Margaret Pinder in conversation with Dan Watson

Posted on 15th Nov 2022 14:48:41 by Admin

Chair of the Hull Philharmonic Society, Margaret Pinder, caught up with the first of this season’s Guest Conductor, Dan Watson, to learn a little more about him and how he’s finding his time with the Hull Philharmonic so far.

MP: Good morning, Dan. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me! The first thing I want to ask you is about your background and your early experiences of music.

DW: I was born in Sheffield (that’s my way of trying to convince you that I’m really a Yorkshireman!) But I grew up in North Wales, in the foothills of Snowdonia. My parents were not musicians themselves, but they really valued music and I started as a brass instrumentalist. The problem was, I didn’t practise. But, whenever my parents threatened to take my lessons away, I was always very upset. It was only when I started with the saxophone that things really clicked for me, I started to practise, and I made really fast progress taking grade 8 within two years.


Dan Watson used to play saxophone in a ska band, the Skabucks, tributing bands like Madness and The Specials.

MP: Did you learn privately or through school?

DW: Oh, school for nearly everything up to conservatory. I’ll always be grateful to the local county music service for giving me access to such high-quality tuition and the chance to buy an instrument which was subsidised for local students. That’s why I am such a supporter of music teaching in state schools; I know what a difference it can make to children’s lives.

MP: You said you went on to study music as a performer?

DW: I owe a lot of that to the support of my teachers and especially my saxophone teacher who was aware that Birmingham Conservatoire was on the look-out for more sax students. So I emailed them as a late applicant, went for audition, and was accepted!

MP: At what point did you make the move to conducting?

DW: I’d always been fascinated by conductors and conducting. When I was still at school and playing in brass or wind ensembles, I used to sneak up and look at the scores on the stand and think: “How can you read that, never mind make sense of it and communicate it to a whole group of players?” I have to confess as well, that I wasn’t really comfortable as a performer. I suffered from terrible nerves and didn’t enjoy playing the way I thought I would. My first plans had been to become a music teacher, but my girlfriend, Sally (who is now my wife) was studying composition and I set up a number of my own ensembles which focused on contemporary music. This allowed me to expand my experience as a conductor as well as giving new composers a chance to have their music performed.

MP: It looks like you had quite a journey to get to where you needed to be from brass to sax to conducting.

DW: Absolutely! But forming and running my own ensembles also gave me valuable experience of the administrative side of music and helped me develop the sort of people-skills that are all so important and which have served me in good stead ever since. It’s one thing to be a conductor, but being a musical director is also like being a kind of managing director; you need to know how to work with people (and not just musicians), how to programme, how to deal with venues, how to apply for funding - all the stuff that doesn’t seem very glamorous, but which is an absolutely essential part of the role!

MP: So, you had found your calling as a conductor directing your own ensembles, but what about conducting a whole symphony orchestra? That must be quite a different ask.

DW: Most definitely. Conducting new music meant that nobody else, apart from the composer, had expectations as to what it should sound like. That gave me a lot of artistic freedom and allowed me to make my own decisions – decisions that were not influenced or informed by pre-existing recordings or performances, for example. Once you start conducting a more traditional repertoire, your audiences already know what the music will sound like more or less, and there are usually a lot of recordings out there.

MP: You’re saying that the traditional repertoire comes with a lot of baggage?

DW (laughing): I suppose I am, but I don’t mean that to sound as negative as it may have come across. It’s just a whole different discipline and way of engaging with your orchestra and your audience through the artistic decisions you make. I think one thing that has helped me a lot is the struggles I had in my early days as a brass instrumentalist because I had to strip so much down to barebones and it has helped me in my work with community orchestras to understand what those players sometimes struggle with as well.

MP: You’ve mentioned your work with community orchestras. I have to ask: what attracted you to the position of musical director with the Hull Phil?

DW: First of all, when I saw your ad, I was impressed with the quality of opportunity the society was offering. I could see this is a community orchestra that plays to a very high standard. Then, during my interview, I was also impressed by how you were clearly open to new directions, and it made me feel there was a lot we could achieve together. Then, when I came to my first Hull Phil concert at the City Hall, I felt a real excitement in the audience: the sense of people being excited to come and hear the city’s orchestra in such a wonderful venue.

MP: You’ve taken two rehearsals with us now. How are you finding the experience?

DW: Very positive! The orchestra has a really good work ethic and is very disciplined. It’s always great to work with players who are so attentive and have such a commitment to their music making. I know that, for a lot of players, rehearsals happen at the end of the day when they may be tired, but there’s no sense of any fatigue in the way they respond to me and the music, and I’ve noticed real progress between the two rehearsals which is pleasing. The playing is already at a good standard, but I’m seeing more cohesion in the ensemble with some beautifully nuanced playing. I have to give a lot of credit to Elaine, your rehearsal conductor, for the work she has done in rehearsals. She has been an absolute joy to collaborate with and has laid a really solid foundation for me to build on.

MP: That’s good to hear. But let’s end on a more personal note. I know people would love to know a little more about your family and your interests outside music.

DW: I’ve already mentioned my wife, Sally, and we have a four-year-old daughter called Bethan. We bought our house just before the pandemic hit and one of the main things that attracted us to it was a huge, if horribly overgrown garden. I think it put a lot of other people off buying it, but it has allowed me to indulge my dream of building a miniature railway which I am currently working on with friends and family. We’re also learning how to take care of chickens and make our own cider. And when I’m not out managing all that, I’m a keen amateur chess player.


Dan with his daughter Bethan on the miniature railway in their garden.

MP: That sounds amazing! I know lots of grown-ups who enjoy model trains, but a whole miniature railway? Promise me you’ll let me come and visit sometime!

DW: You’ll be more than welcome!

You can find out more about Dan Watson on his website and buy tickets to Hull Philharmonic’s first concert of the 2022/23 season, which Dan will be conducting, on the Hull City Hall website.