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England has a strong classical music tradition and was the birthplace and home of some great composers such as Edward Elgar, Benjamin Britten and Gustav Holst. The classical music scene is still thriving: in some of the world’s best concert halls such as the Albert Hall, the Royal Opera House, and Symphony Hall; at a huge classical music festival ‘The Proms‘ held each summer; and in a flourishing contemporary music scene. Emma Shires talks to Michael Betteridge, a young British composer based in Manchester, about his upbringing and what it’s like to write music for a living.
Text: Emma Shires
Photos by: Helen Anne Gregory (www.photographedbyhelen.com)
Country: England

Michael, can you start off by telling us a bit about how you first became interested in classical music. What kinds of music-making were you involved in when you were growing up and what led you to study music at university?

I always studied classical music in one way or another. I played piano from around my fourth birthday, but I never really thought about what I was listening to or playing as classical music, it was just music. As I got older, the music I engaged with was musical theatre and pop music like Blink 182 and Green Day. I guess music was something I just did without thinking about it. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I studied classical music for my end of school exams, and it was when we were looking at Schubert ’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony that I realised that classical music was something that could inspire and move me in a way that musical theatre and pop music did. So I ended up doing a classical music degree at university. When I started I didn’t know as much as some of the other students about the canonical pieces of classical music but I grew quickly to love more of it. I discovered composers like Benjamin Britten, whose opera Peter Grimes was really inspirational to me, and Charles Ives, who, although he isn’t necessarily a very modern composer, was a very innovative and experimental composer.

So what was your music education before university like? Was it typical by English standards?

My piano lessons were initiated by my parents and completely separate from school. My primary school was quite musical—one of the teachers played piano and violin and it was common for them to play in school events. The school also offered music lessons, so I started to learn the saxophone. We had to pay for these lessons but I believe they were subsidised, and in any case we were taught in groups so it wasn’t expensive.

The secondary school I went to was a state comprehensive specialist school. State comprehensive schools are non-selective and non-fee paying and specialist comprehensives were particularly popular at the time. My school was a performing arts specialist school, so there was a lot of music, a lot of performance, a lot of theatre. For example, from the age of 15 the school had a big budget to put on a musical every year, we had a recording studio and there was a school jazz band and a big choir. All of this was free for students to take part in. In fact, a lot of the teachers were composers, but that is very rare. Generally, independent schools in England have a good music education system, but when it comes to comprehensive schools, it can vary a lot and I was just lucky. At the weekends I also went to a private musical theatre school, so I had an hour of lessons focused on singing, dance, and music every Saturday morning from the age of eleven.

So music was clearly an important part of your life from a young age. However, when did you start to write your own music?

When I was about 13 or 14, a friend of mine was writing stories and plays and they asked me if I wanted to set some of their words to music, and I gave it a go. At school in England, you are expected to write music in small groups from the age of 11 or 12 and then if you choose to take music as one of your exam subjects at 16, you have to write a piece of music by yourself. But the music I was writing by myself was musical theatre, pop-like songs. Sometimes I would spend three or four hours writing music after school, but with very little guidance. Some of it was awful, some of it was OK, but I learnt what it was like to write your own songs and to work with a writer. Now I still work in a similar way with the authors who I collaborate with.

And now that you are a professional composer, what exactly do you do? What kind of projects are you involved in?

I currently work as a freelance composer and conductor, and I am studying for a doctorate in composition. The work I create as a composer is really varied, but a lot of it is for and with non-professional musicians and young people. Often, I will be asked to write something for say a specific group of young people at a certain level or to create musical ideas for a group of people I’m going to meet who will then compose it with me. This is called community music-making and this is a big part of my output. I also write a lot of opera and musical theatre, so that might include writing a few songs for a small theatre company or writing a whole opera. I do lots of education work where I will take an opera and go into a school and teach them about it, including teaching them to sing the songs and then helping them to write a piece of music in response to the themes and characters of the opera. In addition, I do some conducting and that’s normally conducting my own work or conducting amateur choirs, both small- scale local choirs and huge groups of up to 400 or 500 people. At the same time, I am doing a doctorate degree in composition at the University of Hull. For this, I am looking at how pre-recorded speech can influence and inspire the compositional process.

