Tune In Backstage: Meet Paul Beniston

Tune In is the London Philharmonic Orchestra's bi-seasonal magazine keeping you up-to-date with news and reflects on highlights of the year. We caught up with Paul Beniston – the LPO’s Principal Trumpet since 1994, to find out about his life, both on and off the stage.

When did you begin playing the trumpet? Are you from a musical family?

PB: Like many British orchestral brass players, I grew up in a Salvation Army family. I started playing the cornet in the Gillingham Salvation Army Brass Band when I was seven, switching to trumpet when I was 10. Later I joined the Kent County Youth Orchestra and the European Community Youth Orchestra, and studied music at Bristol University.

What have been the most memorable concerts in your 20 years with the LPO?

PB: My very first LPO concert will always stick in my mind – Wagner under Klaus Tennstedt. I vividly remember the Orchestra’s amazing respect for and rapport with Tennstedt. Although by that stage he could only talk in a hoarse whisper, he had no need for any more as the Orchestra hung on his every word in silence. I also remember hearing then-Principal Horn Nick Busch at close quarters for the first time in Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. His incredible sound was quite different from anything I’d heard before, especially from where I was sitting, right next to him.

You’ve been involved in many of the Orchestra’s Education and Community projects. What have you enjoyed about it?

PB: Over the years I’ve taken part in ConcertLink and PlayerLink workshops in schools, and the Renga ensemble, working with musicians from other musical genres like Indian and jazz. I learnt a lot about modes, rhythm and basic improvisation, which was totally new to me. One project that sticks out was recreating Miles Davis’s ‘Birth of the Cool’ record in concert, which provided a real stylistic challenge and really opened my eyes to what a great musician Davis was. I’ve also been involved in the Crisis Skylight project with homeless people, and with The Band, for young people in South London aged 15–19. I also teach at the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and spent 16 years teaching at the Royal College of Music alongside my orchestral playing career. More than anything, I remember how inspiring I found contact with professional musicians when I was a youngster, and I aim to play my part in this chain.

What’s the atmosphere in the LPO brass section like?

PB: We work hard and play hard! We all set the highest standards for ourselves, and the supportive team ethic is phenomenal. To give an example, when we’re on tour abroad, the whole brass section often dines together after a concert, which is probably more unusual than it sounds. On tour, ‘Bus 3’ is a legend all of its own, worthy of an article in its own right!

What are the best and worst things about life as a professional musician?

PB: The best and most defining thing about the LPO is spending our summers at Glyndebourne. Although we all thrive on the buzz of the concert stage, it’s a real pleasure to spend time in such wonderful surroundings, enjoying a bit more time and space than normal, while still being involved in first-rate performances. It’s a chance for everyone to develop their pastimes: croquet, table tennis, golf, fishing, walking, running, cycling, kite flying, sailing, surfing, knitting ... you name it! The hardest part of the job is the long hours, weeks and sometimes months: it’s not unusual for me to leave home at 8am and get back after midnight. The most consecutive days I’ve worked is 85, towards the end of which the audience still expects – and deserves – the same standard of performance.

How do you relax when you’re not working?

PB: Fishing (mainly sea) is an obsession. The unfortunate incident when my boat was run over and sank 21 miles out from Newhaven in 2001 made the front page of The Times on account of us making it back to Glyndebourne just in time for The Marriage of Figaro that evening! Also on my boat (‘High Seas’ – get it?!) were then-Leader Duncan Riddell and his son, and Principal Trumpet Laurie Evans and his daughter. Despite everything that happened we managed to get to the Stage Door at 5.15pm, exactly the time the performance was scheduled to begin. Five minutes later the Overture started! I’m also an avid football fan, supporting my local team, Gillingham. Probably the greatest touring day ever was when a team from the LPO played the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra on the Seoul World Cup Stadium practice pitch, complete with Korean Football Association referees. We filled a coach with jet-lagged players, supporters and our very own ‘Barmy Army’ band, had a fantastic time and managed to edge a close game 3–2 – a proud moment indeed! I also run to keep fit (and to offset another of my passions, gastronomy!) and have twice completed the London Marathon.

What might you have done for a career if you hadn’t become a professional musician?

PB: When I was at school I had ambitions to be a pilot. Later I did 10 hours or so of light aircraft flying lessons, stopping short of bankrupting myself by qualifying for a licence, so I got that out of my system! Even as a mid-teenager my plan was to play the trumpet for 20 years and then become a charter fishing skipper for the next 20. Without wishing to give too much away, it looks like I’ve ‘missed the boat’ with that scheme!

You can read our latest Tune In issue online here.