Interview with Paul Bambrough and Paul Hoskins

Vantage Music| January 2022 | Herts

Vantage is honoured to have invited Mr Paul Bambrough, principal of the Purcell School, and Mr Paul Hoskins, director of music at the Purcell School, for an interview to get to know more about them and the foremost UK-based international music school. 

With Mr Paul Bambrough

You were previously the vice principal of Birmingham Conservatoire. What made you decide to lead a music specialist school?

It was a great privilege to be vice principal at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and lead a time of significant change: the move into new, purpose-built accommodation; the granting of royal title; the adoption of new working practices; and the revision and revalidation of all undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and so on. I also had the pleasure of leading the performance portfolio and was responsible for artistic partnerships – which led to working closely with many of Birmingham’s amazing cultural institutions. The reality was: I wasn’t looking to move! However, the opportunity to come to such a unique, ambitious and high-achieving place as the Purcell School, at a time when it was seeking fresh leadership, strategic direction and a clear vision for the future, was compelling. I certainly felt that I had something to offer the school from my previous posts – and that always helps when one is considering a move. But the clincher was when I visited the school and felt its unique atmosphere – which is quite unlike anywhere else – and met its students – who are quite unlike those of anywhere else in terms of their commitment, determination and ambition. It just felt right and so, although I was sad to leave a post I truly enjoyed, I was excited at the prospect of joining the School and all we could achieve here. Joining at the same time as Paul Hoskins was also a great opportunity – not least because it was clear that we saw the needs of the school in exactly the same way right from the start. That hardly ever happens!

Has your philosophy in education evolved over the years since you have been an educator, from the Sixth Form College Farnborough to becoming the vice principal of the Birmingham Conservatoire and then the principal at the Purcell School?

If anything, it has cemented my view that arts education happens best in partnership with others. I talk of arts education, rather than specifically music education, because many of the issues and challenges facing providers (at all levels – school, FE, HE) are common across disciplines. This has only been compounded during the past two years, where the pandemic has forced all those who work within the arts to reassess what we do and how we do it. In trying to answer these essential questions, I believe that it is imperative for the schools sector, the FE and HE sectors and the arts industry to pull more closely together and align their objectives more closely to preserve and protect opportunities at all levels. My (somewhat unique) experience of working across all sectors has really cemented this belief and highlighted the interconnectedness and inter-reliance of the industry with all sectors of arts education.

You are also a tenor, harpsichordist, pianist, organist and repetiteur. How did you cope with your hectic performance schedule as well as teaching and running a school?

Well, the reality is that something has had to take a back seat and, in recent years, this has been my performance work. I keep up just enough recital and concert work for me to feel connected to the very thing that led me to do what I do now, but it’s certainly not at the level nor as extensive as it once was. Honestly, I’m not quite sure how I managed it all in years past – maybe I was just younger! My satisfaction now comes from providing the infrastructure, resources and environment to enable our brilliant staff to do amazing things with our brilliant students – I no longer feel the need to be doing it myself!

With Mr Paul Hoskins

You started conducting in your school days. How did you come to be the music director of Rambert, a renowned dance company, for more than 20 years? What made you decide to become music director of the Purcell School?

I was very lucky to grow up in a musical household, which was in a musical school called Christ’s Hospital. My parents lived and worked at the school, and they took me to a lot of concerts as a child, as well as theatre and dance. We didn’t really know professional musicians, but the amateur world around us was very active. I got the ‘conducting bug’ very young and, although my initial motivations to conduct were probably terrible – naive ambition and a desire to be in charge, as well as a love of music! – I eventually found that I could learn at least some of the attributes needed to be a conductor.

Very few musicians have much control over the paths they follow, especially in the early stages – you have to follow your interests, and take advice and help wherever you can find it. After being at Cambridge University and the Royal College of Music, I did some wonderful summer schools in Siena and Dartington, and then simply took whatever paid work, unpaid projects, competitions and courses that I could find. In 1992, I was asked to conduct a few concerts for the Cambridge New Music Players, and we did a number of quite high-profile festivals and premieres over several years. The Royal Ballet ran an innovative course and competition in 1993 called Conduct for Dance, and after winning a prize there I was invited to conduct at the English National Ballet. So when the Rambert music director job was advertised in 1996 I was lucky to have had a bit of a start in both dance and in contemporary music.

Rambert was a fantastic training ground for three reasons: we were working at a very high level, with internationally renowned dancers, choreographers and composers, and some of London’s top players and soloists; it was constantly evolving with a huge range of different repertoire; and we toured, so that, through many performances, difficult new music became familiar, standard repertoire. I never expected to stay for 20 years, though!

The Rambert post was part-time and stable, a dream for anyone trying to develop as a young freelance conductor. It allowed me to do other work in the UK and abroad with different orchestras and ballet companies, and was always a creative ‘home’ to return to. There were several times when I might have left, but London is home to my wife and children too, and in the end I was very lucky to stay so long, and then develop a new working relationship with Mark Baldwin, the artistic director who helped Rambert to build a brand-new home on the South Bank. Together we expanded the company’s use of live music significantly, and I am proud of the legacy of many young composers and choreographers that we helped to develop, from about 2008 to 2018.

