Tell us about your musical beginnings. Who or what inspired you to take up music?

Although my parents weren’t musical, for as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by music and musical instruments. One of my earliest memories was being transfixed by the upright piano in school assembly, watching my primary school teacher playing and being so interested in how she was moving her fingers and changing the pattern of notes. She picked up on my interest and became my first piano teacher. I’m so grateful to my parents for supporting my journey – particularly as I had a hearing impairment and a visual impairment. They could see that this was something that gave me a lot of joy and inspiration. After a couple of years of learning the piano, I wanted to make music with other young people so I took up the clarinet. I started playing in the Bridgend Youth Orchestra and moved up through the grades. I’d heard about Chetham’s through some people in my neighbourhood and went up to Manchester for an audition. When I was at Chetham’s I was surrounded by even more young musicians and people who lived and breathed music like I did. And it was then that I started really taking an interest in composition.

You then came to the Academy to study composition with second study clarinet. What were your highlights and what was your experience like?

It was an amazing four years. The best thing about the Academy for me was my composition teacher, Gary Carpenter. He was a great teacher, incredibly supportive and allowed me to develop at my own pace and in the direction that was right for me. There were lots of highlights with the musicians that came into the Academy, too. Peter Maxwell Davies was in the building a lot when I was there, which was brilliant – he was a generous, slightly eccentric, wonderfully humorous and kind presence. Harrison Birtwistle also came in for a couple of classes and, again, was really inspiring and generous.

In terms of other highlights, my projects at the Academy were wildly varied. I remember writing a piece for the Musical Theatre Department’s Christmas Showcase, which was directed by the legendary Mary Hammond – that was amazing. One of the most unusual experiences that springs to mind was writing a test piece for the Buffet Crampon Clarinet Prize. It meant that the piece I wrote, Circuiting, received 10 or 11 successive performances in one day. I sat in the Henry Wood Room all day, with one student after another coming in to play it – it was so interesting because they had all taken different approaches to the same piece. It taught me so much about how I can notate something one way, but a musician might approach it completely differently.

Tell us about your work with the Paraorchestra.

Another highlight of my time at the Academy was meeting Charles Hazlewood, who was in the process of forming the Paraorchestra. It was clear that he had a big vision and was completely serious about levelling the playing field for professional musicians who happen to have disabilities. The Paraorchestra launched in 2012 and our first performance was with Coldplay in the closing ceremony of the London Paralympics.

For the next few years I played in the group as a clarinettist, and then in 2015 I wrote Towards Harmony, the first specially commissioned piece for the Paraorchestra. In this piece I started exploring the possibilities of combining assisted technology with conventional orchestral instruments. I started getting more involved in the day-to-day running of things and now, in my job as Associate Music Director, I help produce the projects and find new musicians.

The Paraorchestra has grown while keeping its social mission at heart – promoting the cause of disabled musicians who, for all kinds of reasons, face barriers. It’s not just about accessibility, although there are still concert halls all over the country where it’s very difficult for a wheelchair user to perform on the stage or even reach the stage, but there are also societal attitudes that are not always obvious. I think some people still struggle to make the connection between disabled musicians and excellence. For me, that’s where being a graduate of the Academy is really helpful. I’ve been really fortunate that, with the support of my parents, teachers and mentors, I’ve been able to pursue a career, but not every disabled musician is able to make that seamless transition into the industry. The Paraorchestra allows musicians to have the opportunity to perform at their best in an environment that suits them, rather than being chased out of the industry by horror stories of not being able to reach the stage or being discriminated against.

Tell us about the projects you’ve worked on.

There’s a real variety to the Paraorchestra projects – I can be writing music based on the music of Kraftwerk to be performed in a nightclub, creating a mash-up of video game music or writing an original piece using assisted tech.

The Kraftwerk piece, which I co-composed with Charlotte Harding, was a symphonic reworking of their album Trans-Europe Express for the Paraorchestra. It used assisted tech, synthesisers and electronic drum kit, and all of the wind, brass and string instruments were amplified via an enormous mixing desk that essentially turned the orchestra into a giant synthesiser.

We’ve done so many amazing things – we did a project at Glastonbury celebrating the music of Barry White. Bringing that music back to life in such an incredible setting was beautiful. All these projects keep things really varied and mean that I learn so much about other kinds of music and meet other kinds of musicians as well.

I feel so fortunate to have got involved with the Paraorchestra because it helps me find inspiration in unexpected places. Over the last few years my musical and artistic horizons have really widened.

Tell us about the commissioning process for the Paraorchestra.

Every project we do involves a lot of research and development – we have a process that we follow because for most projects it’s not just a case of turning up and playing on the day. For example, we’re working on a big outdoor show in Bristol, SMOOSH!, that will move through the streets. It will be a travelling band of musicians – both professional musicians of the Paraorchestra and musicians from the community – and a mix of disabled and non-disabled dancers. It will be a celebratory, joyous, magnestising piece that will hopefully bring people out from the community. But you can’t put on a show like that in one day – with so many performers involved with different needs, it takes a lot of work. The special thing about the Paraorchestra is that it brings the composer a lot closer to the musicians performing their work. It’s a lot more expensive and time consuming, but it’s worth it because it means that we can create shows that have a completely different feel and interface, not only with the people who are performing in them but with the audience, too.

How have you coped during the pandemic? Has there been anything positive to come out of this time?

Purely focusing on the positives, the pandemic has been an opportunity to do more composing. One of the big projects I did last year was a radio drama score for Radio 3 called Beethoven Can Hear You, which had Peter Capaldi playing Beethoven and an actor called Sophie Stone who identifies as Deaf. It was quite daunting as I’d never written a radio drama score before and it was made more challenging by the fact that it had to be recorded, mixed and edited remotely, which was new to me. But I’m really proud of what we did in the circumstances – I had a lot of lovely feedback about it and I wouldn’t have had time to do it had it not been for lockdown.

If you could go back to when you graduated and give yourself some advice, what would it be?

I would tell myself to keep an open mind – have goals and aspirations, of course, but it’s more important to have a sense of who you want to be and to know your values as a musician and a person. We leave the Academy with this amazing training and that gives you a really strong base, but none of us ever stops learning and encountering new things. Don’t be in a rush – there’s so much emphasis in our industry on youthfulness and the next bright young thing, but we all develop at our own rate and have our own paths. I look back at my 22-year-old self graduating from the Academy and I realise how far I’ve come musically and artistically. I thought I knew everything back then – I now know that I definitely didn’t!

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Photo by Paul Blakemore