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  • Writer's pictureStuart King

This week I had the pleasure of taking part in the BBC Proms with the BBC Singers. This is the first Proms season that has welcomed the audience back into the Royal Albert Hall since the pandemic; a fitting re-opening to coincide with celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the Hall itself.

I am still buzzing from the concert to an extent that I have not experienced for a long time. It really is a feeling of euphoria. There are many factors that contribute to this feeling that lingers blissfully in my mind; factors that are, in part, the continuation of my reflections on new perspectives as we learn to live in our world post-lockdown.

Where to start? Firstly, after 18 months of scant opportunities to make music, receiving the invitation to perform as a guest artist with the BBC Singers in their first prime-time slot in the BBC Proms in years is a great honour and a privilege. Secondly, I will be sharing the stage with a treasured friend and colleague the hugely talented viola da gamba player Liam Byrne. Joining us Tom Rogerson on synths, a composer/performer with huge experience as an improviser and jazz specialist and Delia Stevens, another trail-blazing percussion star. Our brief: to improvise a series of interludes to create a continuous sonic journey that encompasses vocal music from the 12th Century Hildegard von Bingen through the Renaissance polyphonic masterpieces of Byrd, Tallis and Josquin des Prez to the 21st century with four works written since 2015 including 3 world premieres: Birdchant by another old friend and colleague Bernard Hughes, A New Flame by the super talented Nico Muhly and Shiva Feshareki's Aetherworld for choir and turntables.

As the concert approached I admit that I started to get a little nervous. It's one thing to perform on the UK's biggest stage, something I've done many times before, but it's quite another to enter the rehearsal room with very few pages of practised music two days before the concert with the responsibility of 'making it up' as a quartet of soloists; two of whom you've never met!

I started my preparations by listening to the various choral pieces to get a flavour of the building blocks that form the framework for the programme. I even did some sketches for ideas of how to approach some of the challenges of modulation that we were tasked to achieve between pieces. There's only so much you can do of course, but with the knowledge that every famous jazz musician tireless maps different improvisational trajectories so that when the spotlight is on them everything flows as if by magic, this preparation was a well-trodden path towards success in the sphere of improv.

It's interesting though this phenomenon of nerves. Before the pandemic I find it hard to recall that last time I really felt properly nervous before a performance. I can recall countless times in my career spanning back to my youth; performing in the Concerto Final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition aged 18 with the National Youth Orchestra in the Barbican Hall with television cameras on booms whizzing around the auditorium in front of me springs immediately to mind. But with the passing years and hundreds of performances under my belt, performing is as natural as breathing. Amazing how just a short 'break' from this performing career can recalibrate the nervous system back to those teenage qualms.

I found myself turning to mindfulness as part of my preparations. It is important to state that I am a fair-weather mindfulness practitioner (or should that be foul-weather?). Although I have been promoting the benefits of mindfulness and meditation to my students as part of a healthy holistic approach to performance practice for a few years now. There is one particular Ted Talk that I share with students that is all about the benefits of a 5-minute mindfulness regimen. It's a perfect introduction for the young and restless, for whom mindfulness might be an alien practice. It's also ideal for the not-so-young with a stubbornly rooted physical approach to stress relief rather than a spiritual one. New perspectives call for new approaches right?! Time for the old dog to practise what it preaches....

So, I started introducing short bursts of mindfulness into my preparations. Usually at the moment when I could feel myself focussing in on the stress, the anxiety, the self doubt, the stomping demon making it impossible to switch off the moment my head hit the pillow to sleep! Revelation: it works! Just a short burst of guided meditation really made a huge difference as I moved towards the start of the rehearsal period for the concert, and indeed in the dressing room immediately before the show itself.

Once we were in rehearsal at the cavernous Watford Colisseum the anxiety melted away. Sure the mindfulness helped, but so did the other rigorous preparations that were more familiar from the time before Covid. The other amazing transformative element was the music itself and more specifically making music with such phenomenally talented artists as the BBC Singers, my fellow house band members Liam, Tom and Delia and the wonderful conductor Sofi Jeannin. I can safely say that these three days working together were joyous. It's rare to be in a rehearsal room where there is so much love, respect and passion. Everyone giving their best and striving to create something truly magical.

