Saturday, 24 October 2009

Why I decided not to be a professional musician

I've loved music almost as long as I can remember. I started having piano lessons when I was 5, with a delightfully kind and gentle teacher called Mrs Lyndon.

Both my parents were keen amateur musicians, my mother was a music teacher teaching violin and piano, and who played viola. My father was a keen amateur clarinettist, who took up the instrument at the age of about 14 as a result of being incredibly impressed by a radio broadcast of the slow movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, and deciding he wanted to play music like that.

My brother and sisters all learned instruments - my brother learned violin, my older sister the cello, and my younger sister also learned the violin, She has gone on to become a professional player. My younger sister was always going to be a violinist. As a baby she would sit in when my mother was giving violin lessons, and when she was still under 2 years old, we found her upstairs one day playing a pair of knitting needles as if they were a violin, and holding the "bow" with the correct grip! A very small one-eighth size violin soon appeared for her.

As a child, I had eczema on my hands (it cleared up when I got older) and the skin would crack and bleed. So playing a stringed instrument was out of the question for me, it would have hurt to press the string against the cracks in my skin. But my parents were keen for me to learn an orchestral instrument, so when I was about 8 or 9 they invited some friends from their local orchestra round one afternoon to play some wind quintets. When they stopped for a coffee break, I was invited to have a blow through each of the instruments and see if I could make a noise.

Afterwards, they asked me which I liked best, and I told them the horn. Apparently (I have no direct memory of this myself) when asked why, I said "It's nice and curly". A horn was bought and lessons arranged.

And so I learned, and by the time I was 15. I had passed the Grade 8 exam. In Britain, a high mark at Grade 8 is the standard needed to have a reasonable chance at getting to music college. But it never occurred to me to try. There wasn't much music at my school, and I was never the regular 1st horn of my local youth orchestra, there was a girl a year ahead of me who got the 1st horn seat - she want on to study at the Guildhall School of Music and then became a music teacher. A year behind me was Andrew Clark, who got into the National Youth Orchestra at a fairly young age (something I never managed to achieve), and I was told that he would jump ahead of me as 1st horn when the girl ahead of me left to go to college. But my National Youth Orchestra audition was very helpful to me - the woman running the orchestra told me I needed top level lessons and put me in touch with Douglas Moore, who in his day had been principal horn of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I had private lessons once a month with him for several years.

So I assumed that I wouldn't be up to the necessary standard if I couldn't even get to 1st horn in my local youth orchestra. I studied maths & science for my A-level exams at school, and went to university at Kings College London to study electronic engineering.

Then a very strange thing happened. In the first week of term, I went along to the initial open rehearsal for the University of London Orchestra. There were 12 horns there. Not much chance of getting in, especially as I discovered that 3 of those present had been in the orchestra the previous year. But nothing ventured, nothing gained - I went for the auditions. I thought I might have an outside chance of being 4th horn or assistant - "bumper" as it is called here.

In the first audition everything was running late, nearly 2 hours late. But nobody seemed to know precisely how late it would be. So I kept trying to keep warmed up for 2 hours, so I would be ready to go in to the audition at any moment. And it was a disaster, my lip was pretty much gone by the time I finally went in. I played the first movement of Strauss 1, and cracked absolutely every top Bb.

Nevertheless, to my great surprise, I was called back for the second round of auditions - we were down to 7 players by then. Still a chance of being 4th or bumper, I thought. In the second audition, the conductor asked me what had happened to all the top notes the previous time, and I explained that I had been trying to keep warmed up for 2 hours, and my lips were tired by the time I had finally got to the audition. He seemed to accept that, we tried the piece again, and this time it went much better. Still in with a chance I thought. We were all asked to wait until the last of the auditions was done, and the conductor would announce who had been accepted immediately after.

He made me first horn! You could have knocked me down with a feather. It hadn't occurred to me that I was even in with a shout at it. The first concert that term was very challenging. Beethoven's Egmont overture, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, and Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. Gulp! From having been in the open rehearsal, I knew that there was a very prominent and high horn solo in the first movement, going up to a top B.

And the concert went pretty well - I got the top B, though I was very glad to come down from it afterwards!

In my second year at Kings, I decided that I wanted to try for music college and see how good I could really get. I had been continuing to improve, and I wanted to see what the limits were and whether I had what it took to become a professional.

