How failing at music college helped me to succeed


This week has been a rather bonkers and successful one… being listed on the Forbes 30 under 30 Europe 2018 list (#clang). It’s capped off a rather crazy few years which, although hasn’t always felt like it, have achieved a lot and have been “successful”.

For some reason, this week has also made me reflect at my journey in getting here. Probably something related to having a mini crisis as my 30th birthday is around the corner, I have more grey hairs than I’d like, and realising how expensive Freddos now are (a reference that will only make sense in the UK).

If I’m being honest, I was 50/50 as to whether I’d talk about this. However, I hope my story is useful to anyone who happens to be struggling at music college.

So… here’s my story about how I was a failure at music college… and how it’s helped me to succeed.

I didn’t have the best time at music college. I’m going to hold my hands up… a big part of that was me. I think I started to slip through the cracks of the system pretty quickly. For me there was a lack of support and structure that meant I didn’t settle into a routine, I found the increase in pressure without support difficult, and what seemed to be an outdated stuffy syllabus of lectures boring and unimportant.

I didn’t engage as much as I should, I didn’t go to lectures as much as I should, and I discovered I liked pubs. On top of that I struggled to adjust to the pressures of music college, the competitiveness and stress of it all. At one point I nearly got kicked out for missing essay deadlines. I also took a year out in the middle due to depression (probably a whole blog for another time).

As well as holding my hands up for my half of struggling at music college, the system itself did very little to help, leaving me frustrated and disillusioned. From the outset I was never one of the “favourite students”. Orchestral seating could be predicted months in advance, with very little hint of rotation, with me languishing towards the back. On top of that, in all of my time there I never had the opportunity to play in a masterclass, I never got onto a training scheme, and was always overlooked for the exciting projects.

This was particularly annoying as I was a solid cellist… and I had paid the same tuition fees as everyone else and wasn’t getting the same experience. My saving grace through all of this was an incredible cello teacher who was not only amazing at teaching me cello, but fully embodied the pastoral element of being a teacher. Without her I’m certain I wouldn’t still be in music.

I did well in my major project I ended up getting a first, however I had a blip of a final recital and got a third… leaving me totally disillusioned and deciding not to finish an essay… and as a result I left with a BMus – no honours… what most people, and even myself, would describe as “a failure”.

So how on earth could my bumpy and unglamorous journey be a good thing? Well… looking back it did a lot.

About halfway through my rocky time studying I started to look elsewhere for opportunities. The more frustrated I got with the system and my situation, the hungrier I got... it was a necessity. I’d scour the internet for things I could do outside of college. I joined the CBSO youth orchestra which was always a highlight of my year. After lamenting chances to have solo experience, I sat down and emailed every amateur orchestra in the UK offering myself as a concerto soloist (and getting 3 concerto gigs while studying).

I started to look more and more at what my offering as a musician was and what the state of the market was. If music college wasn’t going to help me, I’d have to help myself. I realised I had no education experience, so I hunted for more opportunities. I found a local cello workshop to volunteer at as well as perform. Then, in what would turn out to be one of the best choices I’ve ever made, I applied to be pastoral staff at music summer school – The Ingenium Academy.

It was at these external opportunities, especially Ingenium, that I started to meet amazing musicians, to network, to develop my ideas of what music was to me and what its place in society was. I would learn more in the 3 weeks at Ingenium that I would during the entire year… so I did it three summers in a row.

It was this mentality of hunting for opportunities and being out of my comfort zone that helped me when I left music college. I still hadn’t worked out what I would do, but I knew I wanted it to be music. A post grad was probably out of the question, so I started applying for jobs well out of comfort zone, hunting for creative opportunities. Late at night, I applied for a job I never thought I would get in a part of the world I wouldn’t have normally gone. 3 weeks later I was on a plane and began teaching cello at the Edward Said National Conservatory.

Coming back to UK, I used the skills I had learnt at music college to help me start my own business. The unrelenting tenacity, having to think of creative and unorthodox ways to get ahead, and the acceptance that rejection is normal, being able to dust myself off and get up and carry on… these were all things I had to develop from being “a failure”.

Fast forwards 4 and a half years since I left music college. I’ve taught cello at a music conservatory in a different country, created a business, had a BBC Radio 4 documentary about my business, won the UK’s largest tourism award, been the first youth orchestra in the world to be 100% digital, and now being listed on the Forbes 30 under 30 list (hashtag humblebrag)… things you would never expect from a failed cellist without honours on his BMus. Oh, and not only that, but I have been back to my old music college to speak about careers and my thoughts on the arts world! It’s been difficult, but I’m now at a point where my failures haven’t defined me. I’ve worked hard to make sure I have grown from them and become stronger.

I know that there are people struggling at music college for a whole range of reasons, so I want to end with a final message to them. You’re by no means on your own. It feels shit but it gets better. I’m not going to say it will be easy, but the adversity you’re going through will shape you into a stronger person with an incredible set of experiences. The fact you are going to look for your opportunities elsewhere is a massive advantage in the world of “real life”.

Be patient, keep working, your difficulties will help shape you and make you stronger, and your time will come.