, which by definition is making sounds by striking things, differs from other musical instruments. “The percussion is actually just a description of a huge number of instruments. It could mean anything from a triangle to a drum set to a timpani to a xylophone. They are all totally different from each other,” he says. “So a percussionist has to study many instruments, not just one. That’s certainly one of the biggest challenges, you have to play a variety of instruments and look at different musical and technical demands. But that’s also the fun as well – one of the great joys of playing percussion is its variety.”


When it comes to practising percussion, Ian says enjoyment is key. “Any opportunity to play your instrument, whether it’s in the practice room, playing with other people, or doing a performance, it’s all making music. At its heart, making music should be an enjoyable and wonderful experience.”


He adds that learning music needs no other justification than music itself. “Music is valuable, both the creation and performance, whatever style or genre. It could be anything from classical music to jazz or rock, it exists because we recognise it is important. Whether a person attends a concert as a listener or is active in performing, I think it’s an essential and valuable part to who we are as human beings and is part of our society.”


As to his musical inspirations, Ian says they are wide ranging, granted percussionists by nature tend to have broad musical tastes. Although he does note an immense appreciation for jazz: “I’ve had a lot of influence from great jazz drummers like Tony Williams and Max Roach,” he says. “Although it’s a completely different genre of music, their approach to rhythm and sound, and just their whole attitude towards making music I’ve found very inspiring. I tried to take on those qualities when I was playing in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.” That said Ian also found inspiration through his orchestral colleagues.


While his extraordinary career highlights “come and go”, Ian finds that creating, composing, teaching and performing music on a regular basis is the greatest privilege of all.


Learn more about AMEB's new Percussion syllabus and publications

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