Jo Cole interview

Jo Cole, Head of Strings, explains the important balance between artistic inspiration and life skills that the Academy offers 


I will never forget the feeling as I walked into the Academy when I’d got a place to study here – it just spoke to me. I remember walking in as Head of Strings, almost 30 years later, feeling exactly the same adrenaline rush, and being inspired by a place that does all the things that it does and by all the people in it.

I try to foster positive feelings of engagement here. I can’t bear the negative competition that can emerge and I try hard to quash it. When I give my welcome talk I say, ‘Don’t compare yourself to other people. Only compare yourself with yourself and your own progress.’

Specialist schools can be helpful to the channelling of ambition and talent, but the route of standard education is equally beneficial. If you go to a comprehensive or public school, music is part of life, but it’s not something that is scheduled, so you have to be very self-motivated to practise after homework and everything else. The ability to self-motivate can be very strong with those students because they’ve had to work hard to manage their own development.

People are surprised that individual lessons here are only an hour a week. It ensures that over the course of four years of study, students develop independence. You leave this place able to learn from an inspiring teacher and knowing how to teach yourself, and you are more of an independent player.

Chamber music is a key component of study because it covers so many disciplines – not only in one’s individual playing, but also in blending, intonation, how to interact with people, how to share a vision, and how to compromise. These are all useful, especially if you end up on the board of a company.

The experience here should be as close as possible to the profession, with the same non-negotiables and protocols. First-year undergraduates have an orchestra rehearsal every week, but after first year, we model orchestra projects to be similar to the profession, with a short rehearsal period running up to the concert. However much you think you’re prepared, though, the professional orchestral environment is completely different from youth orchestras. I found that even doing European Union Youth Orchestra.

Neville Marriner offered some excellent advice: ‘There are non-negotiables. You’ve got to be able to play incredibly well, with a good sound, and you’ve got to get on with people. If you’re a pain in the neck, you won’t get asked back.’

An orchestra is a volatile environment and can be very stressful. There are peaks and troughs, which can be very long and boring, interspersed with moments of absolute terror. You have to be robust. It’s important to raise students’ awareness of this. There’s a difference between being selfish – which is not okay – and having some sense of self-preservation, which is very important.

Educational programmes are now a massive part of orchestral life. When I graduated I played in Gemini, which visited schools and did things like composing workshops, but it was unusual then, and a little ad hoc. Now the outreach element of being a musician is embedded in much professional orchestral work, and is part of an interesting career. It breaks down barriers, and can be a great niche for people who love to communicate about music. You can’t compromise – you have to be a very fine player – but there’s a different atmosphere to the formality of the concert hall, and some people thrive in it. It opens up all sorts of ideas and doors. Students here do community projects with local schools in their third year.

A lot about success comes down to practical things, such as how to manage your diary; not taking on too much; accepting the fact that you can’t be in two places at once; and treating people with respect. We try to pick up behaviours that are unprofessional disaster areas, such as being late, or being unprepared.

I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’. If you’re good, you will get lots of opportunities. If students want to do a concert outside the Academy, they have to fill out a form. We nearly always say yes, because experience is incredibly important, but if there is something here that they’re supposed to be doing, they have to manage the fact that they can’t be in two places at once.

My principle is this: unless there’s a significant set of circumstances, stick with what you’re committed to. You have to be able to rationalise things. If a fixer asks you to do something and you say, ‘I’m supposed to do something else, but I’ll drop it to do your thing,’ the fixer will think, ‘I wonder if they will do that to me in a few months.’

At the audition stage we’re not looking for finished artists, but there are some basics. Good intonation is important because if it’s not in place it’s very difficult to establish. We don’t mind the odd accident, but if a player doesn’t hear their own tuning, it sets alarm bells ringing. Rhythm and pulse have to be embedded, too, as well as a concept of sound. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve got an exquisite sound, but that we can tell that making a good sound is important to them.

Players should convey that they absolutely love playing. Performing in auditions is stressful, but it’s a fact of life. If you can overcome the anxiety and your sense of apprehension to immerse yourself in a piece, it means you’re going to be happy as a musician, which is important. 

I often ask the question, ‘Why do you want to be a musician?’ It makes me sad that no one ever replies, ‘I want to make music my life.’ They usually say they want to be in an orchestra, or to be a soloist, but that’s such a small conception, rather than realising that they are on the threshold of making sound their whole life. 

The music has to come first, to be the driver. If someone says, ‘I’m only interested in a concerto career,’ it’s putting the cart before the horse. There are certain elements of a soloist’s life that are lonely, demanding and stressful. If you narrow your idea of what your life is going to consist of, you miss out. You have to start broad, experiencing and absorbing everything, and gradually narrow down to the things you love, supporting them with enough of the things with which you can earn your living. Then, ideally, you end up at the pinnacle, with everything you want. I don’t think you should start by closing doors.

Some people have an over-extended anxiety about how challenging music is as a profession and others have a fairy tale concept that they’re going to be discovered and everything will be amazing. It’s important for us to preserve aspirations carefully, at the same time as colouring them with a bit of reality. This has to be a gradual process, because aspiration is a fuel that makes students practise and gives them a sense of purpose.