This rather worried my parents initially, they thought I wanted to drop out of my engineering degree immediately. It hadn't occurred to me not to go on and finish it. In my third year, I auditioned for the postgraduate performer's programme at the Royal College of Music, and got in. Douglas Moore was the principal horn professor and he became (or rather remained) my teacher there.

I have immense gratitude to old Dougie Moore, as everyone knew him. He was a fine player and an truly excellent teacher. He had himself learned from Aubrey Brain, father and teacher of Dennis Brain. He had performed the Britten Serenade with Benjamin Britten himself conducting. When he taught me the piece, he put pencil markings in my part saying "That is how Ben told me he wanted it." I couldn't have had a musical education that was closer to the core of the British school of horn playing. It was a tremendous privilege.

But in my two years there, even though I was still learning and greatly improving and enjoying every minute of playing I could get, I gradually became disenchanted with the idea of taking it up as a profession.

First there was the simple maths of it. I counted how many professional orchestras there were in Britain, and multiplied by 5 to get the approximate number of salaried professional horn players there were in the country. I counted up the number of music colleges, and made an estimate of the number of horn players graduating from them each year. I worked out that there were enough horn players coming out of the colleges to fill every salaried horn job in the country about every three years. Assuming that a successful player would occupy one or other of those places for perhaps 30 years, it meant that I needed to be in the top 10% or so of those graduating from college. I didn't think I was in that top 10%, and there were limits on the amount of extra practice I was prepared to put in, which might (and on the other hand might not) be enough to get me into that top 10%.

Also I was beginning to find that the company and conversation of music students was a bit limited. When I had been a Kings, it was possible in the bar to strike up a conversation on almost any topic under the sun. Many were the drunken rambling philosophical arguments I had had with students of all subjects! But at the RCM, conversation was essentially limited to two topics. The first (a perennial student favourite) was gossiping about who was getting into bed with whom. The other favourite topic was discussing how badly this or that student had played in their recital last week. It got discouraging, and I concluded that I didn't really want to spend the rest of my working life with these people. It wasn't really quite as limited as this, but I did miss the wider range of conversation.

So, I decided that I would go back to the engineering. I got myself a job in the telecoms industry, and joined the ranks of amateur players.

And I have never regretted doing so. That decision was right for me - I would not have been suited to life as a professional musician, I'm interested in too many non-musical topics. But I'm still very glad I went to the RCM and spent those two years there.

First, it meant that I could make the decision to walk away, fully informed as to what it was I was walking away from. Had I not given it a try, I might have spent my life wondering at the back of my mind if I could have made it as a professional horn player. I now know without any doubt that it was not for me.

Second, it refined my horn technique to the point that there is nothing in amateur music making that frightens me. Put anything on the stand in front of me, and I will tackle it as best I can. For both those reasons, I count my time at the RCM as a great success.

My sister occasionally plays with the chamber group Harmoniemusik. A few years ago, they invited me to join them for a series of concerts they played at a little festival in Cornwall. The pieces I joined in for were the Dvorak Serenade for Wind, the Mozart Gran Partita Serenade, and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 18. Most of the other players were regular London professionals taking a busman's holiday, and playing some music they wanted to have a go at. I wondered whether I would be able to keep up with them, and whether it would stir up any discontent at not having gone in for the profession.

And I found my answer to both questions. I could keep up with them - I was in no way the weakest link. And I was very glad to go back the day job afterwards and had no desire to resurrect a music career.


  1. Really enjoyed reading this post. I sort of had the outline of your situation from bits and pieces mentioned along the way, but the straight narrative with the extra details filled things out. That analytical mind of yours (determining the chances of a music job) is amazing. The Brain connection certainly puts you in the center of the horn world.

    Also, just found the other blog today and came to realize that all the analytical thinking on music and the horn is just a sidelight. Makes me appreciate all the more all the wonderful help you've given me, with the musicality posts and those here lately on horn issues.

  2. Hi Lyle
    It is interesting that you should comment on that. Many of those who debate with me on the topics of my other blog, and those who disagree with me in the articles I've written in The Guardian website assume that this kind of analytical mind is incompatible with creating or even appreciating art or music. Instead, you have seen first the analytical thinking in the context of making music and only later discovered that this was how I apply a more generalised way of thinking to that particular topic.

  3. enjoyed your post! Mind if I share it?