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  • Writer's pictureStuart King

New perspectives post-lockdown 1

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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