Julian Lloyd Webber, acclaimed cellist and Principal of the newly rebuilt Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, on inspiration, passion and the importance of music education


Who or what inspired you to take up the cello and pursue a career in music?

I always loved the sound of the cello and I found it a very natural instrument to play – unlike the piano which my mother attempted to teach me. Therein lies a lesson: never learn an instrument from your parents!

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

I wanted to play the cello professionally after I heard the great Russian cellist Rostropovich in concert.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career?

Every performance is a challenge.

You are a passionate advocate of music education? Why do you feel we need proper provision for music education in our schools?

Children deserve a wider education than just a few narrow subjects. They should leave school knowing a lot about the world – and that includes its culture.

As Principal of Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, how do you see this institution’s role in the context of music education in the UK and beyond, and the wider society of the city of Birmingham and the UK in general?

Birmingham is a fantastic city with a great future – soon Londoners will realise that they can have a far better lifestyle for much less cost in Birmingham. Unfortunately that will be the end of the city’s comparatively low property prices. The Royal Conservatoire will be at the heart of the city. We have five performance spaces and we will be running an extensive programme of concerts of every kind of music.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Keep thinking for yourself and never lose your passion for what you do.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Bringing music to as many people as possible.
Professor Julian Lloyd Webber is the Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire. Widely regarded as one of the finest musicians of his generation and described by Strad magazine as ‘the doyen of British cellists’, Julian Lloyd Webber has enjoyed one of the most creative and successful careers in classical music today. As founder of the British Government’s In Harmony programme and the Chair of Sistema England, he continues to promote personal and community development in some of England’s most deprived areas. He was elected Fellow of the Royal College of Music in 1994 and – in recognition of his lifelong devotion to the music of Elgar – he was elected President of the Elgar Society in 2009.

At the age of sixteen Julian Lloyd Webber won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music and he completed his studies in Geneva with the renowned cellist, Pierre Fournier. Since then he has collaborated with an extraordinary array of musicians from Lord Yehudi Menuhin, Lorin Maazel and Sir Georg Solti to Elton John and Stephane Grappelli.

Julian Lloyd Webber has premiered more than sixty works for cello and he has inspired new compositions from composers as diverse as Joaquin Rodrigo and Malcolm Arnold to Philip Glass, James MacMillan and – most recently – Eric Whitacre. His many recordings have received worldwide acclaim: his Brit-award winning Elgar Concerto conducted by Lord Menuhin was chosen as the finest ever version by BBC Music Magazine and his coupling of Britten’s Cello Symphony and Walton’s Concerto with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner was described by Gramophone magazine as being “beyond any rival”. He has also recorded several highly successful CDs of shorter pieces including Cello Song, Unexpected Songs and – together with Jiaxin Lloyd Webber – A Tale of Two Cellos: “It would be difficult to find better performances of this kind of repertoire anywhere on records of today or yesterday” – Gramophone.

Julian is married to fellow cellist Jiaxin Cheng. He was the London Underground’s first official busker and he was the only classical musician chosen to perform at the Closing Ceremony of Olympics 2012. In April 2014 Julian received the Incorporated Society of Musician’s annual Distinguished Musician Award.


Guest post by Dr Michael Low

I have a confession: I don’t like to engage in online debates. The thought of someone meticulously sharpening their proverbial pitch-fork in response to my opinion is almost as terrifying as anticipating the climax of Stanley Kubrick’s Shining, where the psychotic Jack broke through the bathroom to find the terrified Wendy, before shouting the ominous cinematic caption: ‘Here’s Johnny!’ I am also not the biggest fan of text messages and emails, as they can be open to misunderstanding due to the recipient’s frame of mind and emotional state. Or perhaps I am not a fan of all these because I am just a voyeur, which would possibly explain why I have always have an affinity for Schubert’s Winterreise and an undying love for the movie theatre.

Having read the Charlotte Gill’s original article on music education and the responses that it generated, part of me was tempted not to say anything; what difference would my opinion make? I do, after all, live in a country which has recently been downgraded to ‘junk’ status (the result of the South African president’s catastrophic cabinet reshuffle). Sweeping statement perhaps, but there has always been a difference in the reception of the opinions of someone who works in a first-world country and those of someone who works in Africa; for all its breath-taking scenery, somehow being a music educator in Cape Town doesn’t carry as much gravitas as being one in Europe. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, I probably practise the piano inside a straw hut, while predators such as lions and leopards huff and puff outside my front door, regardless of my credentials.

