Interview with Rowan Pierce for the November 2009 Music for Youth Schools' Prom programme

  • Posted on 1 November 2009 at 3:10pm
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RP – You have had a really varied and successful career as a musician, composer and broadcaster and seem to have been able to bridge the gap between classical and popular music with ease. Do you think your ability to adapt and embrace a wide range of musical styles has had a significant impact on your success?

HG – In my experience, people with long-ish careers in music tend to develop a flexible attitude to the work they do. I don’t know in fact if it has ever really been possible to make a living as a composer by sticking to just one style or genre. Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev – most of the composers we recognise from the past did a wide variety of jobs in music and composed all types of music for all soprts of occasions and clients too, so in that respect the 21st century’s not that much different. Having said that, I have three full-time jobs now, as composer, as broadcaster and as a national advocate for music education, so I may be pushing the idea of ‘flexibility’ to the limit! I grew up in a home where classical and popular music were equally enjoyed and respected, so that is the path I’ve taken myself. I do what I love doing, which mostly means musical variety.

RP – After going through the education system, how does a budding musician begin their career?

HG – There isn’t one answer to this question. Everyone finds their own way, and in the journey it’s how you find out (i) what you are best at, (ii) what is outside your comfort zone and (iii) whether anyone else agrees with your assessment! There are, however, some important qualities I believe all young musicians need to have if they are to have a chance of ‘pursuing their dream’. First, you need to be patient. Very few musical careers happen overnight. Second, you need to be able to work collaboratively with other people, not be precious and moody, not act like a prima donna, not behave like you are the only one with the solution to a given problem. Third, you need to be open to new possibilities, even if at first they don’t seem like an obvious fit with your aspirations. Fourth, you need to be able to work jolly hard, long hours, with very little reward, for years, before you become financially stable. And working hard in this context doesn’t mean the kind of slog associated with glamorous photo & video shoots, recording sessions or tours. I mean doing things you don’t want to do, things that are onerous, boring, repetitive or unglamorous. It is in the undertaking of tasks you didn’t want to do at first that you learn the most, similarly it is from bad reviews, poor audience response and unexpected setbacks that you begin to understand your weaknesses and your potential, not from your successes.

RP – At present when I perform the audience age starts at around 45. How would you advise young classical musicians to lower the average age of their audiences?

HG – Younger people have always been more attracted to the music of their own generation than to that of their parents’, it is a fact of life. Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky were all reacting to what went before them and their audiences tended to be more of their age too. There’s no easy fix to this problem, because classical music is often very old both in terms of its architecture and the nature of its sound, and there is always a danger that it will be perceived as antique, somehow static and not living. One way around this is for young performers to be daring with the ‘old’ material, to approach it in a fresh way without the baggage of tradition and orthodoxy. This might upset some people, especially music critics and academics, but young performers need to stir things up a bit for the health of the repertoire, they need to forge a relationship with their own generation and to mix music of the past with music written by their peer group. I often hear people in classical music shifting the responsibility of winning over a younger generation to other people – to teachers, to parents, to broadcasters, even to politicians – but the fact is that it is the responsibility of the composers and performers of classical music themselves to make a case for the riches of the classical tradition, it is for them to find ways of engaging younger audiences and they will need to be imaginative and creative in so doing. If they sit back and wait for the world to do their job for them, it won’t happen.

RP – What has been the biggest obstacle in your musical career so far and how did you overcome it?

HG In the 8 or so years after I left college I was struggling to stay afloat financially, living inLondonwhich is an expensive city to survive in, even if you have wages coming in. That was tricky, but not an unsurmountable obstacle, since I lowered my sights, said yes to everything however lowly and tried to be up-beat until things gradually sorted themselves out. When I was a young man I think I was inclined to want too much too soon and there was always a danger that my impatience combined – dangerously – with my lack of experience and that might derail my career. I was lucky that the teams I worked with were forgiving and tolerant! One other issue was that after my school and college years of classical training I was ill-prepared, when I entered the profession as a freelance keyboard player, for the amount of improvisation that would be required of me. I had become too dependent on the dots on the page. My advice to anyone who wants to perform professionally is to learn how to improvise, to become less tied to the page and free up your musical mind!

RP – Do you think competition is a healthy thing?

HG For the winner, maybe, for the runners-up, sometimes, for the friends and relatives of the contestants, never!

RP – Programmes such as X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent appear to offer the key to getting into the music industry quickly whilst also celebrating an apparent audience enjoyment that seems to value entertainment over musicianship. I’m worried about these programmes, is this a valid concern?

HG – They have always existed. When I was growing up, the Saturday evening family entertainment show, with judges and voting just like Britain’s Got Talent, was called New Faces, from which Victoria Wood and Lenny Henry emerged, among others, and before that there was a long-running series called Opportunity Knocks. Monteverdi composed his choral masterpiece, the Vespers of 1610, to win a competition to become Director of Music at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the biggest job in music at the time. All of the famous French composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, I mean every single one of them, started their careers by entering and hoping to win the Prix de Rome composing competition. Music is not like sport, in that there are always clear winners, but few would deny that the X-Factor is great fun and occasionally throws up some genuinely outstanding talent along the way (Leona Lewis has an amazing voice, for example). Don’t be worried by these talent shows, they’re for pure enjoyment and the real music industry carries on alongside them, regardless. The people who should worry about them are the contestants whose expectations are raised, who see a glimpse of wealth and fame, and who then, having been booted off, have to readjust to the reality of the rest of the population. What they should do, rather than enter a TV talent trawl, is get a proper training like the rest of our profession.

RP – Your ongoing ‘Sing-Up’ programme has involved a lot of Primary School children in Singing. Do you think there is scope for continuing your work and developing this idea, venturing into the realms of Secondary education and do you really think it will make a long term difference singing in Britain’s schools?

HG – Sing Up has now enrolled 80% of all state primary schools inEngland, has trained 26,000 people to lead singing and has a resource of 300+ songs and support materials and is still only halfway through its journey. I am very proud of this achievement so far and we are definitely changing the culture of singing in schools for the better. However, it is true that all these Year 6-ers who move on from singing primary schools into High School suddenly find singing disappears and I would love to do something about singing at secondary level. I do have a cunning plan but it won’t happen overnight and there’s no magic, wand-waving formula, but yes, we are on course to become the best nation of earth for singing in school, so why stop here?

RP – Do you think London is the place to be for a musician?

HG – London is the musical capital of the world so it’s not a bad place to be (!), but it is also highly competitive professionally, very expensive to live in and slow to get around, especially with an instrument strapped to your back, so I’d say it was a case of swings and roundabouts! The reason it is the musical capital of the world, by the way, is because young people like it so much, and with large numbers of young people you get lots of music. Whether it stays such a powerhouse of music remains to be seen – that rather depends on you lot!