Perspiration — but don’t forget inspiration
27 November 2009 | Franz Felicius
Dizzy Gillespie helped to set Alison Balsom on a career path as a classical trumpet soloist — if not in person, then at least in spirit.
“My uncle used to have loads of instruments lying around the house,” says the musician voted Female Artist of the Year at this year’s Classical Brit Awards at the Royal Albert Hall. “I tried them all, but it was the trumpet that I took to. And then one day at his house I heard a recording of Dizzy Gillespie and just loved the way he could make the instrument sing.”
So, aged seven, she told her parents that she wanted to take up the trumpet. “I know I must sound horribly precocious but within a couple of years I knew that playing the trumpet was what I wanted to do with my life.”
But life is not as easy as that. Dreaming of becoming a successful classical soloist is one thing: realising the dream is something else entirely, and the career path is nothing like as clear as in many other professions.
Study and practice were vital. “As soon as I’d decided to pursue the trumpet, I took up lessons at my local primary school and joined the local brass band. I loved the trumpet from the word ‘go’ — it’s an instrument you either take to, or don’t. And by the age of nine, when I was given a trumpet for my birthday, it was my passion — even if I didn’t realise at that stage what it meant to become a classical musician.”
At 13, the builder’s daughter from Hertfordshire auditioned for the Junior Guildhall School of Music’s Saturday school, was accepted and ended up with a leading trumpet teacher, who “over the course of the next seven years really helped me to develop my sound”. After completing her A-levels, she won a place to study full-time at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She also spent a year at the Conservatoire de Paris. “That was invaluable, because the emphasis there was very much on solo work as opposed to working with an orchestra,” she says.
But Ms Balsom admits that practice alone won’t turn you into a star soloist, insisting that it is important to “open your ears” and “feed your passion … People always think it’s just about the number of hours practised, but for me it was much more about getting inspired by other musicians [not least, in her case, Gillespie, a jazz legend]. It’s vital to go to as many concerts as you can and not just focus on your chosen instrument but expose yourself to all sorts of classical music — anything that might help inspire you and make you a more interesting musician.”
Getting noticed is also crucial if you want to pursue a career as a classical soloist rather than as a member of an orchestra — and there is no better way of getting noticed than by participating in competitions.
In 1998, Ms Balsom took part in the BBC Young Musician of the Year contest, reaching the finals and winning the brass category. “That definitely opened a few doors for me,” she says. “It also gave me the chance to play solo on TV, which was terrifying but also invaluable.”
It also introduced her to the Young Concert Artists Trust, a free management advice service for promising classical musicians who are at too early a stage in their career to win professional representation. “At the time it didn’t seem a big deal, but in a way it was the most important part of the whole competition,” she says.
The organisation’s support helped to give her the chance to hone her skills in front of an audience — and to perform a solo recital at one of the country’s most celebrated concert halls, London’s Wigmore Hall.
“I knew I had to make the most of such a wonderful opportunity and do something extraordinary to make people remember me,” she says, “and, having already given a number of recitals I knew what was needed of me: I had to hold everyone’s attention.”
A record company talent scout, as well as her future manager, were among the audience. She was soon signed by EMI and won professional management representation.
Aged 22, Ms Balsom released her debut album Music for Trumpet and Organ in 2002. A second album followed in 2005 but it was 2006’s Caprice — championed by Classic FM — that helped her to win Young British Classical Performer at the 2006 Classical Brit Awards.
Now an established star in the classical firmament, Ms Balsom has toured Europe, the United States and beyond, will be appearing in Germany, Britain and China before the end of the year and is about to start work on a new album. However, she also hopes that her example will help to inspire a new generation of young classical musicians to follow in her footsteps.
“If you’ve got the talent, commitment and passion, and are prepared to put your love for your music above all else, there has never been a better time to pursue a career as a classical soloist,” she says.
Alison Balsom curates A Classical Concert For War Child on November 28 at the Bloomsbury Ballroom, Central London.