Once again I find myself reflecting on the whys and wherefores of this 'impression'. Is it a result of all these artists living through the pandemic with performance stricken from their lives emerging with more gratitude and revitalised? Is it a sign that my own creative juices were ebbing before the pandemic and I was now re-energised? Perhaps it's just the stars aligning to bring together the right people together with the right music at the right time!? Whatever the answer, I am grateful and thankful for the opportunity. I am proud of myself for tackling my own demons and navigating the day-to-day stress and in so doing enabling myself to produce the goods on the night, free of anxiety, present and alive to the joy of performing again.

Finally, a few words about something else that completes the picture: the after-show celebrations! This starts with a tsunami of relief and elation shared with all your fellow artists back stage. All the necessary pre-performance Covid protocols gleefully abandoned as we rush to embrace one another and head to the pub to celebrate. What a glorious feeling riding the wave post-concert with your newly acquired friends with the added stimulus of alcohol! I have missed that more than I dare admit. Not specifically the alcohol, although it was the first time I've stepped foot in a pub since before lockdown! But the connection, the communion: bringing music to life with a bunch of strangers and sharing it to another even bigger bunch of strangers, whilst simultaneously giving voice to the imaginations of ancient spirits and the living. Music is a powerful medicine. It soothes and heals so many wounds seen and unseen. Being immersed in the creation of that music is a gift for which I have a renewed appreciation. Is it weird to thank Covid for teaching me this lesson? For without the pandemic and the sense that for everyone on this planet time stood still, this euphoria might not be so keenly felt in me as it is right now. Whatever 'this feeling' is or isn't, what I know is that I have a new outlook, a new appreciation, a new perspective on who am I, what I have to give and where I find my joy.

Thank you BBC Singers, BBC Proms, thank you Liam, Tom, Delia, Kit, Sofi, Jonnie, Bernard, Nico, Roddie and Shiva for sharing your talents so open-heartedly. It was magic!

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  • Writer's pictureStuart King

Updated: Jul 12, 2022

The third institution that I visited in May was Oxford University. This year we had two full days of workshops rather than the usual one, which is testament to the University having so many young composers signed up. It wasn't until we were sitting down in the hall ready to start that it became clear that these compositions were all by first year students, most of whom had been learning remotely for the entire year. What an extraordinary thought! I know we have all lived through the pandemic, learning and adapting to a life lived with minimal human contact, but the sudden realisation that these students' entire first year had been experienced through a computer was pretty sobering. What was equally remarkable was the imagination and skill displayed in many of the submitted scores. The very first score we played called London by Isaac Adni had motives derived mathematically from the size of each London Borough. The resulting piece was so clever and engaging, demonstrating great skill and sensitive scoring for the instrumentation of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano (the Pierrot Lunaire line-up). Isaac was not the only stand out; Kevin Zhang is another one to watch. His 'Across the Urban' was an immaculately conceived score both musically and physically. Such maturity and clarity of imagination. Everything from the balancing of the instruments to the specific extended techniques in my part that had been thoroughly researched and precisely detailed in the part made for a compelling composition. Here was a young man who knows exactly what he wants to say and has the technique to say it!

One of the things that is so joyous about these composition workshops is how much I learn from my esteemed colleagues. It's fascinating hearing their perspectives on the pieces we are working on, their ideas on how to improve elements of technique or clarify a composers' intentions. This sort of work has always been something I relish. It is also vital for the young artists learning their craft. It is an honour to be able to help and guide them, but how often do I hear stories of eminent ensembles or so-called top rank musical artists being unkind, unhelpful or just plain rude to these impressionable youngsters. There is no excuse for this behaviour in my book. If you believe that there is justification in belittling another artist however inexperienced they may be then this reflects poorly on you and your place in the profession. Ascending the ladder of success is arduous and not for the faint-hearted, but being thoughtless and cruel to another who is sharing their creativity with you is unspeakable. I loathe this kind of entitled self-aggrandising behaviour. I have witnessed it first hand and it stinks. One of the reasons that I invested so much time and effort in forming CHROMA with the ethos it has is in reaction to some of the early professional experiences I had. We are all musicians, we are all still learning, or should be, and we all have a part to play in welcoming the next generation to sit alongside us and share what we have learned. How else to ensure that mistakes are avoided and best practice is freely available to everyone?