I have no idea in what context Gill’s article was written. However, in my opinion it is important to keep in mind that she was (unconsciously) addressing two things: the first was music education being ‘elitist’ due to the technical hindrance caused by music notation:

This is a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education. Children who do not have the resources, or ability, to comprehend it, are written off. Even when they are capable performers.

The second was music as a hobby. (It must be said that Gill was not explicit in her description of music as a recreational activity, but it is implied in her statement):

‘I play the piano through reading letters alone (D/F#, for example), churning out chords as if it were a guitar. In the US I have seen children pick up songs through tablature alone. Sure, we may not be able to tell the difference between the bass and treble clef, but we can play our favourite songs. That is all I ever wanted from music.’

I will address the second point before the first.

Despite being a musical snob, I do believe that there is a place for playing your favourite music without the use of traditional music notation, YouTube features countless pop songs and soundtrack tutorials, some of which are excellent to assist those who are looking for a more straight-forward way of accessing their favourite piece of music. However, just as there are those who aspire only to play their favourite songs, there are also a handful of us who seek to study and perform music at a higher level (by this I mean a more formal music education such as obtaining a degree or studying towards a Conservatoire-type performance diploma). In our studies, we seek to understand the aesthetic value behind a Beethoven sonata or a Rachmaninov concerto. Music is no longer a mere ‘hobby,’ but a significant part of our life: we live it, breathe it, sleep with it and it haunts us in our dreams. The repertoire that interest us are not Adele songs or Richard Clayderman type piano ballades but Schubert sonatas, Brahms concerti, Chopin preludes, etc, and the most straightforward way of accessing these works is through music notation, as it is the primary source of the composer’s musical intention. Similarly, any academic in tertiary level will always look to reference a primary source during research, it is only when this is not possible that a secondary source is quoted. Here is another analogy: reciting and performing Shakespeare through imitation is not nearly the same as actually taking time to study and understand the poet’s original writing. I personally have no interest in studying or performing Shakespeare, I learn to read purely so that I can enjoy reading sports journalism, online articles and browsing the web. At the same time, I do not think I have the right (or audacity) to be critical of the language that the poet used just because I cannot relate to it.

As human beings, being a specialist or expert in one’s chosen field does not make us better than our amateur counterparts, but it does – in some cases – make us much more obsessive. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that there will always be a place for everyone, and just as an enthusiastic hacker of the golf ball will probably never reach the dizzy height of a touring golf professional, this has not stop me from enjoying the game, and in the process, attaining a sense of satisfaction every time I hit a good shot.

I do not think music notation is difficult to understand, yet at the same time I do not think it is easy either, and just like everything else in life that is worth doing, comprehension of music notation requires effort and, more importantly, time, but unfortunately this is where things begins to go awry with the current generation of music students. This is an issue I will address below.

I agree with Gill’s argument that auditory perception and other skills can be as important as notation. I, for one, see shapes and patterns on the piano when it comes to memorising a piece of music. I have had the experience of teaching a small handful of students who, despite their enormous desire to play the piano, find it very difficult to tell the difference between a note written on a line of the stave and a note written in a space. The situation literally got out of out of hand (no pun intended!) when we moved on to playing hands together. In these cases I agree that a methodology outside music notation may work very well in order to enhance the student’s enjoyment of music. However, it is also my experience that a number of students cannot read music notation not because they do not have the ability to do so but simply because they chose not to. This is in consistent with the age of social media that reward narcissistic selfies and instantaneous gratification; as soon as something gets remotely difficult, you either give up or try something else. I have been asked by one of my students, ‘Dr Low, why do I need to learn how to read the notes? You can just show me where everything goes, it would save both of us a lot of time.’ To which I answered, ‘In that case you don’t need me as your teacher, you need YouTube.’ Perhaps I am ‘too understanding’ (to borrow the words of a generous parent), but I can sympathise with the initial struggle of learning music notation. However, just like learning a new language or a new skill, the more you familiarise yourself with it, the easier it becomes. I also suspect that the unwillingness of certain students to read music notation has much to do with the physical make-up of the piano, as it is one of the few instruments that allow the student to be taught by rote. And although YouTube tutorial clips have their place in enhancing and assisting a music enthusiast, it can also have a converse effect. I have seen a number of my technically savvy (and at the same time immensely musical) students and friends doing themselves a huge disservice by underestimating the importance of music notation. Excuses include ‘It just takes too long’ or ‘I don’t have the time’, along with ‘I just want to play music for fun, not properly’.

