Interview with Jeremy Garside, head of technology at the London Symphony Orchestra

Jeremy Garside is in Norway supervising the technology for an orchestral and choral concert. It is 2003 and he has already clocked up 20 years' experience...

Jeremy Garside is in Norway supervising the technology for an orchestral and choral concert. It is 2003 and he has already clocked up 20 years' experience meeting the IT needs of an impressive collection of orchestras - the Halle, the Welsh National Opera and the BBC's National Orchestra of Wales. In a year's time, he will add a fourth to that list - the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), where he is head of technology.

For the moment, however, he is immersed in his current project - because this is going to be like no other music show concertgoers have ever attended. Or musicians have played in, for that matter. The audience has gathered in Harstad, a city 150 miles inside the Arctic Circle, for the annual music festival. The wind band - part-timers from the local fire brigade - are on stage. But the string section is in Tromso. And the singers are in Oslo.

This is all part of a technology-­mediated musical experience which is Garside's latest wheeze. He explains, "It was an idea I started at the BBC - that you could use ISDN phone lines to create low-latency, high-quality audio links that would allow musicians in different locations to play as though they were on the same concert stage.

"We would have a special piece of music composed so each group could play its part and hear the others. It was like getting three different perspectives on the same score."

Not your average day at the office. But Garside's time in technology shows there is more than one way to build a satisfying career in IT. If you like IT and combine it with another passion, you get twice the pleasure from your work.

Yet Garside admits he wasn't thinking much about computing when he left Cambridge University with a music degree in the early 1980s. He played the French horn. "I was a very good player, but it wasn't going to be the living I was going to make."

Instead, Garside found himself working as orchestral assistant for the famous Halle Orchestra, as deeply ingrained in Manchester's consciousness as the Free Trade Hall (where it often performed) or the Ship Canal. "I was dealing with things such as booking players, looking after contracts, and the practical arrangements for putting on concerts and touring around the country."

Pioneering IT

Computers were not much in evidence in the early days. And they did not figure in Garside's career until he moved three years later to the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff as their orchestra manager. After a few months, he took on some of the financial work, budgeting for operas as well as working out the payroll for the 80 members of the opera's orchestra.

"I started doing pen and paper calculations for all members of the orchestra once a week," he says. "But that was a dumb thing to do and what got me into computing was when I programmed an old Amstrad word processor to calculate the payroll and print out the pay slips. It took me about three days to do it - but once it was working it saved me endless days of pen and paper toil."

And he had caught the IT bug. By the time he left the Welsh National Opera in 1991, Garside was immersed in planning and budgeting work and had helped the company to graduate to spreadsheets and databases with a planning system to help manage the financial side of the business with more precision.

"Putting on an opera is a very complicated business," he says. "You have to work out how much the orchestra is going to cost as well as the soloists and the choir. Then there are the costs of theatre sets, lighting, stage crews and other things. The system meant we could calculate the production expenses in a more structured and accurate way, which improved decision making."

By the time Garside moved to the BBC as business manager for the National Orchestra of Wales, he had developed a reputation for being able to strike the right note when it came to matching an orchestra's needs with technology. He found BBC Wales something of a blank canvas as far as IT was concerned. "We had a building with something like 1,200 people working in it and not many more than about six PCs," he recalls.

One of his early projects was to build a scheduling system for the National Orchestra of Wales. "There were a lot of well-structured paper-based systems at the BBC and it was a question of taking them and reinterpreting them using IT. The system allowed the orchestra to plan its activities and produce schedules as well as drive its business processes through a database.

"The interesting thing about orchestras is that they have a lot of very specific information. Whichever piece you perform, you need a different set of players. For example, for a Beethoven symphony you need 75 players but for a Mahler symphony you might need 103. If you have a database of all the pieces, you can immediately see which players and other resources you will need to run a rehearsal or put on a concert."

By the time Garside left BBC Wales, he had played a major role in making the organisation techno-friendly. Almost everyone who needed a PC had access to one. Garside, however, found himself at something of crossroads in his career with an important decision to take. He had been offered the opportunity to train as an accountant. "It wasn't attractive to me because it didn't suit my approach to life," he says.

So he left the BBC and decided to try life as a freelance, innovating technology in music and broadcasting. Apart from the Norwegian multi-centred concert, he also worked on a project to build a broadcast production platform using a minimum set of technology.

"We took a couple of laptops and hard drives, some cameras and microphones and lots of batteries to Ammamford, a small town in rural Wales," he says. "The idea was that the production team would produce one- to five-minute pieces which we would edit on the laptop and then broadcast through a wireless platform from an aerial situated in the bell tower of the local church.

"The project was looking at the practicalities and logistics of setting up a totally parallel and small-scale broadcasting infrastructure from traditional mainstream broadcasting."

Make your lifestyle a career

If working on fascinating, even quirky, projects gives you a buzz, Garside's career approach contains lots of pointers. Work for organisations you like, marry IT to your other interests, be creative and innovative in what you do. And look for ways to show others how IT can solve their problems. It is a way to build a career which chimes with your lifestyle. Yet it is not the way to become the captain of legions.

As head of technology at the LSO, Garside is conducting a small band. If you are working with limited resources, you need to know how to turn your hand to different tasks.

Modestly, Garside says of his LSO technology team, "We all know how to do a lot of things, often rather badly." He is wrong about the second part, but right when he adds, "We are very much in the business of being general tradesmen and master of none. The key skill is knowing the limits of our ability and when to buy in skills we need.

"A lot of what we do in terms of managing technology is about working out the most effective and simplest way of doing something - minimising overheads, looking for simplicity, standardising ways of doing things."

Yet for his love of life in music technology, Garside has one unfulfilled ambition. "I have always regretted not managing a bigger team. A small team is enjoyable, but it might be interesting to work with a larger group of people."

But would he move to a bigger job outside the world of music? "I think I would it if involved innovative use of technology. I think that's the key thing for me."

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