This particular workshop was the last to be hosted by the wonderful Robert Saxton who was retiring from his post at the University. How much I have learned listening to him discussing works with students through the years. Chatting with him via zoom in the workshop I was reminded of performing and recording his works with the Brunel Ensemble when I was still a third year student at the GSMD. I remember seeing him and his friend from school days, Simon Bainbridge, an incongruous sight given their differing heights, walking deep in conversation when they were professors at the GSMD. All this as clear as if it were yesterday only now Robert was heading to Simon's funeral days later. Sad times but cherished memories and grateful celebrations in my mind of these luminous personalities who have given so much to foster talent in successive generations of composers.

Most recently I returned to the Yehudi Menuhin School to workshop and record student pieces that had been written for me to perform in a variety of different configurations with the supremely talented young musicians boarding at this celebrated school. Like so many things these sessions had been postponed several times and were at least a year later than originally scheduled. It was with some relief that I finally made it before yet another academic year concluded.

The first session was somewhat fraught as it involved me walking straight into a performance scenario with two senior students to film a first performance of a Trio for clarinet, violin and piano. Of all the scores I had been sent to prepare, this was by far the most advanced and the most challenging. We had originally planned a day of workshops to precede the filming, but owing to a last minute Covid diagnosis in school, this was cancelled and it was not possible to reschedule. I can think of more relaxing conditions to return to such an elite institution after 2 years than these, but there is always a learning opportunity! We managed a few reasonable takes of his piece in the time allotted, but it was decided that we should try again on my next visit.

The most important lesson for the very gifted student composer, in this instance, was the need for his music to be edited to make it easier to rehearse. We all learn music theory to a degree when studying an instrument. If you are a composer it is essential that your understanding of musical grammar is as rigorous as possible, especially if you are intending to write complex contrapuntal music. The trio has lots of irregular time signatures within it, and the principle problem in the presented score was different groupings of these irregular time signatures in different parts at the same time. This quickly proved to be the undoing of us when up against it, trying to pull together a performance for a recording. Indeed in preparation for the workshop days I had spent several hours pouring over the score and in many instances rewriting my part to mirror what appeared to be the dominant voice in the score. All of this working on instinct without the composer being present. I was nervous that my alterations might end up making it even harder to bring together as I was going on my gut reaction to what I was seeing. Quite how it was going to sound, I admit, I couldn't fathom with any degree of certainty. Fortunately my homework paid off and my alterations certainly made it easier for me to coach these two young men at the same time as concentrate on the job at hand.

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  • Writer's pictureStuart King

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

It's now been four months since the process of opening up society from lockdown began. How sweet the feeling of making music with friends again and communicating with audiences after a year and a half of living life through zoom!

Of course, creatives still found ways to channel their energies when the world went dark. I pushed myself to finally build myself a website from scratch, having poured all of my energy into my ensemble CHROMA for 20+ years. I started podcasting and making YouTube videos designed to pass on my private passions and experience as a performer and teacher to a wider audience.

photo of 'audience member' at ROH hyper-reality opera Current Rising by Claire Shovelton

Mentoring is such a rewarding and valuable shared experience for creatives. I was lucky enough to have several inspirational teachers when I was at music college and in the years immediately following my entry into the music profession. Some of these teachers probably do not know how influential they were on me because they were not instructing me in the formal sense of teacher and student. They were musicians that I had the good fortune to work with professionally at the start of my career on a regular basis over a number of years. All the time I was hanging on their every word, watching and listening to their breath-taking musicality and making mental notes to take away and attempt to emulate in my own practice. This was not limited solely to performance. In CHROMA's early years we were invited to perform for a music club who had just started up a school's music programme in their area. The promoter made contact with us as part of the fantastic Countess of Munster scheme, which helped promote young artists at the start of their careers and when asked if we would be interested in delivering an additional couple of days of schools workshops with the concert, I immediately said yes. I had never lead a schools project before let alone arranged a programme of pieces that would showcase each instrument in a cohesive, interactive educational way. We made it work or at least we styled it out enough to satisfy the promoter and the schools involved. In fact we have been asked back every year since and I have just put the finishing touches to next year's project, which will be the 20th year since we were first invited. After that initial experience I was fortunate enough to be engaged to work on a series of education projects with the Britten Sinfonia, who had an incredible Education/Outreach department at the time. Once again I found myself learning from the various experienced animateurs leading the different projects. It was yet another 'schooling' opportunity that I was able to capitalise on whilst being paid to be a musician on the project. Opportunities like that rarely come along when you most need them, but I made sure that I did not look a gift horse in the mouth. I learned a huge amount on these projects and my confidence in my abilities to lead my own projects grew with each new challenge. l owe a huge debt to these mentors for the role they played in forming the artist and teacher I am today.

