London’s musical youth
by Alison Roberts
12 May 2011
Boris Johnson says he plays the piano, but badly: “It’s too tragic to describe,” the Mayor mumbles.
And when the Standard photographer thrusts a guitar into his hands – not just any guitar but the Rolls-Royce of guitars owned by top-selling classical guitarist and all-round hunk, Milos Karadaglic – Boris strums at it helplessly. Good job he’s surrounded by three primary school children and one teen who do know what they’re doing, and spare his blushes by striking up an impromptu tune around him.
In fact, the Mayor would like to see more children outplay him. We are here to launch a City Hall scheme designed to encourage those who show musical talent but cannot afford the fees to take their natural ability beyond the state school classroom. The Mayor of London’s Fund for Young Musicians, which aims to raise £2 million from the private sector by spring next year, will fund 400 scholarships for children between the ages of seven and 11, allowing them, via both individual mentoring and group tuition, to develop their love of music and perform in public. A further 10,000 kids up to the age of 18 will get the chance to work with professionals.
It’s clear from the stories told here – by four young London musicians and the professionals who inspire them, all of whom are patrons of the Mayor’s new fund – that the ways into serious scholarship and performance are varied and often a struggle. Yet London’s musical culture is still world-beating and at a reception for the fund this evening – at a private house with its own concert hall in central London, attended by the likes of Lady Hamlyn and Sir John Tusa – Boris will launch his campaign to nurture tomorrow’s stars. Let’s hope he doesn’t sing.
Milos Karadaglic, 28, and Tara Jones, nine, guitarists
Known as plain Milos for the purposes of an increasingly stellar music career, Karadaglic came to study in London from Montenegro at the age of 16. It was a tough journey. He first laid his hands on a guitar when he was eight, finding his father’s on top of a cupboard. “I wanted to be a rock star and have lots of girlfriends,” he says, but when his dad dug out an old Segovia LP, Milos was instantly hooked on classical guitar instead.
“I loved it. It felt like something I could grab onto, as though it gave life a whole new purpose.”
But Montenegro at that time was cut off from the world by the Balkan conflict. There was little printed music and no way of getting new strings.
The country had no classical guitar tradition and, beyond the Segovia, Milos found it impossible to get his hands on recordings. Extraordinarily, his natural raw talent was refined through sheer hard work and inspirational teachers at school. Barely into his teens, he travelled to Paris to play a concert, the first time he’d been outside Montenegro, and there bought his first proper guitar using his parents’ savings. Nothing would stop him now. His debut album, The Guitar, is currently at the top of the British Classical Music Charts – and has been there for a month.
Tara Jones is one of the lucky ones. She took up the guitar two years ago at school in Poplar after seeing a performance on TV and loved it so much her parents decided to pay for her to attend Saturday school at the Royal Academy of Music. She agrees with Milos that the guitar has the power to transport the player to beautiful imaginary places and that it’s “like being Aladdin on a magic carpet”. She wants to study music at Oxford, and she probably will.
Chi-chi Nwanoku and Tahmidur Rahman, 13, double bassists
Chi-chi Nwanoku used to play with her next-door neighbour in Blean, near Canterbury, Kent, just so she could touch the keys on their piano in the front room. She was seven, and until she heard someone playing boogie-woogie on it, had no idea what a piano sounded like. “And then I was rumbled. Her mum told mine that I wasn’t playing with Pamela at all, but playing the piano instead. A bit later, Pamela’s mother wheeled the piano up the road to our house, saying that I clearly liked it more than her children.
“In 2001, when I got my MBE, that wonderful lady came to the party and I pinned the medal on her chest.”
The youngest of five siblings, Chi-chi was captivated by music, but her parents could barely afford the three shillings and sixpence it cost per lesson. At the age of nine, she got a job as a church organist, playing at Sunday School, to pay for her exams. She was 18 when she took up the double bass – and today, a founder member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music and a musician of international renown, she plays a double bass dating from 1631 worth “the price of a small mortgage”. “Playing music is as fundamental to children’s wellbeing as brushing their teeth,” she says. “It’s that important.”
Tahmidur Rahman is also one of five siblings, all sisters. A pop and jazz fan, he lives on Brick Lane, and fell in love with the double bass when he realised how versatile an instrument it is. He plays it at Swanlea School in Whitechapel (he can’t take it home; and anyway, with all those girls, there’s no room to practise) but he’s showing promise, he loves the social aspect of playing, and he’d love to take his passion further. Tahmidur is just the kind of child for whom Boris Johnson’s scheme is designed. Perhaps one day he too will grace one of London’s world-famous halls – or maybe play the O2 in an R&B band.
Alison Balsom, 32, and Amy Portchmouth, 10, trumpeters
Amy, from Bethnal Green, chose to play the trumpet at school because “it made a loud noise and it makes me feel special”. For three hours a week, she attends the highly regarded and heavily subsidised Saturday Music Centre in Mile End, at a cost to her parents of £35 a term. “We are worried about whether that centre will suffer cutbacks in this climate,” says her mum Helen. “It’s such an asset. Some children who attend get up at 6am to get there – they’re coming from outside London because it’s so good.” Apparently, it’s a “media-concocted” myth that girls don’t play trumpet, and at Amy’s primary school on the Columbia Road, the budding trumpeters are split 50-50 by gender.
Classical Brit Award-winning trumpeter Alison Balsom, recently described as “the most exciting thing to happen to brass instruments since the euphonium”, grew up in Royston, Hertfordshire, the daughter of a social worker and a builder. She started playing at the age of seven at school.
“The lessons were very heavily subsidised and I wouldn’t be playing now if they hadn’t been.” Her way into music stresses the importance of exposing kids to live performance: her parents took her to a concert at the Barbican when she was just 10 “and there I saw [Swedish virtuoso] Hakan Hardenberger who just happened to be the greatest trumpeter in the world”. Her passion for the instrument intensified; less than 20 years later she was back at the Barbican, this time on stage, playing the same pieces.
Julian Bliss, 21, and Jean-Michael Javier, 10, clarinettists
From ancient scratchy Segovia LPs to YouTube – clarinettist Jean-Michael Javier got into the instrument by watching people playing online. He came to London with his family from the Philippines at the age of four, and started out on the recorder at school in Bethnal Green. “I just love woodwind instruments,” he says. “They make such a lovely sound. Or they can… The clarinet can be a bit screechy at first.” His parents are very supportive: they pay for lessons and they take him to concerts regularly. A budding talent, he has the makings of a serious player. So how often does he practise? “Erm….” “I practised for three hours a night at the age of 10,” laughs Julian Bliss, one of Jean-Michael’s heroes. “Yeah, that sounds good,” replies Jean-Michael, with a look of fear in his eyes.
Bliss was once called the Wayne Rooney of classical music, a brilliant teen with a buzz-cut reminiscent of the Liverpudlian star. He picked up his first (plastic) clarinet at the age of four though his is not a musical family (his dad runs a motorcycle repair shop in Harpenden, Herts) and at first his mother tried to discourage such a little dot from playing. “But I was such a pain about it they eventually gave in.” He was also an extraordinary talent: by the time he was 12, Bliss had earned a postgraduate artist’s diploma from Indiana University in the US. He has since travelled the world on tour, played at the Wigmore Hall and the Louvre, and recently made his debut at the Lincoln Center in New York. He’s also designed his own range of affordable clarinets. “I benefited so much from people who wanted to help me, it’s nice to put something back,” he says of the Mayor’s music fund, sounding like a very old hand indeed.