When Ryan Topple first started playing the saxophone, he was so bad his mother asked him to play in the garage for the sake of her ears.
It was much the same for brothers Ross and Gareth Cooper.
“On one hand, they wanted us to practice,” 13-year-old Gareth said. “On the other hand you felt they wished we didn’t.”
But the Saltus students have come a long way since their humble beginnings, and are today Bermuda’s top saxophone students.
Ryan, 16, and Ross, 15, have both achieved grade eight in saxophone, and Gareth takes his grade eight exam in May.
This week, their rank won them the chance to perform at the Bermuda Festival, last Tuesday and Wednesday, alongside the Ferio Saxophone Quartet, considered one of Britain’s top emerging saxophone groups.
“Playing with Ferio was a great experience,” Ryan said. “They are great people. We were all really nervous beforehand, but once we set foot on stage we all calmed down. Everything went really well and I don’t think we hit a wrong note.”
After their first performance with Ferio on Tuesday the boys were pumped.
“We felt proud that we’d played with such amazing people,” Ryan said. “And we were excited to do it all again the next night.”
But, they weren’t all that excited when they first received the invitation to perform with Ferio.
“We said yes, but we’d never heard of them before,” Ryan said. “It wasn’t until we did some research that we got excited. They’re quite well known.
“We only have so many music teachers in Bermuda, and here was an opportunity to learn from musicians who have performed all over the world.”
Ross said the hardest thing about the performance was finding time to practice.
“We all have other extracurricular activities,” he said.
“Finding the time was like putting together a puzzle,” Gareth said.
But the brothers tried to practice together for at least a half an hour each night.
They also met with Ryan after school to practice, and even went to each other’s music lessons with music teacher Lisa Maule.
Ross and Gareth were finalists in the Bermuda Festival talent show in January, and played a duet together.
“We don’t compete with each other in music,” Gareth said.
“I think I play a lot differently to my brother,” Ross said. “I like classical and Gareth prefers jazz.”
“Classical isn’t bad,” Gareth said. “It’s just not as good as jazz.”
Ryan weighed in on the side of classical. “I like classical because everything is right in front of you on the music,” Ryan said. “You just do exactly what it says. Jazz can be nice because you can just mess around with it.”
“I like it because all you have to do is play the notes,” he said. “It’s right there. But jazz can be fun because you get to improvise.”
Ferio is considered a bit different from other saxophone groups, because they focus on classical music, as opposed to jazz.
The young musicians played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor with the quartet.
Ryan said it was considered a difficult piece because it was originally written for the organ, but that suited him just fine.
He plays the organ, under the tutelage of Lloyd Matthew.
“I actually play six different instruments,” Ryan said. “I also play piano, percussion, flute and clarinet. The organ is probably the most complicated instrument I play.
“You have two keyboards, pedals and registration to worry about. I play with Mr Matthews in churches around the island, particularly his church, Wesley Methodist, and my church, St Patrick’s.”
Ryan also plays the flute, clarinet and percussion. They all chose the saxophone at age eight, for not very deep reasons.
Ross chose the saxophone because his cousin played it. Gareth chose it because Ross played it, and Ryan chose it because it was the biggest instrument on offer.
“It looked easy,” Ross said. “But the more you get into it, it actually gets a lot harder with different skills and techniques to master.”
“You have to learn how much air to put into the instrument,” Ryan said. “Eight was actually young to be playing a wind instrument. Your lungs have to really develop to play the saxophone.”
But Ryan and Ross quickly caught on after a few months, and at 8, became some of the youngest students to enter the Saltus school band.
Gareth followed them a few years later.
“The first day playing with the school band was really scary for me,” Ryan said. “I was so little and everyone else in the group seemed so much more experienced.”
But he’s since gotten over his fear and regularly plays at Saltus events.
The three boys share a passion for maths, which Ryan thinks is not accidental.
“I don’t know what it is but I think there is a connection between maths and music,” Ryan said. “Maybe it’s all the counting you have to do. But all the boys in my class in the top maths set also play instruments.”
They are all are considering careers in maths and sciences. Ryan would like to do music on a part-time basis.
“I don’t think there are many jobs in Bermuda in music,” Ryan said. “Unless you go into teaching. But I could be a church organist on weekends.”
They hope that the performance with Ferio will open doors for them.
“Maybe someone in the audience will see us performing, and think of us the next time there’s an opportunity to perform,” Ryan said.
• For more information about the Bermuda Festival see bermudafestival.org