What inspired you to pursue a career in music?
My parents were not classical musicians, but they were performers and they really encouraged it. There was always music at home – my Dad’s a big Mozart and Beethoven fan and I was just drawn to it.
In terms of pursuing music as a career, I did consider other things, but it was just always there and I kept coming back to it. When I was 12, I started having lessons with a brilliant teacher, Jim Muirhead from the Hallé, and seeing him doing what I thought I wanted to do really confirmed it for me. The final push came when I was at Chetham’s School of Music and I had the chance to play Principal Clarinet in Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2, which has a huge clarinet solo, at the Bridgewater Hall. The experience of working so hard towards something, feeling stressed about it and then it going well was exhilarating – there was no turning back from that point.
Tell us about your experience at the Academy.
I thought the Academy was brilliant – I was lucky enough to have lessons with every clarinet teacher there at the time, and each one gave me something different but equally essential for my development. I loved the vibe of being surrounded by other people pursuing the same goal with the same passion. The clarinettists were a very tight-knit community within the Woodwind Department. We got on really well, went out for clarinet curries and really supported each other. It was a nice atmosphere and it didn’t feel too competitive.
My closest group of friends are ex-Academy and I definitely made friends for life. It’s fun when you bump into people in the profession who you’ve actually known for decades.
What was your career path from leaving the Academy to becoming Principal Clarinet of the RPO?
I started auditioning for jobs in my final year at the Academy, and it just so happened that a lot of opportunities came up at the right time. I went for them with the spirit that I had nothing to lose, and I think that really helped. I got quite a few trials early on, and was lucky enough to get the bass clarinet position with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic just a few months after I graduated. It was brilliant timing. I was there for eight years and loved it – it was a really varied job and I had the opportunity to play lots of clarinet there, including first clarinet for some important bits of work. I then moved to the bass clarinet position at the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but just two years later I got the RPO Principal Clarinet job. It’s been great – three really different jobs that have taught me so much along the way. I don’t think I’d have been able to go straight into a Principal Clarinet role straight out of the Academy – I got there thanks to what I learnt sitting down the line from other amazing Principal Clarinets.
Where is your favourite place to perform?
Some of my happiest memories have been in Montreux, performing as part of the festival there. On one of the occasions when we were there with Charles Dutoit, we did three concerts on consecutive nights of the big Stravinsky ballets. That was definitely a career highlight. It’s such a beautiful setting on the lake, and in your downtime you can go for walks and train rides in the mountains and relax by the pool. It’s also a great venue and, because the festival is so high profile, we always play great repertoire with amazing soloists. I also love the big trips to the USA – that’s the more manic side of touring! We’ll spend three and a half weeks there, which involves a lot of travelling – so many hours spent on the bus! But because my colleagues are so fun it never feels like a chore – we have a laugh and we get on with it.
What have been the the greatest challenges of your career so far?
One challenge has been making the leap from bass clarinet to Principal – I always tried to keep my clarinet playing to a high standard and, in fact, I feel like that helps my bass clarinet playing a lot, but you inevitably get pigeonholed, and I think it could have been quite hard to escape that. I’m forever grateful to the RPO for listening to me with open-mindedness. It was a good fit, and they took me seriously and gave me decent things to play on trial – that’s why it worked.
And now, of course, it’s a challenge to balance family life and work. I’ve been in the profession since 2005, but only now am I having to deal with the age-old problem of having young kids and still wanting to pursue my career and have ambition. It’s a fine balancing act – every week’s a bit different, every week poses new challenges, but we’ll get there – at least I know I’m not the first person who’s had to worry about it.
What advice would you give to a young musician hoping to follow a similar career path to yours?
The advice I would give would be to be honest with yourself – make sure you really do want it. The advice I was often given was: if you could do something else, if you can think of anything else that you could do, do that because an orchestral career is competitive and really hard work. But I needed to know that I’d given it my best shot – then if it didn’t work out then I could at least look back and know that I had tried my best. If you do really want to do it, be prepared to work hard and put the practice in. There are no shortcuts.
On a practical level, play to as many people as you can – and hope that somebody will like what they hear and take a chance on you. It’s about getting the first few opportunities that can then lead onto other things. I was very lucky – Mark van de Wiel was that person for me. He only started teaching at the Academy in my last year there. He gave me feedback every step of the way and I improved because of it. I’ll never forget that, because without it I wouldn’t have had those first few opportunities and the best way to learn is actually being there and doing it.