So what does your average day looks like?

My work is so varied that I don’t really have an average day! My days are normally made up of a variety of things, so in the morning I normally try to get up really early and do a few hours of composing for the current commission I am working on (if I don’t have to be somewhere). Then mid-morning I might have a Skype conversation or go for coffee with a collaborator. This might involve doing some writing together, discussing new ideas, touching base or evaluating a project that’s been completed. I try to save any general administration until after lunch; I always have a lot of emails to catch up on, there’s planning to be done, organising my schedule and I need to write up feedback. If there’s more time, I try to fit in more composition in the afternoon, but that’s usually my least productive part of the day, so I focus on something simpler like typesetting (writing up the music I have written so far on specialist software). In the evening, I often have rehearsals and if not, I try and go to the theatre or catch a concert, as it’s really important for me to hear what else is going on in the musical world. So my days are normally quite long, but each week can be quite different. Looking ahead at this year, I go from weeks where I will be in London working with an orchestra, to other times at home when I’ll focus on my doctorate. I also have chunks of time where I work abroad, for example I’ll be working on a new opera in Iceland.

You are clearly very busy! How does it work in terms of salary? Where does your income come from?

As many artists do, when I first started out, I did a lot of projects for small fees or even for free, but now that I am more established I am getting paid properly. Many composers also do some music teaching to subsidise their income. In my current situation, I have full funding for my doctorate, so that not only covers fees to do the program but also gives me a living allowance, which works just like a salary. This funding comes partly from the University of Hull and partly from the city, as Hull is the UK City of Culture 2017 and they want to have artists living and working there. This probably accounts for a third of my income, and another third comes from commissions, pieces of music I am asked to write. The final third comes from conducting and education work, including specific fixed-term projects, and choirs I conduct regularly. Most of these projects are funded by the Arts Council England, which is a public body that receives money from the government to be distributed to arts venues around the UK. Part of Arts Council England’s mandate is that these venues have to commission new work and educational work.

Can you describe to us what your music is like?

I write in lots of different styles, and often this is dictated by the people I am working with on a particular project. My music is generally very theatrical. This might be because it is very energetic, because it changes style very quickly, or maybe because it is so still it just makes you stop in your tracks. I like funky rhythms, so my music doesn’t often have a clear pulse throughout, so it can feel disjointed or like you don’t know what to expect next. However, I like my music to be accessible and I try to write music that can connect to anyone. Often my pieces are quite catchy and fun to listen to, but they also challenge the listener as they aren’t catchy in the way you might expect.

What’s been your biggest musical achievement so far? Or the piece of music you have been most proud of?

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for the London Symphony Orchestra, my first big commission. There was a moment in the performance when they put all the composers’ names and photos up on a projection, so Vivaldi and Beethoven were there, and then my name came up. It was a moment when I thought eighteen-year-old me never would have thought this would have happened. So although it wasn’t necessarily my favourite composition, it was a moment that changed how I saw myself as a composer and made me reflect on how much I had achieved.

There have been a few pieces of music that I have been really proud of, such as a musical called Indigestion that I wrote many years ago. It was a musical that took place in a restaurant, so the music and theatre happened around you while you were eating. I did this fresh out of university when I was doing a lot more teaching and education work, and we did it on no money in a tiny restaurant in Manchester. That project was a huge catalyst for me and it made me learn so much about my work and what interests me about music and theatre. When I look back on that piece I think, ‘that is why I became a composer’.

And what does it feel like to listen to your music when it is performed? Do you get nervous when you are in the audience?

I get nervous every single time, although I am getting less nervous as I get older. I always have to record the performance and listen to it again afterwards. My opinion of my music often changes: the moment when the concert is over I might love it, but the next day I might hate it and then love it again six months later. I am very critical of my work, which I think is a good thing as it makes me always strive to do something better; something different; something new and exciting.

