Rhinegold Photo credit: © Tom Bird
Putting music education in the spotlight: Julian Lloyd Webber

Julian Lloyd Webber

Spreading the word

8:00, 3rd January 2018

Throughout his career, this month’s guest editor, Julian Lloyd Webber, has been driven by the desire to communicate the importance of classical music to as many people as possible. In this feature, the principal of Royal Birmingham Conservatoire explains what he learned from his years as a cellist, why outreach work is crucial, and why he will continue to fight the English Baccalaureate

I was fortunate to be born into a musical family. My parents met at the Royal College of Music, where they both studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams and my future godfather, the composer Herbert Howells, who became a great influence on me. My father was a composer and organist who taught at the Royal College and was, for many years, director of the London College of Music, and my mother specialised in teaching young children the piano. They weren’t ‘pushy’ people. Music was there if my brother and I wanted it, but we weren’t pointed in any particular direction, which is one possible reason we followed such different musical paths.

Early start: Playing the cello at four
Early start: Playing the cello at four

My mother attempted to teach me the piano but it was a disaster – I must have been her worst ever pupil! Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here, not to be taught by your parents. Luckily, my mother took me to an Ernest Read children’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall and I spotted the cello in the orchestra. Immediately I asked to play one, hoping that by learning a different instrument my mother would allow me give up the piano. A tenth-sized cello duly arrived. I remember being disappointed it was not one of the magnificent full-sized specimens I’d seen at the RFH. Even so, my trick worked as I was allowed to give up the piano. I was four years old when I began playing the cello. Unlike the piano, I loved the instrument and would play it for fun.

A key quality a string player needs in order to succeed is perseverance; a stringed instrument doesn’t sound great immediately; you need to be persistent. The more you practise the better it sounds, so the more you will want to practise. For almost every musician, teachers are incredibly important – they can either turn you on to something or turn you off it. I had my share of both! I was incredibly lucky, when I was 11 and studying at the Royal College Junior Department, to have been taught by Rhuna Martin, a beautiful young South African cellist studying at the Senior Department. Way beyond her ‘call of duty’, she took me to hear many great cellists in concert, the first being Pierre Fournier, who was later to become my teacher in Geneva. Hearing such great players excited me and showed me what a cello could do.

Rehearsing with Sir Arthur Bliss
Rehearsing with Sir Arthur Bliss

When I was 13, I saw the great Russian cellist Rostropovich play the Dvořák concerto together with the first western performance of Khachaturian’s Concerto-Rhapsody at the Royal Festival Hall. From that moment on he became my role model and I wanted to become a solo cellist myself. I stopped doing my schoolwork and spent every available spare moment practising. I was also fortunate to bump into Rhuna again on my very first day as a student at the Royal College. She told me, ‘Don’t waste a second here. It’s the only time when you won’t have to worry about making a living and can give all your energy to practising.’ That was great advice and I took it.

I was surrounded by many different kinds of music when I was growing up. My father loved the Russian romantics and my brother would be listening to musicals and early rock ’n’ roll. The concert pianist John Lill lived with us, and I heard him practising Beethoven and Prokofiev. In my late teens, my own favourite composer was Shostakovich, whose music was not particularly fashionable at that time. I collected recordings of anything by him which I could get my hands on. I also became obsessed with the cello repertoire and revelled in little-known works such as the concertos by Frederick Delius and Nikolai Miaskovsky. I would record anything with a solo cello from the radio on to reel-to-reel tapes, which I still have. They include some extraordinary rarities – Jacqueline du Pré playing Shostakovich’s first concerto, for example.

In concert, under the baton of Yehudi Menuhin
In concert, under the baton of Yehudi Menuhin

Making your way up the music ladder – some might call it the greasy pole – is challenging to say the least. I am not a massive fan of competitions but unfortunately they are important in today’s ultra-competitive musical world. I think BBC Young Musician is one of the best of them, primarily because of the reason many people have criticised it. ‘How can you judge a percussionist against an oboist or a pianist,’ they complain. You can’t – but at least it throws the emphasis on to choosing an outstanding performance on the night rather than obsessing on who played the most wrong notes out of three performances of the same Beethoven concerto. But it is a shame that the BBC has sidelined its own creation. In its heyday, the final of BBC Young Musician was relayed live on BBC One to a massive audience of around 12 to 14 million people – truly the X Factor of its day. Now it is ghettoised on BBC Four and the general public is hardly aware it exists. Nevertheless, it remains a lifeline for the wonderful talent we still manage to produce, although I still believe there are other ways than the competition circuit to make it as a musician.

For me, having a successful career in music has never been about ‘celebrity’, which is not something I feel particularly comfortable with. Yet I always wanted to bring the cello – and classical music – to as many people as possible, which is why I enjoyed playing on many light entertainment tv shows during the 1980s and 1990s when there was still a nod towards classical music on mainstream tv. I was criticised for it at the time, but if you believe in something, surely you want to share it with as many people as possible. That has always been a central thread throughout my musical life and it is one I continue to follow. Today’s classical musicians should reach out to the public – but not in a patronising way. Media outlets for classical music have never been so restricted but we must find new ways of bringing this beautiful art form to the general public without debasing its ideals and values.

Julian Lloyd Webber became principal of Birmingham Conservatoire in 2015 © Birmingham City University
Julian Lloyd Webber became principal of Birmingham Conservatoire in 2015
© Birmingham City University

At Royal Birmingham Conservatoire we have initiated an outreach programme which is bringing music to thousands of children across the West Midlands and beyond who would otherwise never experience it. Increasingly it falls to music colleges to attempt to plug the gaps which have been created by our government’s obsession with the English Baccalaureate. The EBacc, which has removed all arts subjects from the core school curriculum, is a thoroughly outdated concept. Access to music should have nothing to do with ability to pay for expensive instruments and expensive tuition. If children never experience classical music, how can they know whether they like it or not? I believe we are already missing out on some great talent in this country. In terms of teaching children so-called western classical music, the UK has already fallen far behind countries such as China, South Korea and Japan, where children playing instruments is the norm instead of the quirky add-on for rich kids which it is fast becoming in the UK. The predominance of Far Eastern instrumentalists in the world’s leading music competitions, conservatoires and concert platforms increasingly reflects this. In the near future, many jobs will be lost to mechanisation; this will not be the case in the creative industries, which will continue to thrive. The school curriculum should be preparing our children for every eventuality, rather than restricting them to a narrow range of options.

Julian Lloyd Webber gave his last recorded performance at Rhinegold LIVE © Ceri Wood Photography
Julian Lloyd Webber gave his last recorded performance at Rhinegold LIVE
© Ceri Wood Photography

By far the most challenging time in my own career was the nine months from the autumn of 2013 until I was forced to give up playing due to a medical condition in May 2014. After months of soul-searching, I decided that I must follow my other passion: music education. In 2015, when the job of principal at the then Birmingham (now Royal Birmingham) Conservatoire became vacant, I applied with alacrity. The conservatoire’s forward-thinking ideals of innovation coupled with excellence chime perfectly with my own beliefs and I found that the day-to-day running of a leading music college came as second-nature; perhaps because of my father’s longstanding endeavours in the same field, but mostly because I love working with similarly minded colleagues who are always looking to improve our students’ experience.

Music enriches lives and brings people together as nothing else can. Music knows no barriers of language, race or social background. Music unites, whereas competitive sport can sometimes divide, and music is central to what it means to be a human being: we all carry individual soundtracks to our lives. Music should no longer be perceived as an add-on, a luxury, the icing on the cake. Music is the cake itself – and we have never needed its sustenance more than now.

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