In response to Gill’s statement about still not being able to sight-read, I too must confess that I was an exceptionally poor sight-reader throughout my University years – which was papered over by my obsessive practice routine. It was only later in life that I realised that one doesn’t study Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata by just practising the Hammerklavier, but also by studying the rest of Beethoven’s piano output. However, this does mean that (despite my ability to perform repertoire such as the Brahms F-minor Sonata, Liszt transcriptions and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto) I have never featured prominently in the music department’s performance calendar. I guess there are only so many times when you can say to your fellow colleagues, ‘Send me the music beforehand’. The situation reached its all-time low (again, no pun intended!) during the first year of my teaching when I was swamped with music to learn for school plays and assemblies – the actual difficulties of these music were only about Grade 4 level at most, but because I am not used to learning pieces quickly I ended up making an absolute hack of everything. It didn’t exactly help that my predecessor was an accompanist of note and could read (almost) anything under the sun. My musical ego took a further dent when a former colleague, who I was very friendly with at the time, told me that a senior member of staff had now stressed her reservations about my musicianship. Looking back, this was precisely the kick up the backside that I needed as it gave me every motivation to do something about my sight-reading. And if I can, at the age of twenty-nine, learn to sight read and make a success of it (I am by no means a voracious sight-reader, but I am a hell of a lot better than what I was ten years ago), then I truly believe that there is hope for everyone who is willing to give music notation a go.

Perhaps I am a hopeful Romantic (as opposed to a hopeless one), but teaching someone how to read music notation goes beyond just equipping them with the intellectual know-how of playing a piece of music. Just like any self-respecting teacher of literature, I strongly feel that it is a music teacher’s duty to introduce his/her students to the scores of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, etc. How would a teacher of German literature feel if his/her students went through their entire high-school career without having read a word of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers or Faust? I am not for a moment suggesting that all teachers do a Martin Krause (Krause was one of Liszt’s student and taught the likes of Claudio Arrau and Edwin Fisher) and set our students the whole of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes to learn for homework, which was what Arrau got when he started his studies with Krause. But perhaps an introduction to some of the more well-known works of the Classical music literature: I recall smiling widely when one of my student remarked that the transition between the slow movement and finale of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto reminded him of ‘a sun gradually rising at dawn.’ Finally, through the importance of music notation, a teacher is able to teach a student skills such as ethics, discipline: how to practise more efficiently and intelligently; integrity: to respect the composer’s score; grit: to persist and keep going once you have the goal in sight; and communication. All of these, when applied to someone’s everyday live, will not only make them a better person, but help them to make a difference to society.

In anticipation of the Chinese (Lunar) New Year of 2017, my girlfriend send me a short video on the meaning of the annual celebration as well as the symbols that a pair of chopsticks hold. In this poignant film, there was a scene where a mum introduces her daughter to a pair of chopsticks for the very first time. At first the daughter was intrigued by this strange culinary invention, but as she tries to use them her efforts quickly spiral into frustration, and frustration soon turns to tears. While her daughter is upset and close to giving up, mum remain calm and continues to encourage the teary infant, who eventually succeeded in using the chopsticks to eat her dinner, with a beaming grin. As music teachers, the understanding of music notation is of paramount importance when it comes to the interpretation of the composer’s musical intentions. However, we must also bear in mind that every student is different and unique in his/her own way, hence our job is to merely locate and open the door, but (ultimately) it is the student’s decision to walk through it. I will not, even for one second, bat an eyelid if my girlfriend decides to ask for a spoon and a fork when we dine at our favourite Chinese restaurant. But she is adamant about using chopsticks as they are much more rewarding when sampling Oriental cuisine.

As a teenager, Michael studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke. An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.

Michael currently holds teaching positions in two of Cape Town’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children


There has been a lively response to this article in The Guardian and I was happy to add my name to a list of signatories on an open letter in response written by pianist and musicologist Ian Pace (who is still collecting names – as I write, I understand Sir Simon Rattle has asked to be added to the list).

I share the author of The Guardian article’s concerns about the provision – or lack thereof – of music education in the UK, particularly in the state sector, and I, along with many music teacher colleagues, are fearful that with cuts in funding, music education (along with art and drama) will become the exclusive preserve of the private sector.

Observing the gradual dismantling of music teaching in our state schools from my, admittedly privileged, position as a private piano teacher working in one of the most affluent suburbs of SW London, I’ve come to appreciate that my own introduction to and study of music in the state education system in the 1970s and 80s was truly exceptional – both in terms of provision and quality of teaching – and a lot of what I learnt then, specifically at O and A-level, remains useful in my day-to-day teaching activities. I was indeed very fortunate.

What has really upset many of us about The Guardian article is the author’s assertion that musical notation – the dots, lines and signs on the printed or handwritten page of a musical score – is “a cryptic, tricky language (…) that can only be read by a small number of people“. She infers that the ability to read music is elitist because notation is unintelligible except to those who are privately educated.