Since lockdown began to ease I have worked with four institutions on major projects involving mentoring. Some of these hallowed institutions I have been working with for many years. The first was Royal Holloway, University of London back in March and the first week of lockdown-easing. There was a mix of intense trepidation and euphoria setting foot in a studio with five other friends from CHROMA, two composer friends and colleagues hosting from RHUL and 27 student composers over three days! After months without performing, the prospect of three solid days of playing, culminating with a concert to include a former commissioned work by the incomparable Anna Meredith, was daunting to say the least.

One of the most striking things to me of this post-Covid world is the shift in perspective both in myself and other musical colleagues. There is noticeably more empathy, consideration, generosity and appreciation for one another than before. There is also a striking uptick in creative self-expression in the young composers we worked with; more clearly defined ideas being expressed in their pieces. This could all be a matter of perspective of course. After 18 months of no culture am I confusing a general sense of joy and relief to be making music again with a real palpable improvement in the quality, depth and skill displayed in the compositions by these University students? Perhaps it is both? Time will tell....

photo of CHROMA workshopping at RHUL by Claire Shovelton

In April it was the turn of Masters students at the Royal Academy of Music, who had written substantial pieces for flute, clarinet, cello, piano, harp and vibraphone. This was the second year that we had also been working with student instrumentalists as well as composers. This called for me to wear two hats as there were mentoring considerations in both composition and performance, not to mention the fact that this year due to Covid, we were not culminating with a concert performance of the students' works, but recording them in the RAM studio. That's a whole other kettle of fish and probably means I was needing to wear three hats! Fortunately the three RAM instrumentalists: Lucy Driver - flute, Esther Giverny Beyer - harp and Jonathan Phillips - vibes were all stellar young artists who were fantastically well-prepared making the whole experience joyous. This distinction cannot be underlined enough in my opinion. Young musicians at the start of their careers could take a leaf out of their book in terms of having prepared as much as possible before the workshop/recording sessions. I think back to my own music college days and wonder whether I was taught explicitly what 'being prepared' actually looked like. Whilst my teachers were all amazing I can only really recall a few instances with Thea King, who was every bit as wonderful a pianist as a clarinetist, when she urged me to look at the score for answers concerning phrasing, harmony and form. None of these things could fully be grasped by looking at my single line part alone. This is obvious to me now, but it took me many years of being 'out in the profession' before I made the full realisation myself. In any case, these three RAM students were already streets ahead of where I must have been at their age. It was wonderful to see the spark and eagerness to learn undimmed in these young musicians after enduring such cataclysmic upheaval in their formative years of training.

The quality of the compositions by the RAM students confirmed my initial thoughts on the effect of the pandemic on creativity. Here were six brilliant young composers each with a unique and compelling point of view and clearly defined 'voice'. They had all been given 'The Book of Hours' as stimulus for the project and there were some stand out pieces for me. Ng Yu Hng's The Canonical Hours' was a beautiful blend of Renaissance polyphony and spectral techniques that realised a luminous, gently atmospheric piece. Stephen Balfour's 'The Sixth Hour' demonstrated a great ear for instrumental colour and exquisite sonorities. There was a clear line back to Toru Takemitsu's 'Rainspell', from which the instrumental line-up was taken, in the aleatoric, spatially scored middle section as well as the transparency of texture and timbre. The end result was uniquely Stephen's own voice however. Lastly Tom Vaughan Jones' 'Lines dancing' stood out for combining energetic rhythmic drive with transparent, ethereal tableaux that conjured up images of falling snow and flickering light. I came away from this project mightily impressed with the students' maturity and confidence. Shout outs go to the other student composers Crystalla, James Batty and Bernardo Simões, Phil Cashian, Head of Composition and Emily Mould for ensuring the project survived the numerous changes of shape and rescheduling.

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