The most eagle-eyed amongst you may have a caught a brief flash of me on the BBC Young Musician Final Highlights , percussion category last month. Earlier in the year I had the challenging task of helping select the final five percussionists who would move from the category Semi-Finals to the broadcast final. It was a weekend filled with outstanding performances and I marvelled at the dedication the performers had shown in preparation of their programmes, and the freedom of the performances we were treated to. I've done plenty of adjudicating over the years but being asked to judge for the BBC Young Musician Percussion Semi-Final felt especially significant and a real honour... but why?
The first time I played a percussion instrument was as a 13 year old at secondary school. The caretaker, Danny, formed a covers band for some of us who were interested in playing music at lunchtimes and I got to play the keyboard parts (I still know the opening to Dire Straits' 'Walk of Life'!). I was much more interested in watching the drummer though... One day he didn't turn up; this was my chance so I sat down and played, copying what I'd seen. That's when I became a drummer. I learnt lots of new beats and fills but most importantly, fell in love with touring and the 'rock and roll' lifestyle. Our first external performance at the Librarian's wedding was particularly formative, high with adrenaline on the 'tour bus' (AKA ... school bus) after the show. I knew I liked it but I had no idea about the percussion family more generally.
It wasn't until I was 16, and switched on the TV, that I knew that there were other percussion instruments to play. BBC Young Musician was a gateway into a hitherto unknown world and I was immediately hooked. I was particularly impressed by the marimba, an instrument I had heard but never seen before and was transfixed by the 4-mallet technique - how did they do that!? I decided I would become a percussionist.
There was a snaky old xylophone and some timpani at the local music centre so I decided I would play these. In the week I could practise my tuned percussion exercises on the piano at school, playing with my two index fingers like mallets. I set up the drum-kit so I could learn the timpani pieces on the toms and continued playing in a variety of rock bands. 12 months later, I had my Grade 8 certificate and was watching BBC Young Musician percussion heats regularly on the recorded VHS at home! One day I'd do it myself...
I needed to find someone to teach me and it was coming to the time that I could go to University. My life since sitting down at the drums was music so there was no real other option, I had to go and study music. I knew I wanted to perform so found some prospectuses for Universities and discovered 'Conservatoires'. I didn't know about these places but they sounded very interesting. I applied for a few and, perhaps unsurprisingly in hindsight, didn't get in. I knew nothing about the world of percussion. I had some mallets, lots of enthusiasm but no real technique, experience or knowledge of the Conservatoire world. Everyone seemed to know a lot more than me and I couldn't answer any questions in my interviews around what marimba pieces I'd played, or what my repertoire aims were. All I knew were the pieces I'd heard on Young Musician...
Luckily, my Dad found that that there were some late auditions opened up at Birmingham Conservatoire. I booked an audition and took the trip up, meeting my soon to be teacher, colleague and friend James Strebing. James didn't run the audition like the other places. Instead of listening to me behind a desk, he stood beside me and ran the session more like a lesson, seeing how I responded to his suggestions. We had a good time and he told me to get some new timp sticks (I had just stolen some felty sticks from the music centre percussion room!). I also got to see, and play, a marimba in person for the first time which was quite exhilarating. A few weeks later I got the acceptance letter and quickly responded with a YES.
Once I started at the Birmingham Conservatoire I practised tuned percussion and solo percussion every day, finally able to play the full range of percussion instruments. Due to me being one of the youngest in the academic year, it worked out that I could enter Young Musician 2002 as I marginally met the age restriction requirements, I was still a 'Young Musician'...JUST. My attention turned to learning new pieces and planning out the programmes with my marimba teacher at the time, Liz Gilliver.
Instead of going home for the Summer in 2001, I stayed in Birmingham and practised. The Young Musician competition had provided me with a focussed target to aim at. Even through the existential doom of September 11th, I had something to keep me going, something to provide meaning in a world that would never be the same again. I would take the scheduled expeditions down to London to compete in the heats, expecting to be knocked out, but, miraculously continued to get through; maybe I had a chance?
So my first experience of a Young Musician Percussion Semi-Finals was as competitor. 10 young percussionists headed to Guildhall School of Music and Drama for two days of rehearsals and performances. Only 5 would 'survive' and move onwards to the final. I played well but, to cut a long story short, I didn't make it, vanquished by such future luminaries as Patrick King (WNO timpanist and fellow adjudicator!) The Young Musician experience was over, but it is an experience which has lived with me. So why does this all matter?
BBC Young Musician competition is one of the only occasions where the world of percussion takes centre stage on national television. There are many more opportunities for interested young musicians to find out about percussion and the repertoire, more than 'back in the day', but you can't search for something you don't know exists. The Young Musician Percussion broadcast is a chance for future percussionists to be exposed to that spark of inspiration, necessary for lighting the fire of passion and progress. It is a vital tool for inspiring the next generation to consider percussion as a discipline which provokes their development.
Additionally, the Young Musician competition provides a structure for percussionists in the very early stages of their career to push themselves towards the edge of their current abilities, meeting like-minded individuals along the way. The 'winning' is secondary to the benefits of competing. Everyone who takes part will improve and develop their confidence, their sense of 'I Can!'. This evolution of self becomes the catalyst for a snowball of future experiences.
I have seen first hand how supportive an atmosphere the Young Musician competition fosters. It is not a 'gladiatorial arena'. The production team understand that, intrinsic to the experience, there will be nerves with all the physical and mental effects produced but the competition organisers, judges and fellow competitors create an environment, and culture, of camaraderie, united in our love of percussion and the thrill of performance.
In conclusion, please do consider applying for the Young Musician Percussion category, you will only improve and learn. Similarly, if you are a teacher, encourage your students to 'take the risk', you may be surprised by how dramatically they develop. Don't succumb to 'I don't have a chance' thinking, if only those who could 'win' applied, there would be no competition to win. Most of all, let's keep Young Musician Percussion on the TV, the impacts of this broadcast are bigger than we truly know and has had the effect of inspiring 'Young Musicians' like me to discover the world in which they wish to live. This competition is meaningful. To go 'back to the Semi-Finals' was very special to me and I am grateful for the opportunity, in a very small way, to contribute.
(p.s. Note to production team: Now we've had Young Musician, Young Jazz Musician and Young Dancer. How about Young Popular Musician of the Year....?)