Winner of the 2019 Annual Music Competition Gold Medal, trombonist Kris Garfitt tells Mark Brierley how he made it all the way to the Queen Elizabeth Hall and where he plans to go from here. 

Why did you choose to specialise in trombone? What is it about that instrument that interested you initially and has kept you interested all these years later?

Unfortunately there is no romantic story of how I came across the trombone. It sort of happened by accident. At nine years old, a peripatetic brass tutor gave a workshop in my school back in Sheffield. I was inspired by the sound and afterwards spoke to him about starting to learn a brass instrument. He informed me I had big lips and therefore should try the euphonium (in reality they probably just had a spare one at the school for me to take home!). Later, at the age of 13, I was quite sure I wanted a career in music, and thanks to the wonderful music staff at Mount St Mary’s College, I was correctly directed to the trombone due to the lack of career opportunities for euphonium players. The thing that fascinates me most about the instrument now is its similarities to the human voice. With trombone, more than other instruments, it can really feel like an extension of yourself whilst performing.

Why did you decide to move your studies to the Freiburg Musikhochschule in Germany, and then take up a role with the German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra? And what do you think the international nature of your musical education has added to your musicality?

From fairly early on in my studies in London, I was interested in moving to Germany, mainly because of the amazing opportunities I’d heard of for classical musicians. In a country with only a 50% larger population than England there are probably ten times the number of full-time professional orchestras. The work conditions in my orchestra are rather luxurious compared with most British orchestras, I work just two weeks per month, which in Britain is unheard of! The orchestra is also a high level and full of lovely people. I’m very happy here!

Moving to Freiburg changed my playing enormously. Despite Freiburg being in Germany, my playing was much more influenced by the French style of music making han German. This is because my teacher there, Fabrice Millischer, is a French trombone soloist. He originally studied cello at Paris Conservatoire and I was always fascinated by his ability to play the trombone like a string player rather than like a trombonist. The biggest thing I took from my time in Freiburg was the ability to make long phrases with my music. That was something often also spoken about during my time in London, but until I moved to Freiburg I didn’t quite understand what it meant.

What have been your career highlights so far?

One career highlight has to be the ROSL final. To perform on the Queen Elizabeth Hall stage alone with so many of my family and friends in the audience was a wonderful experience, and to win the Gold Medal really was the cherry on the cake. An orchestral highlight would be my first time performing on the Royal Albert Hall stage in the BBC Proms with the European Union Youth Orchestra in 2014.

What are your ambitions as a musician? To play in particular venues, release albums, commission new music, or even compose perhaps?

So many! I’d love to take my solo playing as far as I’m capable. As a trombonist, we’re fighting an uphill battle from the very start as managers/agents are almost exclusively interested in singers/pianists/violinists/cellists and normally don’t give trombonists a second glance. The music world needs more young trombonists to show how amazing the trombone can be as a solo instrument, and I’d love to be a part of that. I’m currently thinking how to spend the £5,000 given to me by ROSL as ‘career development’, and the two ideas at the forefront of my mind are to either commission a new work or to release my first album, watch this space. I’m also passionate about music education and I’d like to do more teaching alongside my playing. At some point I’d love to have a teaching position in a specialist music institution such as a music college or university.

Kris Garfitt perfom

How do you think winning the Annual Music Competition will help you realise those ambitions?

I hope that winning the Gold Medal will give me a springboard. I’ve already had a meeting with Geoff Parkin of ROSL ARTS, who mentioned a few exciting possibilities for next year, plus I’ve received a few exciting emails. Fingers crossed that something more comes of it all.

Who are your musical inspirations?

My musical inspirations are constantly changing. The first classical music CD I owned was by the trombone soloist Christian Lindberg. I remember being amazed by what he could do with the instrument. At music college in London, I was always fascinated by a postgraduate student, Audun Breen. He always played everything in such a melodious way and I admired how he could achieve this on the trombone. Later, by my professor in Freiburg, and his amazing musicality and ability to relate the cello and trombone. I spend more time now listening to string players. I’m constantly astounded by the raw musicality of Maxim Vengerov and, a couple of years ago I discovered the Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto. The way he manages to communicate with audiences through his character and musicality is something quite special (watch his Tchaikovsky from the Proms with BBCSSO).

What music do you listen to outside of classical music?

I listen to everything. I recently purchased an Amazon Echo for my flat so now I can listen to music depending on my mood. ‘Alexa play music to relax to!’ I no longer have to make these decisions myself!

What would you say to anyone thinking about taking up the trombone or entering the Annual Music Competition? Go for it! The preparation alone makes it worthwhile. Another beauty of this competition is that it forces you to think so much about programming. Often, in competitions, the repertoire is already decided for you, but for ROSL I spent hours considering what to play for each round. This also allows you to play music you really care about, which makes the preparation process even more enjoyable.

Applications for the 2020 Annual Music Competition are now open. If you would like to apply, or know anyone who might be interested, you can find more information here.

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