Spoilt for Choice

John Robert Brown

"The biggest thing is deciding whether to go to a university, or a music college," says Mark Simpson, BBC Young Musician of the Year, 2006.

Simpson, just 18, a member of the National Youth Orchestra (NYO) and a composer as well as a clarinet virtuoso, is currently working on commissions for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the NYO - and simultaneously considering his study options. "Because I'm interested in other aspects of music, and not solely performance, it's harder for me to define an academic or educational avenue," he says. "I'm applying to Oxbridge. Then there's the question of looking for a particular person with whom to study."

Wanting to study composition with Mark Anthony Turnage, who teaches at the Royal College of Music (RCM), Simpson has also applied there. "If I went on an academic route would I still have time to practice and compose? If I took a classical route, would I be as knowledgeable about music as I would if I got an academic degree? I've thought a lot about Germany. I know a lot about the culture and the language. If I do get any unconditional offers, I'm thinking about going to live there for a few months before I start my course. I thought I'd go to Berlin, a fantastic city. Composers in Berlin at the moment include Unsuk Chin and Jörg Widmann. Helmut Lachenmann teaches nearby in Stuttgart. There are too many avenues to go down," he says. "Perhaps I've been too well informed!"

Caroline Dale won the string section of the BBC Competition in its first year, 1978. She was 13. "I'd always wanted to be a professional cellist," she says. "But nobody expected the success of the competition, or expected me to get as far as I did, because it was the first of its type. There were great opportunities: doing a lot of music club dates, engagements with orchestras, making a natural progression for a young musician. I didn't have any complaints; my professional career kicked off much earlier than it would have normally done. My teacher, Florence Hooton, oversaw how many concerts I was doing, making sure that I still had time for schoolwork.

"Winning the competition didn't affect what I was going to do, but gave me more exposure than I would have had normally. I then won the Julius Isserlis scholarship, which allowed me to study in Geneva with Pierre Fournier. I went on to Banff, then won the Young Concert Artists Trust competition. So it was part of a progression. I was already at the Junior Academy; I went there quite young. I was going to go on to the Royal Academy of Music, so that I could continue my studies with my teacher there. I went when I was 16, leaving when I was 18.

"Winning the competition shouldn't affect the decision about university or college. Even if Mark Simpson hadn't won the BBC competition, I'm sure that he would still have been faced with that dilemma."

Emma Johnson was BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1984. "It surprised everybody when I said that I was going to carry on and go to university." Being then deluged with invitations to do concerts, it turned into a difficult decision for Johnson who, aged 18, took a gap year to do concerts and take lessons. "I wasn't sure whether I should go to Cambridge, because it might stop the ball rolling with the concerts, and also be very hard work. So I went up to see my future director of studies at Cambridge. He said, 'If you don't come now, I don't think you ever will.' He found that people didn't enjoy their Cambridge experience if they left it until they were older." Today, Johnson would give similar advice. "Cambridge and Oxford are great places for trying things out. I did a bit of conducting. I put on chamber music concerts with repertoire that I wanted to explore. If I hadn't done the university thing I wouldn't have had all that. Actually, I changed from English. Having to think about English literature, and do all this music, was too much.

"Everything that I did in the university degree has been useful. And I've still got concerts, 20 years on. If people want to hear you play, they can wait a couple of years while you do your university study. If I was advising Mark Simpson - I can tell he's a very intelligent guy - I would say do a degree at university, but keep up your playing to as high a level as you can.

"At Oxbridge there are many people who are reading engineering or science or whatever, who play instruments to a high level. I did pieces by composers who were there at the time, like Philip Grange, Mervyn Cooke and Alexander Goehr. I organised a performance of Varèse's Octandra. I don't think you'd find such freedom anywhere else."

Until going to Cambridge, violinist Alexandra Wood had only gone in for local competitions. "I did lead the NYO when I was 16 and 17, so I'd had some glimpse of higher musical levels. Through the NYO I met musicians who had gone on to Oxbridge. Because a lot of my friends at school automatically applied there, I did too. They were having a wonderful time.

"I read music, though I ummed and ahed about that for a long time. I really wanted to do classics. We had a fantastic Latin department at my school, but I was a little scared because I'd not done Greek; it might be too much to take on. Most of my prizes happened after Cambridge, when I did a postgraduate course." Wood graduated from Cambridge with first class honours, with distinction. Later she won a distinction for her RCM postgraduate diploma.

"Because I was a year younger at school, I took a year off before Cambridge. I didn't want to be there when I was 17. I did a year at the RCM to see whether or not I wanted to stay there. But because I had the place at Cambridge, I decided to go to the university. Later, during the RCM postgraduate course, things really started to kick off. I had more time to practice and enter competitions." Wood's successes included first prizes at the Wieniawski, Tibor Varga, Yampolsky and Rodolfo Lipizer violin competitions. "I really enjoyed my year at the RCM before University. At one point I thought that it would be easier to stay there. So, on a smaller scale than Mark Simpson, I did have a bit of a quandary.

"Making a decision about what you are going to do is hard enough. When you are exceptionally talented, as Mark Simpson is, it makes the decision harder. But I've learned that there's plenty of time. You can have a career being a performer at the other end of university."

Anna Hashimoto made her Barbican Hall concerto debut at 15 with the English Chamber Orchestra in December 2004, winning the Parthenon Tama Prize that year at the Japan Clarinet Competition. In 2003 she won the 1st Prize and all three special prizes at the Japan Clarinet Society's Young Clarinettists Competition. Hashimoto is now a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain - alongside Mark Simpson.

"I'm very clear about what I want to do: to go to the Royal Academy of Music, because that's where I can learn with Michael Collins. It's important to go through some sort of Higher Education, not just learning the clarinet. There is still so much more that you can learn about music in general.

"Playing the Mozart Concerto with the Japan Chamber Orchestra was an amazing experience for me, because the hall was full, with over a thousand people. I got something like 30 bouquets of flowers. The hall staff said they had never seen anything like it."

As one joker remarked, never mind choosing between a university or a conservatoire - Anna Hashimoto could develop a flourishing second career as a florist!

An edited version of this piece was first published in Music Competitions supplement, Classical Music, January 7th, 2007. Included here by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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