Audrey Riley trained at the Guildhall School Of Music, London with Leonard Stehn. As an award-winning arranger and improvising ‘cellist she has recorded for over two decades with groups including Dave Matthews and The Smashing Pumpkins. With her own orchestra she has contributed arrangements to countless albums, including two for Coldplay, three for Muse, Feeder, Moloko, Amy MacDonald, Brendan Benson, Spandau Ballet, Birdy and James Blunt. Three of her arrangements have featured on Grammy award winning singles.
As a ‘cellist she has performed with many dance companies: Royal Ballet, Scottish Ballet, Random, Dance, Siobhan Davies Dance Company, and Merce Cunningham Dance Company, in works by Kevin Volans, Michael Gordon and David Lang, and most recently with Jacky Lansley.
In 2003 she began her own project, A Change Of Light, with Andrew Zolinsky, James Woodrow, drummers Nick and Rob Allum, and artist Philip Riley. It creates new works for cello in collaboration with composers and the visual arts. She also recently completed her first film score, “The Third Letter”.
She is a tutor in composition and arranging for Bmus degree at The Institute For Contemporary Music Performance, tutor in Instrumental Ensemble Studies at Brunel University, and regularly gives or takes part in composition and performance workshops in colleges.
Here Audrey tells MSH how she got started as a session musician, what it takes to succeed and where to go when you need help and advice…
How did you get in to session work and where did you start?
I went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to study cello, and I was headed for playing in an orchestra, or so I thought. But I’d had an amazingly opened minded and contemporary music education with my youth orchestra in Leicestershire, and I was mad about all music, not just classical. My brother’s a singer songwriter and even while at Guildhall fun meant playing cello on his songs, and experimenting with recording because he’d got his head around production skills. So it didn’t take much to prise me away from orchestral life when the potential for more musical experiences turned up. This was just chance, being seen playing with my brother. I joined a band, Virginia Astley was looking for a ‘cellist and I was suggested. I spent three years learning how to be more than an orchestral ‘cellist. I owe Virginia for that.
After that it was just a case of being seen and heard playing and being recommended by the people I was working with, it can move quite fast if you’re good, but also modest and want to learn. I never lied about anything I was asked to do. For instance, the first times I was asked to do a string arrangement it went like this: In the studio having been recommended to play ‘cello on a track. Session goes well, producer and band are impressed. Could I come back next week and bring some friends on violins and viola? Of course, but what will we play? Well you made up a great part for yourself on ‘cello there, why don’t you write something? The answer is, sure, as long as you know I’ve never done that before, but this is going to be great, I’m going to learn so much!
Nearly three decades later, standing in front of my own orchestra, or the strings players of La Scala, or the Seattle Symphony, I’m still trying to learn from this! But it’s great. I have the best job in the world.
What did you think being a session musician would be like when you were starting out, and have your expectations been met?
I had no idea. I had no idea I was going to be a session musician. But I loved music, especially contemporary music and I wanted to be playing and pushing the boundries all the time. I didn’t think of it as “I’m going to be a session musician and arranger”. I was just doing everything I could to expand my experience. I was playing everything I was asked to: orchestral, classical, rock, experimental, pop. I had some amazing friends at the time and what we were interested in was exploring music, contemporary music, rock music. Writing, recording, making demos, all the time. So we were doing concerts, putting on our own gigs, getting people to write music, writing music ourselves. Being asked to the studio or to do a gig with a rock or experimental band was just all part of it.
One other important factor in all this is that in a way I didn’t decide anything or choose anything. Times weren’t that great when I left the Guildhall, it wasn’t that easy to earn money and it was a fair old struggle to begin with. One thing was really clear though, besides being the best you could possibly be, being versatile was really going to help too. Not standing above anything you might be asked to play. Having some humility and understanding that this was the artist’s record, not yours, and your job was to enhance that vision, support. I can remember there was a slight idea at the time that if you ‘left’ the classical world you may not be invited back. I think it really helped me that I loved the music I was playing, it was so interesting I genuinely didn’t even stop to consider where it might be taking me.
As for expectations, I didn’t really have any. I gather the period of time just as I started in sessions was it’s hay day. But I wasn’t aware of that, it didn’t feel like it to me starting out!
Based on your experience, what are the most important qualities you need to be a session musician?
I’ve just been reading Andy Pask’s contribution to the site and I think he’s pretty much said it all.
Punctuality, modesty, humility, creativity, an ability to get on with people, an understanding as Andy says that technical skill, passion and energy to add some extra spark are needed. Thinking it’s your big moment to shine, being late, wasting people’s energy are not.
But of course also understanding the job. Almost a diagnosis. Divining what’s needed and then supplying it. I often start by trying to imagine what the artist would play on cello, or write for strings, if it were them doing it. Because they have after all asked you for a reason, they’ve imagined something. I try to contribute that and then add a touch of my own enthusiasm. That’s easy to supply, you just need to be into the track. My goal is to look in to the control room and see smiles and happiness from the band and the producer as I hit the target of their imagination.
You have to understand too that making mistakes, not bothering about it too much, not getting on with people, all these things you’re maybe allowed to do once, but never again. No one will tell you, you just won’t be asked back. When I work with my orchestra and other players I’ve been lucky enough to work with, I can see and hear clearly that these are world class musicians, soloists in their own right. But in the studio they buckle that down, they can hear immediately what kind of playing is needed to carry off the artist and producer creative vision, and what’s needed sonically for the recording. Then, semi-miraculously, they deliver that, mostly without error and on the first take. Mostly, the rest of the takes will be because of mic placement change, or part change, or a new idea come up.
It’s perhaps not realised. Sessions aren’t things that really good players sometimes go and do. Being a dedicated session player is a job, a role, with all the skill of a precision engineer.
When you started out, where did you go for advice, information or support when you needed it?
My colleagues and friends, my teacher Len Stehn, the MU.
The MU’s Session Section deals with the special interests of MU members working as session musicians and is a benefit of MU membership. You can find out more about the Session Section and useful events on the MU’s website.
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