Do your past experiences in ballet company influence/assist your career as the music director of the Purcell School? If so, how?

Many people said they were surprised when I moved to Purcell in 2018. From the outside it looks as though conductors spend all their time in rehearsal and performance, leaving everything else to teams of staff. I don’t think it is like that for anyone, and certainly not for most of us! I had a lot of ‘transferable skills’ – many of the things I learnt to do at Rambert I use every day at Purcell. In addition to conducting rehearsals and performances, and coaching singers and players, I work as an artistic director in programming, curating and commissioning. I am responsible to some extent for marketing, budgeting, recruiting and managing people, and co-ordinating teams of people from very different areas – exactly as one does in any opera house, arts centre, theatre, orchestra or dance company. It’s about helping to organise people, time, music and creative energy – conducting, in other words.

About Purcell School

‘To deliver outstanding musical and academic education’ is one of the aims of the Purcell School. We would like to know how the school maintains the balance between the academic programme and its high standard of music programme.

I believe that a lot of parents are mistaken to think that their children need as many qualifications as possible: many schools in the UK expect children to take 12 or 13 GCSEs and 4 A-levels in addition to all the extra-curricular stuff. It’s too much! At Purcell we reduce this in order to allow it to be done extremely well, whilst giving talented musicians the time and space to really learn their instrument properly. It takes so long to develop a solid technique as a musician, and there is no end of music to discover from all over the world. But we do expect high standards in the academic subjects, because if you speak to any really successful musician you will find that they are expert and curious about an amazing range of subjects.

How do students manage such intensive musical training programme, together with other academic subjects? Do they have enough time to practise and participate in different kinds of ensemble playing, as well as dedicating their time to other non-musical academic subjects? With regard to performing opportunities, are there certain commitments every student must fulfil? If so, what are they?

We try to have a mixture of compulsory things (e.g. some practice times, some assessments, some classes), along with the freedom to volunteer and propose student-led projects. Students are always most committed to anything they have devised and suggested themselves, with limited obvious adult support. The trick is to ensure that the necessary support is available and subtle but effective.

Students will take Cambridge Pre-U Music in their sixth form. What is it like?

This is ending next year, so we are looking for another exam board that provides for a good range of performance, composition, academic variety and a broad curriculum. Our students can perform at a high level, and they also need to be able to pursue different academic interests in depth.

There is also an option for a jazz specialism. Is it new to the curriculum? What do students have to do?

No, it’s not new – the music world is full of outstanding jazz and commercial musicians who studied jazz at Purcell. Lots of bands, albums and shows could not happen without them! We also have an exceptional list of jazz musicians who teach trumpet, piano, bass, drums, guitar, sax and voice. One thing that is new this year is audio production, taught by producer Matt Calvert.  

What other non-musical subjects are available and popular for students?

English, French, German, history, science, maths, music technology – but none of them are completely ‘non-musical’ if you are a musician! Everything is related.

What is the percentage of graduates to major music institutions over the world?

Every year our leavers go to the top conservatoires in London, Europe, the US and to top universities. The split is about 90/10.

Do most of your students take up music as career? Are there any notable exceptional cases? How do you think a music specialist school would benefit someone who decides to take on a non-musical path after graduation?

Most do take up music as a career, but some do not. Clearly, a specialist school is only really enjoyable if you love music as a teenager and, if you do, you will benefit forever from the training that is provided, and the relationships that develop through creative education.

We notice that there are some outreach programmes where students are asked to conduct workshops with a whole class of children. What do the students usually do in these programmes? And how effective is it to both their musical and personal development?

Lots of students love conducting and it is something that we hope to expand after the pandemic.

For the past two years, during the pandemic, has the school adopted more live-streamed concerts? Do you think that is becoming a norm nowadays? Is it the reason why regular live-streamed concerts become one of the aims in your strategic planning?

Actually, we had already started to develop live streaming before Covid, because so many of our parents and families are a long way away, and the internet is clearly a wonderful shop window for performers. But it will never replace the experience of performers sharing a space with a live audience in person – I would not have any memorable experiences as a conductor if I hadn’t come to know the ‘liveness’ of the theatre and concert platform. Audiences are crucial to the life of a musician.

You mentioned in your strategic planning that a primary school is under consideration. Would you like to share with us anything about this project?

We can’t share much yet except to say that Covid and Brexit have both brought problems for the government to do with ‘supply chains’. Everything is connected. If we don’t thrive, the conservatoires suffer, and the result is fewer musicians in the profession. Looking ‘upstream’ from Purcell, there has been a devastating reduction in opportunities for primary-age children to have music in most schools. We owe it to everybody to do all we can to help this situation, both for reasons of altruism and self-preservation.

Any more future projects/activities you would like to share with our readers?

I’m excited about Joseph Howard joining us this year as the first of many composers in association. We also welcome Andrew Marriner and Garfield Jackson as new associate artists, along with Lucy Russell. And Purcell is 60 years old this year! We will celebrate in 2022–23 with a series of exciting concerts and commissions – watch this space!