Brandon Phillips is principal bassoonist and resident conductor of the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra. When his father first tried to get him interested in music he was not at all happy. Today, he himself mentors young aspiring musicians.
The boy would rather have played football with his friends. Instead he was sitting on his bed and staring at a recorder his father had bought for him. Tears well up in his eyes because he knew that he should go to recorder lessons like his older brothers, who were really keen about it. “Every Saturday I went to recorder lessons with tears in my eyes,” Brandon says today, a good thirty years later. “But look where I am now. I have learned to love music. Music plays an important role in my life.”
Brandon Phillips is the principal bassoon of the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, and since 2015 he has been the resident conductor of that orchestra. Since this year, he is the acting head of the woodwind department at the University of Cape Town.
Growing up with a musical gene
“My dad’s father was a pianist in the Navy and I think that’s where I got the musical gene,” Brandon explains his love of music. His parents were also musical. His father played a bit of organ and guitar, his mother sang in the church choir and started playing the violin and viola together with her sons. Gavin and Ashley, Brandon’s older brothers, were keen about recorder lessons from the start and soon learned tenor recorder and later cello and clarinet. Brandon was the black sheep of the family, as he says himself, but soon he too caught the music bug. He started to learn other instruments and did so very quickly, which led to the discovery of his musical talent. Whenever an instrument was missing in the orchestra, Brandon would start to learn to play it. Together with his brothers, he visited remote congregations and gave music lessons there. “It is really important to get the children involved in music lessons, singing lessons, going to church, keeping the fellowship, and keeping everyone together from a young age,” says Brandon. “This not only helps the spiritual growth of the individual, but also the musical growth in our congregations.”
Brandon studied music to be able to teach in the church. He wanted to give something back to the church, to teach children the love of music, that they can joyfully praise God in church. “My goal is not to make money or to be famous. I want to be good enough for heaven. That’s it.”
Brandon is also introducing his six-year-old daughter Skylar and three-year-old son Elijah to music. Because her father also conducts the ballet in Cape Town, Skylar is into ballet. “So she is definitely going to be a stage artist, maybe a musician, maybe a ballet dancer.”
The freelancer not only conducts the Cape Town Ballet and works at the university, he also conducted the Cape Philharmonic Youth Orchestra for many years. “Our children and young people are important. If we do not nurture them, we will not have music in our future,” says Brandon. On his travels to other continents, he was able to gain a lot of experience with young people in other orchestras. He says about the German National Youth Orchestra in Bonn: “The standard is so high. Just fantastic.” And he describes the American Composers Orchestra like this: “These musicians overseas are phenomenal. There is a lot of competition there, the competition for jobs is really tough.”
It is not only the orchestras that have taken his fancy in other countries, but also the landscape and the culture. And in America he was impressed by the discipline of some of his colleagues: “Most of them have a routine. They wake up in the morning, go jogging, have breakfast, practise for three hours, go to work, and practice again for three hours,” he says. “I am trying to bring my life into some sort of a routine” Did it work? “I am still trying,” Brandon says.
His many activities require discipline. “When I have a concert to practise for, the only time to practise is when the children are in bed. Midnight until the morning,” he says. Brandon, who is a Deacon, also likes to conduct in church when he finds time.
For example, the concert for the visit of the Chief Apostle last year in December. He was very honoured to be asked to conduct and a little nervous. “It is good to be a bit nervous.” But he knows a good trick that helps: “I pray before every performance. I ask the Lord then to send His angels and play through me, perform through me,” he says. “And then I go and do what I have prepared, because if I am prepared God will do the rest.” And he sticks to what his father taught him: “Pray while you play.”