What is your favourite thing about being a composer?

The best bit is definitely working with the musicians. The performance has to happen and the audience listens to it and makes their opinion of it. However, I would always prefer to be part of the performance, as a performer or a conductor. If I am just in the audience, I feel like I am not part of it anymore. I’ve given the piece to the performers and the audience and it’s not mine, which might be why I always get nervous listening in the audience!

Have you ever thought about giving up composing and getting a ‘normal’ job?

Yes, actually, all the time really! The real challenge as a composer is finding work and finding work that you like. You worry that no work will come in, and I often think about the benefits of being in an office with other people as it’s a space away from home where you work. You go there specifically to work and when you leave, generally, the work is finished. The problem with being a freelancer, as composers are, is that you are constantly ‘on’. Even when I am busy, I always have to remember to send mailouts, go network for new opportunities and chase up projects that you discussed months ago with someone. It can be very tiring and sometimes frustrating. However, it’s amazing the freedom and control that I have. I can make choices about when, where, and how I work.

That sounds understandable, but we are glad that you are sticking with it! What are your hopes and dreams as a composer? Is there something in particular you would like to achieve during your career?

I would love to write an opera for a big company like the Royal Opera House or Opera North. The idea of writing an opera with lots of characters, with a full orchestra and chorus and with a full-blown production is a real dream of mine. I don’t want it now—it’s something for when I am 40 or 50 and know more about what the themes of the opera would be and what I’d like to explore. But many top opera composers will never write for a main stage like that.

I also have some shorter-term goals, such as in the next ten years I would really like to have a body of work that I like. I feel like I am still trying to find out what I am doing as a composer and what kind of things I like, but I want to be able to say one day ‘that’s really me in musical form’.

I also really want my music to have an impact on people, which is one of the reasons I do some much educational work, as it means I am really involving people in the process of writing. I want the music I create to challenge people, to make them think and to move them.

Finally, what advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue a career as a professional composer?

The best advice I was ever given, and which I try to follow, is to write for an hour every single day. So even if you have nothing to compose for, get up an hour earlier, and just write. You learn by doing and, like anything, it takes practice. I would also say keep an open mind, listen to everything and experience all art forms. Go to art galleries; go to the theatre, go watch ballet. Finally, the advice I would give to a younger version of myself is that it’s not a race. If you try to achieve too many huge things too early you will burn out. Don’t be in a rush to get to the finish line, as the end will never come.

Fact box: Michael Betteridge

Education: Bachelor’s degree from the University of Manchester, Master’s degree from the Royal Northern College of Music and currently working on his Doctorate at the University of Hull

Favourite composer: Stephen Sondheim

Favourite piece of classical music: Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten

Favourite popular musician: Regina Spektor




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Life as a British Composer


interviewed composer Michael Betteridge to learn more about the thriving classical music scene in England.

Michael is currently a freelance composer and conductor and is studying for a doctorate in composition at the University of Hull. He started writing his own music when he was 13 or 14 because a friend of his asked him to write some music for his plays.

He started playing the piano when he was around four years old. When he got older he became interested in musical theatre and pop music like Blink 182 and Green Day. In his late teens as he listened to Shubert 's 'Unfinished' Symphony, he realised that classical music really inspired him.

Michael writes in a lot of different styles and his music is generally very theatrical. He tries to write music that can connect to anyone. His pieces are quite catchy and fun to listen to, but they also challenge the listener.

His biggest musical achievement was when he wrote a piece for the London Symphony Orchestra and saw his name displayed with Vivaldi and Beethoven. One of the pieces he is most proud of was a musical called Indigestion, which he wrote a few years ago.

His favourite thing about being a composer is working with the musicians. Michael's advice to anyone who wants to become a composer is to write for an hour every single day and not to be in a rush to do everything early.

 

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Life as a British Composer

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