It’s important not to make predictions about which students will make it or not, because they astonish you the whole time – in both directions. At auditions you have to invest in potential. It’s like finding tender plants and bringing them into the conservatory. Sometimes a student comes out of the undergrowth after four years and they’re stunning. This is ‘ugly duckling’ syndrome: they take the four years to become a swan. It is emotional when you see their final recital, knowing they’ve gone from one to the other, and how hard they have worked.

The elephant in the room is the fees. There is a sense that students are customers, much more than when I was a student. We have to be careful that in order to keep students satisfied as customers we don’t give them a false sense of how well they are doing. Giving short-term feel-good feedback is irresponsible when there’s something substantial that needs addressing. Satisfaction often may come from the end result, rather than the process.

Not only do students have to worry about their loans, but they also have to buy an instrument and that is a challenge. It’s a massive issue for string players. We are living in a golden period of string instrument making, and students have the potential to buy a superb instrument for a fraction of what an old Italian one would cost. At the Academy, we are lucky to have not only a world-renowned collection of fine old instruments, but also the Calleva Collection – a state-of-the-art assembly of instruments, specially commissioned by a generous benefactor to raise awareness of contemporary makers so that students to realise that they can get something modern that really works and which they can afford. It’s no good hankering after what you can’t have. I would love an Alfa Romeo but I’ve got a Citroën C1 and it’s great. It is perfectly possible to have tomorrow’s Alfa Romeo in your hands for a good price.

Musical development doesn’t mean just being in a practice room for several hours a day. That is not what it is to be a musician. Work is having your ears open to ideas the whole time, being available to inspiration. You don’t get that from isolating yourself in a practice room. My rule is five fruit and veg a day, and to go to at least three performances a week, just to remember the medium in which we’re working.

You shorten the odds of succeeding if you take advantage of everything that is on offer – the classes and events – and the fact that we are in London. We are able to get the most inspiring people to drop by to work with our students. I get frustrated that people don’t go to enough masterclasses, especially as I’ll often be listening to the class thinking, ‘I wish I’d known that when I was 18.’ To be fair, there is a lot going on at the Academy, and we often have to work around the availability of the people coming to visit. I tell students to go to the beginning, or pop in for half an hour. You learn so much, and have a little injection of great music. The benefit of a master class is often not for the person who’s playing – it is usually a tool for everyone else to learn from.

A conservatoire is as good as the people who are in it. The Academy has strong relationships and connections with the profession. We work with the profession, and explore both the outer areas and the intersecting circles of studying for a degree and preparing people for life as musicians. All the senior management staff are musicians.

Brexit is disappointing. I think of myself as a European, with a strong relationship with the culture and the artists of the continent. We have coexisted for centuries and it feels strange that a figurative wall has come down. It is a blow, but we have a strong feeling that we must let it have a minimal impact on our work and our friends in Europe.

When I go to China and Korea I see a lot of young players who are beautifully set up, technically – it’s like having a blank canvas. There’s also a huge hunger there to be inducted into Western music. They’ve often got fabulous new insights into the music, so they might have a different starting point but our arrival points are similar. The old cliché that they automatically have brilliant technique but don’t understand music is terribly out-dated. They have a lot to teach us about how to establish deep foundations from a very young age and a refreshing hunger to learn.

It’s harder for kids to practise these days because there are so many distractions. I lay a lot of blame on social media, because it’s so time consuming, but there are also many positives about it. Students here have to learn how to manage their social media profile – they get a lot of advice about that. Social media is a minefield, but also a goldmine. You have to use it, but not let it take over your life.

Technology has a huge role, but it’s a supporting role – it’s important that it doesn’t take over. I believe a paper diary is the most beautiful thing in the world – you can just open a page and read it. It’s worth remembering that we work with instruments that haven’t changed for centuries and don’t need a power source. Having said that, I encourage my students to record their lessons, and you can’t live without a metronome.

It’s crucial for students to know that their safety, happiness and contentment are at the top of our priority list – way above everything else. If there is any kind of concern, not only can they tell us, but in telling us, they are protected from any fallout. It’s important that they don’t feel they can’t say something in case it comes back to haunt them.

I love hearing students play. Some of the concerts I’ve been to have been life-changing – not only hearing fabulous music, but also seeing the connections the students have made. It’s so rewarding to watch how the work of art a student is playing and the work of art that is the student come together, especially if they have come out of a bad experience. Seeing it all fall into place is heart-warming.

I have a loose-leaf page in my paper diary, in which I list students I’m worried about. They appear if they’ve had a bereavement, or if they haven’t been doing any practice, or they have a horrible instrument. The list has got so many crossings out and additions. Students go in and out, from being a cause of concern to being a delight, to being a huge reward, and sometimes coming full circle again to being a concern again!

People ask if I have favourites. Of course there are certain particularly engaging personalities, but without exception the students all have something interesting. I have such admiration for them – and recognition of their efforts. They live in a different world from us, and I respect that, and at the same time they leave the doors very much open to their world. It’s a privilege to work with them.