Aldeburgh's rising stars
PUBLISHED: 16:10 12 September 2016
Sarah lucy Brown 2016
Today's young musicians need to be versatile, knowledgeable and original, as well as talented. Aldeburgh Young Musicians is helping them meet the challenge, as Liz Ferretti discovers
I have come to Snape Maltings to hear the first public performance by Aldeburgh Young Musicians of The Life and Songs of Bob Hart, the renowned Suffolk folk singer and gardener to Benjamin Britten.
In the space of a week, working with BBC Radio 2 Folk Group of the Year 2016 The Young’uns, and Scottish music star Mary Ann Kennedy, they have created a moving musical biography. It includes their own arrangements played on a range of instruments, singing together as a choir, and ends unexpectedly, for me at least, in a folk dance. What is striking is the joyful energy and breadth of talent of these performers, some of whom are only just in their teens.
Next, they will spend a week working on European contemporary chamber orchestra music, followed by another week working with Sanju Sahai, world-renowned player of Indian drums known as the Tabla. This challenging, all-embracing approach to studying music sets Aldeburgh Young Musicians apart.
After the performance, I ask Sean Cooney, from The Young’uns, what it had been like to work with the young musicians.
“It’s been phenomenal,” he says. “They’re incredibly talented and have a real spirit to them. They’ve responded to these sensitive, honest folk songs in a really professional way. It’s been one of the best projects we’ve been involved in.”
His is a common response to working with these young musicians, says Colin Virr, who founded Aldeburgh Young Musicians (AYM) nine years ago. It’s one of six centres for advanced training in music across the UK, part of a Department of Education programme to support the musical development of exceptionally talented young people aged eight to 18, from all social backgrounds.
“Other CAT centres are in places like The Sage, Gateshead, Sheffield, Bristol and London, which offer courses on a weekly basis,” explains Colin. “Because we are in Snape, Suffolk, it’s more difficult for our students to get to us.
So, when I was developing the programme, I decided to build on something we already do well at Aldeburgh, which is intensive, week-long residencies working with leading professional musicians, with performances at Snape Maltings.” It’s the range of musical styles and skills the students are exploring that I am most impressed by.
“We look for exceptional young musicians whatever their background,” says Colin.
“We have string and wind instrument players, pianists, percussionists, trombonists. We recently had a student who played the Chinese harp, called the Guzheng, guitarists, bass guitarists, and we have a student who plays the euphonium. Our challenge is to fit our programme and teaching staff around them and their musical interests.”
The students are paired with external tutors for regular lessons, who might be based locally, or in London and beyond, and they have a say in which genres and techniques they study.
“This is definitely not your conventional educational programme,” Colin says. “Our approach is collaborative, we all learn from each other. Our auditions are designed to try and find musicians who have potential, are keen to explore new ideas and are happy to ask questions like, ‘Why are you doing it like this?’” Does this make them challenging to work with?
“Not at all. There are few places in the world which offer young musicians the chance to work so creatively, exploring such a wide range of instruments and musical styles whether it is folk, classical, jazz or contemporary. I know I sound like a proud dad when I talk about them, but these young people relish the opportunity to broaden their experience, and work with artists and musicians at the top of their game. Students who join us stay with us until they are 18. They come here because of their passion for music, rather than their parents pushing them to be here. We also have a generous grant scheme so that no one is stopped through lack of money.”
Viola player Issy Doncaster, and Millie Lihoreau, who plays French horn, are helping to clear up after the performance. They are full of praise for a programme that encourages them to explore interests they didn’t know they had, making them into versatile musicians.
“The range of experience we get means we are ready to jump in and do something new,” says Millie. “That flexibility is really useful and it’s helped me become a more well-rounded musician. And it’s completely unstuffy – a real breath of fresh air.” Issy agrees.
“I was looking for an alternative to junior conservatoire when my teacher found this programme online. I’m a singer as well as a viola player – here you can explore literally every part of your musical talents.” The thing they love most?
“It might sound cheesy,” says Millie, “but AYM is like a big family. It’s the camaraderie between us all that makes it so special.”
As Colin explains, today’s professional musicians have to be much more versatile than previous generations.
“They may perform in ensembles or orchestras, teach or run workshops, perhaps fusing different musical styles, as they have done with Sanju Sahai, or experimenting with genre. The AYM programme is designed to enrich the students’ musical knowledge and experience. Everything they do feeds into their musical imagination helping them to become confident, knowledgeable musicians.”
Indeed, the programme and its students are becoming known further afield. “Professional artists are looking at AYM graduates because they know they’re going to be interesting,” says Colin. “I made a tentative approach to folk band Bellowhead a couple of years ago, but they had heard of us and wanted to work with us. They told us later we were one of the highlights of their year. The word is spreading, but, equally, there may be a teacher up the road who hasn’t heard about us, or might not understand quite what it is that we do.”
What they do is help these talented, down-to-earth, hard working and highly creative youngsters grow into wonderful musicians.
For more information on Aldeburgh Young Musicians and how to apply: http://www.aldeburgh.co.uk/aym.
You can hear some of their performances on their YouTube page.