In fact, the ability to read music is no more elitist than the ability to read English or Spanish or comprehend simple HTML coding. All skills which can be taught, and taught well, so that students learn and absorb them. Music is a language, with its own grammar and punctuation marks, which can be and is taught in a way not dissimilar to the teaching of, say, French or Latin.

I can’t remember when I first learnt to read music. I must have been around 5 or 6, as that is when I first started piano lessons, and at that time (early 1970s) I was probably taught in a very traditional way (I did music theory homework every week alongside my piano practise). But the method clearly worked as by the time I reached Grade 5 at the age of about 10, I was sufficiently confident in my music reading to start exploring beyond the confines of the piano grade syllabus. I was also a proficient and voracious sight-reader (a skill which I have fortunately retained, but one which must be practised regularly). Being able to read well unlocked an amazing door into a world of adventure and exploration – just as being able to read and understand English well did too (well, hello Chaucer!). As my pianistic skills advanced, so did my reading and pretty soon great thickets of notes or music written across three staves (such as in Debussy’s Preludes – pieces I played regularly as a teenager) became something with which I could engage and enjoy.

The young people, and adults, whom I teach and have taught will all say that one of the primary motivations for learning the piano is also learning to read music. One of my students really put his finger on it recently when he said “I want to be able to read music well enough so that I can open a book of music and play anything I want to” (observe his piano teacher whooping inwardly for joy – because this is my aim too!). This student could appreciate that the ability to read music offers the possibility for independent learning and exploration.

Learning to read music really isn’t that difficult: musical notation certainly has fewer quirks and anomalies than the English language and its “rules” and “grammar” are largely unchanging, which makes it a language which is pretty universal, in my humble opinion. For example, last year, I worked with an orchestra made up of musicians from the former Yugoslavia. My Croatian language skills don’t extend much further than “Zdravo” (Hello, how are you?) or “Doviđenja” (Goodbye), picked up on an exchange trip to Zagreb in my O-level year, but I and the other musicians all had the same score (Bach’s Double Concerto) on the music desks and we were able to “converse” through that: the notes on the pages became our common language. This may sound rather romantic, but musical notation also allows us to transcribe – or translate, if you will – music from other cultures, thus giving us the opportunity to experience this music within a more familiar set of symbols and parameters.

Bachlut1As my experience with the No Borders Orchestra illustrates, notation is not pure “theory” – it’s practical. Those dots, squiggles and numbers on the page are the directions to us, the musicians, which enable us to translate the composer’s intentions into sounds. Notation is also an important tool in understanding the structure, architecture and narrative of the music. It means we can look at original scores by composers like Bach or Mozart and understand them. The ability to read music enables us to play together in orchestras and bands, sing in choirs, read a jazz lead sheet – and the end result is……music. It’s not elitist; it’s simply the way music works – and it’s an efficient system understood by many, used across genres from rock and pop to jazz and classical music.


notation is a beautiful thing in its own right, a way of communicating ideas based on a common understanding and not something just for the privileged (I use myself as the example here, being from a working class, south London background with a very incomplete education)

– Marc Yeats, composer

In teaching notation, I think we need to dispel “the myth of difficult” – that is, if we tell children or indeed adults that something is difficult before they begin, the difficulty is inculcated in them from the outset and the task seems that much more onerous/impossible. Many people can’t read music because they don’t believe they can, that it is simply too difficult for them to grasp: they have been peddled the idea that it is “difficult” by peers, parents, teachers and such a negative, defeatist attitude convinces them that they won’t be able to do it. But good, intelligent, and positive teaching can turn learning to read music into a valuable and practical tool which gives access to a common language, develops fully rounded musicians, and sets us on a wonderful voyage of discovery.

Growing within our schools today is a disturbing trend; increasingly, music is viewed as an optional subject – something equivalent to a passion that merely runs parallel to ‘academic’ subjects – that leads to contempt for classical music borne out of an ignorance of all it contains.

This thoughtful and well-argued article appeared on the Gramophone website, an “insider’s” view of the way music is taught in UK state schools.

 Read the entire text here 

Stephen Hough’s recent comments about changing the length and format of classical music concerts by ditching the interval and perhaps starting concerts earlier or later in the evening has generated a lively discussion. And rightly so, because those of us who care about classical music should be concerned about keeping this wonderfully and incredibly varied art form alive and kicking. In his article for the Radio Times, Hough expresses his concerns about attracting a younger audience to classical music and notes that there is no one simple solution to attract more people to concerts.

