Tell us about your time at the Academy.
I studied Baroque Flute on the MMus programme. Then, after travelling for three months, I came back and tutored and lectured in Academic Studies for over a decade. At the same time, I was freelancing as a Baroque flautist and, latterly, doing my PhD at Leeds University. It was incredible in lots of ways; I was very young when I started so the Academy gave me a real break. It was a privilege to guide the students through their degrees as both a lecturer and a tutor. I found it very creative too; I was able to write my own courses and focus on teaching Baroque seminars, which I loved.
I continue to feel a strong connection to the Academy, and I poured my heart and soul into it for all those years. It’s really touching to see the impact I had without realising – a bit of advice or a particular lecture that people remember, or someone telling me they play a Baroque instrument because they took my course.
How did you get into broadcasting?
I left the Academy in 2016 to move to Toronto for my husband’s job (although the deal was that I got to write my book while we were there!). I had already started doing a bit of work on radio and TV documentaries and had wanted to do more for the BBC for years. Just before we left, they asked if I wanted to have a go at presenting the Early Music Show and I jumped at the chance. I then had to confess that I was moving to Canada but they were very understanding, showed me the ropes and then for about 18 months I made the Early Music Show and presented other prerecorded concerts from my airing cupboard in Toronto. I really felt like I’d found my medium and my tribe. I realised that through radio I could communicate the things I was really passionate about and be that portkey to another dimension. I made a series of documentaries in Canada for the BBC to mark 150 years of confederation, moved from my airing cupboard to studios at CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), and came back each summer to present the Proms on TV. By the time we moved back to London I was pretty much a full-time freelance presenter for BBC Radio 3.
Has your experience as a performer helped you to develop your broadcasting skills?
I think it’s been the combination of my performing and teaching experience. Presenting is performing – where to put your voice at different times, the speed of delivery, understanding where the climaxes are in what you’re saying and how you’re going to pace your way through a show. You’ve got to get inside the performance so that your reaction is in tune with what has just happened. As a musician, I feel a connection with the artists and can recognise those really special moments in their performances, and that helps me translate it to the audience.
My teaching work at the Academy was also a very real preparation for broadcasting; as a lecturer, I was endlessly trying to capture the students’ imagination and instil new ideas, and that’s exactly what you want do in a radio programme like the Early Music Show. The researching, framing and structuring of programmes is pretty similar in a way too; I’m aiming to make people want to know more – to hear more. So yes, my time at the Academy was training me for what I do now, although I didn’t realise it at the time.
How did things change for you during lockdown?
Making those recordings from my airing cupboard in Toronto meant that when the pandemic struck in March, I knew what I needed to do. I was given some kit on my last day at Broadcasting House and came home and created a tiny studio space on my bedroom floor, between the wall and the side of my bed. In this makeshift studio I’ve broadcast over 200 hours of airtime so far; it’s been extraordinary.
I actually launched a new show, Record Review Extra, during lockdown. It was planned before all of this, but we realised it would still be possible to go ahead so we launched in April. It’s the Sunday night sister show to Andrew McGregor’s Saturday morning Record Review programme, in which he surveys the week’s classical music releases and makes recommendations of both the latest and timeless recordings. On Sunday evenings we play a full performance of one of those recommendations, plus extended highlights of our favourite moments. Initially I felt guilty about being given this opportunity at a time when performances were all halted, but so many recordings were in production, so it was something to celebrate, promote and share with the musical world. I’m acutely aware that I’ve been in a very privileged position. At a time when so many of my friends and colleagues are at home, I’m broadcasting every week. Lockdown has sucked the lifeblood out of so many things and I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to carry on writing shows and being creative.
Do you think people found comfort in the radio during such a difficult time?
Definitely. I’ve received messages from people all around the world saying that the radio is their lifeline, that I’d been their companion for the afternoon, or that I’d opened up a new avenue of music for them. There’s been something very particular about working on the radio through this time – you know that most people listening are facing massive challenges but when few things can help, music really is medicine for the soul. Knowing you’ve made even a fleeting difference to someone’s day is all the motivation I need to put in hours and hours of preparation.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a documentary called The Silence of My Pain that airs on Sunday 8 November. It’s not something I’ve really talked about publicly, but I have a genetic condition, a collagen deficiency called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. It means I dislocate really easily; it causes cramps and spasming and, as well as affecting a number of my organs, it particularly affects my left leg and I started using a wheelchair while I was working at the Academy. The programme is a very personal story of my pain and the way I react to music when I’m in my worst moments. In the process of making it I talked to theatre directors, psychologists, and neurologists and I’m starting to understand why I react in the way I do. It’s not a fact-finding mission to solve pain as such, it’s more of a meditation and reflection on my leaving behind performance and finding a voice on the radio.
Do you have any advice for our current students and recent alumni?
You don’t need a plan B but your plan A must be flexible because you never know what’s just around the corner. You spend so much time at the Academy training your ears and that never stops, musically or practically. You’ve got to keep listening to your audiences and prospective audiences, and if you’re in tune with that, you’ll find you can be flexible. We talk a lot about the transferable skills in music, and they’re very real. I’m living proof of that.
Hannah's new documentary The Silence of My Pain airs Sunday 8 November on BBC Radio 3: bbc.co.uk/programm...
Visit Hannah’s website: hannahfrench.com