What I think makes the Academy special is that you can really find your voice, with the right guidance in the right atmosphere, and I was really lucky in being able to do that.
Jonathon Heyward

What is your earliest musical memory?

My earliest musical memory is singing in my school choir when I was in fifth grade. Unfortunately it was short lived as I was given a solo in a patriotic song that every American should know and I completely bombed. My Mum then suggested I try something different, so I joined the string programme. I decided I wanted to learn the violin, but on the day I went to pick up an instrument the queue for the violins was out the door so, being an impatient person, I picked up a cello instead. Those were my formative years of learning what music was – incredibly random but it worked out!

What was your route into conducting?

It’s another story of chance – my teacher was off sick the day before a concert and our substitute teacher wasn’t musical. All of our names went into a hat and I was the first one picked to conduct. I was shy and didn’t like the idea of being in front of everyone but instantly I enjoyed the idea of the score and all the different lines coming together to create one thing. After that my teacher gave me rehearsals at least once a week and let me conduct one piece in every concert. I had no idea what I was doing but just to start to understand how to shape my hands to make sound was amazing. To have had that opportunity in a state school was really special and something I always hold dear to my progression as a conductor and where I am today.

Who were your musical inspirations growing up?

For cello it was Yo-Yo Ma. Incredibly, he came to Charleston in South Carolina, near where I grew up, and he was one of the first classical performers I ever saw. Still to this day I have his signature in my Suzuki book 1.

Conducting-wise, it was David Stahl, who was Music Director of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. He allowed me to come into his rehearsals and seeing him work and learning how it all functioned was inspirational.

What brought you to the Academy?

When I first came here I fell in love with the culture of the UK and the Academy – it’s unlike anything in the United States! I loved every minute of the audition - Sian Edwards is brilliant and I really connected with her. Afterwards we talked so I could understand the way she taught and it clicked instantly. So besides the glamour of the Academy, it was about coming to work with Sian because I knew I’d learn a lot from her.

Tell us about your most significant memory from the Academy.

Something I will always remember was doing my final project which, was Dvořák Nine. At that moment I feel that I was truest to myself as a musician - it had taken me two years but I finally got there. That was a really big moment for me. What I think makes the Academy special is that you can really find your voice, with the right guidance in the right atmosphere, and I was really lucky in being able to do that.

Tell us about life since leaving the Academy.

Before I left the Academy I was announced as the Assistant Conductor of the Hallé. That was an amazing segue for me, to have received such a top-of-the-line education and then dip straight into intense professional work.

My role at the Hallé is three in one. I not only assist Sir Mark Elder on every project that he is doing with the orchestra but I am also Music Director for the Hallé Youth Orchestra. I feel really responsible for these young musicians and try to bridge the gap between the youth orchestra and the Hallé Orchestra to show them their possible potential. I think that’s such a powerful thing. The final part of my role is conducting all the music education and outreach performances, which is probably one of the most rewarding parts of my job.

On top of that, my management team at CLB has been helping me to build relationships with orchestras around the world. And there are other things, like the Dudamel Fellowship in Los Angeles, which was an incredible learning experience.

What are your career highlights so far?

Besides the Hallé position and being mentored by Sir Mark Elder, making my debut with the LA Philharmonic is something I will always hold dear to my heart. It was a neighbourhood concert in East Los Angeles, organised by a former member of Obama’s cabinet – a hero of mine! We played to an audience of 2,000 people, many of whom had never seen classical music live before. I am really itching to break boundaries to classical music because my initial exposure to it was random and there is so much potential for people who wouldn’t traditionally listen to classical to love it.

What are you most looking forward to about starting your position with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie?

As it’s my first gig, it will be about learning a lot as well as giving. The musicians are incredibly collaborative, energetic and really just want to make great music, so it will be about continuing that. I will never forget the first rehearsal we had together - instantly we just got on and there was something in the air. Having been lucky enough to travel and work with different orchestras, I know that doesn’t always happen. It’s very special for me to have even been thought of for the job, and to work with them in this capacity is a dream.

What advice would you give to a new graduate just starting out in their career?

Firstly, always look for the next step and don’t hesitate. I was always thinking about what I was going to do directly after the Academy because time flies. Also, enjoy yourself and make music playful. Sometimes you have to let go and realise that what you’re doing is trying to communicate with someone else in a powerful way and making it playful helps to forge a connection. To my core I believe that’s important in order to survive in this high-stress profession.