It strikes me that whenever young people are mentioned in the context of classical music, a whole host of commentators immediately respond by saying that “it’s all about education“. They cite the woeful provision for music education in our state primary and secondary schools (true), the fact that music lessons are often the preserve of the better off (also generally true, sadly) and that our children need to be educated to understand and appreciate classical music.

As I’ve mentioned several times before on this site, I was fortunate in that I had a very good musical education as a child, initiated first by my parents, who were keen concert-goers and music lovers, and subsequently through excellent music provision and teachers at both primary and secondary school (both state schools). My enjoyment and interest in classical music was inculcated at a young age and has stayed with me: I have not, as one friend suggested, grown to love classical music as I’ve got older, only that my tastes change as I explore more repertoire. I was very very lucky – privileged, in fact – in my musical education.

The debate about music provision in our state schools is ongoing and no one seems to have the solution. Various musical celebrities such as Nicola Benedetti and James Rhodes have initiated projects to try and right this terrible wrong, and I applaud anyone who cares enough to encourage our children to enjoy classical music, in and out of school. And Stephen Hough’s ideas should not be dismissed out of hand, just because they might run counter to established ways of doing things in classical music.

But we need to be careful how we frame “educating young people to like/enjoy/appreciate classical music”. As a Twitter colleague of mine said in response to Stephen Hough’s article:

Too often, whenever people start saying “Education” is the important factor, it sounds coercive

We should not seek to “programme” people, whatever their age, to like classical music. Let us not forget that the word “teach” comes from the Old English tæcan which means to “show”, “present” or “point out”. As a music teacher, I agree with my colleague and fellow blogger Andrew Eales, who suggests in his post in response to Stephen Hough’s comments, “When it comes to generating enthusiasm for classical music (and any other genre for that matter) the responsibility truly lies with those who perform and teach it.”. Andrew then goes on to offer some simple and creative ways in which to engage young people with classical music and which do not involve sitting a bunch of 6 year olds in a classroom and force-feeding them Beethoven and Bach.

It’s very easy – and lazy – to blame the young for all the ills in our society, and debates such as music education are too often, in my experience, loaded with a sense of entitlement or superiority – that the role of educators is to produce people who think and do things our way, rather than exploring ways to engage young people. Maybe one of the first things we need to do is shift the vocabulary from “tell” to “show”, “present” or “point out”……

I don’t have all the answers either. But in my very small way as a private music teacher, and via this blog and my other musical activities, I hope I am making a contribution, albeit a tiny one…..

Further reading

No More Loo Breaks – Stephen Hough’s original article in the Radio Times magazine (PDF file)

Stephen Hough: no more loo breaks? – Article by Andrew Eales/Piano Dao

Nicola Benedetti: Every young person in Britain should be made to study classical music



Acclaimed pianist and teacher Andrei Gavrilov has made the following statements about the current state of music education, as he perceives it. You may not agree with everything he says, but I feel he makes some valid points, which is why I am publishing his comments in full here:

Time has come to summarize my impressions about state of music education after four years of master classes all over the world. I had a great time with the international family of young musicians. We were progressing fast and productive when we were working together. Everywhere in the world I was working with talented guys, I had met the same (more or less) obstacles for their artistic development. What are those major mistakes?? What or who is producing the greatest damage to young souls? I will point it very briefly below:

  • Fake authorities, false “examples to follow”, established by music business (which only cares about money) – they are totally misleading, devastating for the young talents
  • No clear idea about the proper tasks of music making
  • No perception about goals and esthetics of Art in general, great lack of general knowledge
  • False view on the musician as a human being “cut off from the rest of the real world”
  • View on music as a separate world – perception of cheap amateurs and mediocre petite bourgeois
  • Lack of courage to take any risk
  • No knowledge and understanding of the total loneliness in serving the art, of the real artist’s path
  • No understanding that performer’s task is not a self-expression but transmission of other spirits
  • No knowledge about Christianity which is the basis of European-Russian culture, music in particular
  • No understanding of the need to study precisely all cultures and folks involved in creation of so called European music
  • No idea about the world of philosophy
  • No idea about different styles, characters of the compositions, national characters of composers, their consciousness, philosophical goals and ideas, religious consciousness and personalities
  • No knowledge about different epochs and the differences between them
  • No understanding in the need for actor-like ability to transform
  • Failure to understand the need for in-depth knowledge of related arts (painting, sculpture, theater, film, literature) etc.
  • Almost zero theoretical knowledge of the composer’s tools
  • No ability of theoretic analysis of any composition
  • No ability to analyze even a simple musical form of compositions – as a result nobody who could be able to touch a single serious composition without destroying it in all senses.

Please feel free to join this debate by leaving your comments below