‘I’m the only one in the world who conducts music with their head’: James Rose
Artist of the Month: James Rose9:40, 9th November 2018
BSO Resound is a trailblazing professional ensemble made up of disabled musicians. The group’s conductor James Rose talks to Toby Deller about his role within the group and his route into music
In a room in a community centre 20 minutes outside Bournemouth, the players of BSO Resound, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s professional ensemble of disabled musicians, wait for their conductor to bring them in. From his wheelchair, James Rose does so, mouthing ‘three, four’ as he moves his head first to the right, then upwards. He then nods, bringing down the short baton that is attached to his glasses frame.
That is usually enough to get the music started. As with any ensemble, the players must pay attention to each other to co-ordinate their entry, not least because one of the sextet is blind and relies in part on the breathing of their neighbour to know when to begin. But if things do go awry, the group calmly, often jovially, establish what went wrong and start again. Rose, who has cerebral palsy and whose assistant is on hand to help communicate his speech, is often happy to let the players do this for themselves.
‘At the moment, I’m probably the least musically experienced person in the room because I haven’t gone to music school. So I have had to learn that my role is more about directing people. It is also about listening to people and taking on the advice and the experience they have to offer. And to almost keep the emotional temperature in the room positive.’ He admits: ‘I can’t always offer the solution. But I can ensure that we bumble along positively by knowing when to “take control” and when to shut up, basically, and listen.’
I thought feeling musical was a bit weird because no one ever asked me about it
BSO Resound itself seems, among other things, to be something of a laboratory exploring ways of making music that are specific to disabled musicians, but within the context of (and with lessons for) a mainstream music organisation. Rose, as its artistic director, is responsible for developing the ensemble and choosing its repertoire, although he still calls himself a trainee conductor. All the more so since the discipline of head conducting is itself very much in its infancy and Rose, together with his teachers and mentors, is one of those responsible for giving it shape.
‘I’m the only one in the world who conducts music with their head,’ he reflects, adding: ‘That has freaked a lot of people out from even engaging with me on a serious level.’
His interest in conducting goes back to his childhood, although music in general was not something he was encouraged to do, either at his SEN/D school or the mainstream school he attended after asking his parents to move him there. ‘I got a lot more stimulation there but was never encouraged to do music and because of that I kind of hid away my musicality. I thought feeling musical was a bit weird because no one ever asked me about it. So I went down the media studies/drama path.’
But when he found himself in London after completing his degree in broadcasting, his interest in conducting re-emerging, he came across someone who crops up frequently as a figurehead in this column.
‘I googled the Royal Academy of Music and noticed that they were holding an open day for their conducting MA programme, headed by Sian Edwards. So I emailed Sian and explained who I was and what I was trying to do and expected either no reply or a palm-off. However she got back to me pretty quickly and invited me along to the open day where I met her face-to-face. Then she invited me to sit in on her Tuesday classes every week. There was no question: I said yes straight away and I did that for a year and a half.’
That led to an Arts Council-sponsored development workshop at the RAM, which also involved working with John Lubbock (a conductor who dedicates much time to playing music with children with autism, notably with his Orchestra of St John’s), and then BSO. ‘At the exact same time I was doing that project, the BSO were looking for a disabled artist to apply to the Arts Council Change Makers fund. And I almost didn’t reply to the ad. I’m so glad I did, and it is because of that project that I got this traineeship with the BSO.’
He began in 2017 and BSO Resound was formed six months later in January 2018. And that summer, they appeared at the Proms along with BSO’s symphony orchestra. It was not, however, his first taste of a big occasion since he had previously danced, having once again nearly failed to apply for the project, at the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.
‘I ended up performing in three ceremonies, and while I was performing I was surrounded by this massive production environment and worked with loads of different performers and musicians, which I loved so much. After that was over, I realised that whatever it was I wanted to do, however crazy the idea, if you put enough time and effort into it then it will happen. Because the London 2012 ceremonies were ridiculously crazy, but they did it. At that point I had a fantasy of conducting which I’d had since five, six, seven years old – while I was growing up I used to pretend to conduct while listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber. But that was catalyst, and after I had finished the London 2012 thing I suddenly decided to go for it.’
1985: born 12 January
1986: starts attending the Peto Institute in Budapest, Hungary (it teaches children who have cerebral palsy and cannot control their bodies properly to lead more independent lives by means of conductive education)
1995: has first head pointer made
1997: starts attend a mainstream school
2012: performs as a dancer in the London 2012 ceremonies
2014: graduates from Falmouth University with a 1st Class degree
2015: begins shadowing Sian Edwards at the Royal Academy of Music
2017: begins traineeship with BSO
2018: BSO Resound formed; performs London premiere of Alexander Campkin’s Hoping at BBC Proms