Meet Philip Sheppard, Music Inspired by Play

Thanks to Tanya Thompson from ThinkFun for interviewing Philip Sheppard.


Photo Credit: Royce Gorsuch

Photo Credit: Royce Gorsuch

I met Philip Sheppard last year at a conference called HATCH.  My interview last month was with the founder of HATCH Yarrow Kraner.

At HATCH I was blown away by Philip’s talents.  His performances on the cello were beautiful and incredibly creative.  I heard sounds from his cello that I never knew the cello could make.  I saw him jam with a group of musicians and when Philip joined in with his cello, it became magical. Who is this remarkable cellist?

Philip is a composer & producer specializing in film soundtracks and live stadium events. Recently he re-scored & produced all 206 of the national anthems of the world for the London 2012 Olympics. Think about that.  I love what they wrote about this in the UK Telegraph, “It was the Grove Dictionary of Music that commented that national anthems are “rarely noted for their musical quality”, yet the nations of the world continue to cling to them with extraordinary tenacity. One man who knows this better than anybody is composer and conductor Philip Sheppard, who has spent the past week sequestered in Abbey Road studios with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, recording fresh arrangements of all the world’s 205 national anthems.

Philip has also written 15 major film soundtracks including In the Shadow of the Moon, Bobby Fischer Against the World, The Tillman Story, and Love Marilyn.

Philip has collaborated with many musicians including David Bowie, Jimmy Page, Suzanne Vega, and Grace Jones.  

Philip is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music and is indeed a virtuoso cellist.  
And the coolest part about him?  We talked about this at length at Hatch.  All of his professional work is deeply rooted in play & gaming.  I am so excited to be collaborating on a new game with him for ThinkFun coming out next year!

Philip keynoted the ChiTAG Toy and Game Conferences (T&GCon and I-SPI) last November and he stretched our minds and it is a privilege to interview him here.

In one sentence, who are you?

I'm a person who makes noises for a living whilst retaining a British accent and a sense of humour.

What was your favorite toy or game as a child?

My favorite toy was either my cello (that isn't cheating is it?!) or my Tonka truck, and my favorite game was called Demon Whist - played with seven packs of cards and a high degree of chaos.

You gave such an inspirational keynote at the ChiTAG Toy and Game Conferences.  During it you said, "It isn't about what is on the table, but what happens above the table."  What did you mean by that?

Musicians get overly attached to sheet music, and sometimes forget that it's just the map behind a great piece - not the gorgeous view. I get goose bumps from someone transcending the print and embodying the raw emotion in music. Similarly, in a great game, the board or field of play becomes less and less important as imagination takes over, and the real battles start to be fought above the table as players' minds fully engage. When I play the cello, I'm trying to spin a sort of liquid, three dimensional structure into the concert hall which I can then populate with colour and light & shade. Now I've written that down, it sounds nuts…

You also said, “Restriction is a necessary component for creativity."  Can you clarify?

If I ask you to compose a piece of music and tell you that you can use as many notes, instruments and styles as you like, it'll make you freeze up! If however we say you're only allowed to use three notes, but you can order them in as many ways as you like on a single instrument, you'll write something beautiful. 

Now, imagine if you cooked a meal using everything in the larder… I've done that. It came out purple...

How do you activate creativity?

I coerce people into composing by playing what appear to be simple generative games that reveal themselves to be compositional tools. 

For instance, yesterday I tricked a roomful of Toy Industry leaders at PlayCon into performing a very complex piece of minimalist music by gamifying a clapping pattern from soccer fans. (This also gave me the chance to be rude about Chelsea).

We met at HATCH, a community that unites creative thought leaders to hatch a better world. How would you help to HATCH a better world?

My ambition is to help everyone rediscover & use the extraordinary musical skills they're born with. I've seen kids with no musical training grow a foot taller from hearing music they've composed performed by an orchestra. I'd love everybody to feel that dopamine rush.

How did you know you wanted to play cello?

I clearly remember being in the kitchen in 1973 with the wireless playing (that's what radios were called then!) and hearing the most awesome noise. 
I said to my mum - 
"What's that?"
"It's a cello…"
"Is it bigger than a violin?"
"Yes…"
"I want to play it"

So… I did. And it is bigger than the violin...

What is your first memory of playing with music?

I did a concert for a local blind club when I was just starting to play. I was three and a half years old and had two pieces; one was just tuning up, the other was a piece about my teacher's Guinea Pigs called Charley & Fred. The whole performance lasted 2 minutes but I was hooked...

Who is or has been your mentor? What piece of advice did s/he give you?

My cello professor, David Strange, taught me that the cello is actually easy (once you remove all the barriers). 
In my final lesson he said (in his gorgeous Irish accent); 
"Right, that's everything you need to know, now feck off and teach yourself…
[I should stress that it was said with love… I think]

What is your Superpower?

I never get nervous - because I honestly believe that adrenalin is excitement not fear. 

What instruments do you play?

Only the cello. I have guitars, a violin or two, a treble viol, pianos, keyboards and so forth but I'm 100% incompetent on them. I mean, seriously incompetent.

What are your passions?

Love for my family is my driving passion. 
I adore composing music, baking bread, drinking coffee, collecting antique paperbacks, researching silent movies, inventing games, coaching Tag Rugby and being a member of my tribe of sisters & brothers from Hatch.

What are you excited about?

I've just invented a game. 
It's been licensed!

What’s something you wish everyone knew about you?

I hate balloons. Seriously phobic. The sound of them sends me diving under the table. 
I think it's something to so with the way I hear high frequencies. 

What problem are you trying to solve right now?

I'm trying to write music that sounds like a bicycle race. It needs to be ready to play to a client in 48 hours time & everything I've written sounds like a horse and cart. 
An ugly horse pulling an ugly cart.

What “rules” do you live by?

1.    Always work with people who are better than you (it's contagious!)
2.    Always be on time
3.    Strong but wrong is fine

What qualities do you look for in the people you hang out with?

A sense of humour, crazy skills and dirty jokes.

When is the last time you laughed out loud?  What caused it?

My 7-year-old son left a note for my wife which was hilarious. 
It was a love letter to her with a drawing of a Dalek destroying things. Smooth…

What would you do differently if given the opportunity?

I'd ignore my sports teacher who told me to just stick to music. 

If you could learn one random skill, what would you learn?

Ski Cross.

When is breaking the rules okay?

When it stops people from getting hurt!

If you weren't a musician, what would you be doing?

I'd either be a vet or a kindergarten teacher.

What do you dream about?

I'm going to answer this honestly & literally. 
I regularly dream that I've discovered a large room I never knew about in our house. 
Analyze that…!

If you could have one selfish ask, what would it be?

An Oscar?

If you could only have two tools to create with on a desert island, what would they be?

A cello and a fountain pen.

What’s one of your favorite questions to ask new friends or to get a conversation going?

What should I read?

What are 3 key books you feel I should read, and why?

1.    Gödel Escher Bach by Douglas Hofstadter - Music, mathematics, philosophy and art - what's not to love?
2.    The art of looking sideways by Alan Fletcher. A brilliant massive book on lateral thinking. It lives on my desk.
3.    Walt Disney; The triumph of the American Imagination by Neil Gabler. A gripping portrait of an entrepreneur who spent the majority of his working life in debt, but kept going regardless.

Describe the best day you have ever had.

Tomorrow!

Thank you Philip for taking the time to answer these questions!  It is an honor to call you friend and thank you for shaking up the Toy and Game Industry with your talent!