Coming full circle with the NCO

Jonathan Bloxham began his musical life as a 10-year-old cellist with the National Children’s Orchestra; this summer he is returning as its conductor. He tells IAM about his journey, and why well-funded music education is of critical importance. 

I’ve had the most wonderful teachers. From the age of 16 I was lucky enough to study cello at the Yehudi Menuhin School with Thomas Carroll, then at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Louise Hopkins and following that privately with Eberhard Feltz in Berlin with my piano trio. Since switching to conducting in 2015 I’ve been mentored by Paavo Järvi, and during the last two years I’ve been the assistant conductor under Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – the orchestra itself being the greatest conducting teacher of all.

But none of this would have happened without two key educational institutions: the Gateshead Schools’ Music Service and the National Children’s Orchestra (NCO).

From the age of seven I was given free cello tuition and a free instrument to play on – all funded through the Schools’ Music Service. My first teacher, John Finnon, came to my primary school in Gateshead offering very simple aural tests to kids interested in learning an instrument. Without his inquisitive approach in looking for students, and a council that funded a music service properly, my life would have turned out very differently!

This tradition of free musical instrument tuition for all school children should surely continue and be celebrated in the UK. So let me take a moment here to mention this beautifully worded petition which is worth looking at.

I’m sure my parents would disagree, but I remember being a relatively well behaved student. I did my scales (almost) every day and was always fairly ambitious. I soon joined the Gateshead Youth Orchestra, which is definitely where I can trace my love of orchestral music back to (and my fascination with conducting) and at the suggestion of my cello teacher, at age 10 I auditioned for the NCO and won a place.

Despite the wonderful local opportunities and support I never really felt socially accepted amongst my peers as a kid obsessed with classical music. And so that first NCO course was like heaven for me.

Suddenly I was surrounded by a community of like-minded kids, all my own age, all there to play as well as they possibly could (and have as much fun as possible in the process!). The daily schedule was intense, and I can vividly remember waking up each morning excited for the first rehearsal of the day.

I learnt so much at NCO. We were taught how to play as a section, how to listen and were introduced to the fundamentals of orchestral technique – some of the advice I picked up then I still use today in rehearsals while conducting, such as the string sound “comes from the back of the sections” or “if you move together, you’ll play together”. The end of each course was always an emotional experience; saying goodbye to not just friends but what I also felt as my musical family.

After my time at NCO it was clear what I wanted to do – become a principal cellist. But, as so often happens, life continued to take different turns and despite continued love of playing in orchestras, following my time at the Menuhin School chamber music became my focus. I was a founding member of the Busch Ensemble (now Busch Trio) and enjoyed immersing myself for several years in piano trio literature. As time went by, it was clear that my original love of the orchestral repertoire was pulling me towards the real dream that had been brewing for many years: conducting.

I’ve just finished my post with the CBSO and over the next few months I will make my debut with some wonderful orchestras including the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and the Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne. First up though is my return to NCO Main Orchestra, this time as conductor.

Under the leadership of their new artistic and educational director Catherine Arlidge, NCO is in safe hands for the future. Over the last year Catherine and I have discussed not only what repertoire to bring to the orchestra (we have an epic programme!) but also the other elements that are key in making this a fantastic week for all.

Catherine is very keen on encouraging the children to be creators in their own right too – the Under 13 NCO group over Easter was even guided in composing their own piece called No Place Like… NCO. To encourage trans-section interaction, their new Surround Sound programme gives the players a chance to design their own programmes and share them in pre-concert performances in the foyers of several major venues around the country (such as Bridgewater Hall on 4 August).

We’ve also spoken together about how important physical wellbeing is and making young students aware of the need to look after their bodies – for example, they take part in daily group stretches. Further, I believe that singing together as a whole orchestra every morning is not only a wonderful way to connect with each other, but it also encourages string players to think about breathing in a way that wind players have no choice but to. These are just a few of the ingredients aside from playing that will go into the course next week.

I’m honoured to be returning back to NCO to conduct, and feel a great responsibility being part of a week that I hope has the same effect on this young group of players as it did on me. Organisations such as NCO are fed by the local schools music services, and both are vital to the eco-system of music education in the UK and deserve as much support and praise as the musical community can offer.

NCO’s summer courses run from 27 June to 26 August. 

nco.org.uk | jonathanbloxham.com

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