Gold Medal Winner at this year's Annual Music Competition, Saxophonist Jonathan Radford discusses his life in music and what led him all the way to the £20,000 first prize in the latest edition of Overseas

Growing up, my parents weren’t really musical, but there was always a piano nearby because my granddad used to play. That’s my first memory of music; sitting on my grandfather’s knee, just stabbing at the keys. The first time that I really became aware of a wind instrument was during a choir rehearsal at primary school, when a flautist came in to play with the choir. I was absolutely amazed, not so much by the music, but how sound was produced, how the air transformed into sound and the way the keys moved.

I immediately went home and asked if I could learn to play the flute. To begin with, my mum and dad weren't too keen, thinking that it would be another five-minute wonder. On consideration, they gave in and my grandparents offered the money to buy a flute. I remember it was called something like ‘The Singing Lark’. Unfortunately, it must have been the cheapest one they could find, because after a couple of weeks the head joint became so loose that it started to spin around as I tried to play, it was that bad. My parents soon realised and returned it for an upgrade.

I needed to learn a second instrument because I wanted to apply for the music scholarship at Thetford Grammar School. My teacher at the time, Mr Allerton, an ex-military musician, seemed to own at least one of every instrument you could imagine. Each week, he would bring in a different one for me to try. The week he arrived with a saxophone, I knew straight away that was the one I wanted. Partly because of how it looked, the shine and the shape of it, and partly because I found it easy to make a sound out of.

Jonathan Radford Sax Talk 2

I don’t think I had really been aware of the instrument before then, I hadn’t had a Lisa Simpson-esque moment where I’d fallen in love with it. I remember my teacher left me with just the mouthpiece, the reed, and the ligature, and said, “practice on that for a week.” He showed me how to put the reed on and I spent the whole week squeaking away on the mouthpiece. It must have been horrible for my parents; I remember being sent up into the room as far away from them as possible.

It wasn't long before Mr Allerton turned up with a saxophone especially for me; he’d been down to London to collect it. He was the most amazing teacher, so inspiring. He used to come over on Sunday mornings and stay for hours, where we’d discuss music theory together, we’d play the saxophone, and just talk about music. He has such massive experience in the industry, so he’d talk to me about being a musician and tell me stories from his past. It felt like a dreamworld and definitely what inspired me to become a musician.

Moving on and up

Aged 13, I auditioned for Chetham’s in Manchester and went there playing both the flute and saxophone, without having a preference for one over the other. They said to me, “your first study is saxophone and your second study is flute,” so I guess that’s how saxophone became my first instrument, but it wasn’t a conscious decision. I was much more natural with the saxophone and as it turns out this was definitely the right choice.

Around this period, I began listening to many recordings of classical saxophonists. I think my first saxophone CD was John Harle's Concerto album, which was the only saxophone CD available at the local record store. That’s amazing, thinking back, because they would normally only stock jazz saxophone CDs. I remember being absolutely astonished by what the classical saxophone could do.

Throughout my early studies, I attended numerous saxophone courses in the UK and abroad, lead by some of the world's great saxophone artists. These opportunities showed me what the saxophone was capable of; how far you could push it, the versatility of it. That’s what led me to France to continue my studies after Chetham’s.

First of all, I went to a conservatoire in Versailles and spent a few years there, preparing for the entrance exam into the prestigious Conservatoire National Supérieure de Musique de Paris. My uncle and aunt live in France, so they could help set me up. When I first arrived in the country, I couldn’t actually speak French. I was 18 years old and slightly naive, so I launched myself into it and I had to pick it up fast. It probably took me a year until I felt comfortable in social situations; the first few months I had no idea what was going on!

Finding my style

In Versailles, half the class would be auditioning to try and get into Paris and every week we would have a run-through in front of each other. All the lessons were like that, open lessons, we’d watch each other, so we developed a sense of ease in performance, in front of other people and in front of your peers, which I think is probably the most difficult type of performance. That really helped me a lot.

To get into Paris, you very much had to fit a certain style and sound. We worked hard on elements such as tone development, homogenous sound, and technique. It was important to be clear about the type of sound we were aiming to produce. At that point, I was always trying to emulate someone else, but soon I really began to understand what it was I wanted to do and what I really wanted to sound like.

That preparation helped me pass the entrance exam for Paris to study with Claude Delangle and from then on I was really able to think more about who I was as a musician. I was able to really become myself and not try to be anything else. That’s probably the point things started working out for the better because, by just being myself, my music making became a lot more natural.

Jonathan Radford Sax Talk 3

Ever since I came back to the UK to study at the Royal College of Music with Kyle Horch, it's been easier to develop this. You've got to know what it is you want from yourself, otherwise it's impossible to produce it. A big part of my playing, and something that’s important to me as a musician, is the colour and contrast in sound that we can make. By initially working to fit into a certain mould, and then later moving away from this, I've been able to explore and find many more possibilities and expression in my playing.

Performing and competing

Success in competitions can definitely add to your career, but I think it's important not to get too hung up on them. They're such a good opportunity to learn new repertoire and to push yourself further. Whenever you go into a competition, the chances are that you’re not going to win, in pure percentage terms. Accepting this from the beginning, I always try my best and give everything I've got, but if it doesn’t work out, you’ve got to be a good winner and a good loser. If it doesn't go my way, I try to rationalise and move forward, it could be that a different panel might have a different opinion on another day, and doesn't mean I'm any less of a musician. I think that it's not easy being on a panel, especially in a cross-instrumental competition like the Annual Music Competition (AMC).

All musicians develop at different rates. The fact that just because you might not be ready to do something at a particular point doesn't mean that you won't be further down the line.

Christine, my accompanist, actually inspired me to enter the AMC. She asked if I had been thinking about entering and we agreed that it would be a good idea. I had been thinking about it but as the age limit is 30, I hadn’t yet done so, knowing I had a few years left to apply. I’d been in Paris, but now I was back in the UK and I felt like I was at a good point, musically, to do it.

What has been so great about the AMC is that everyone has just been so friendly; it doesn’t feel too competitive. All the competitors have been nice to each other, wishing each other luck, saying hi and introducing themselves. And the fact that, especially in the later rounds, it was more of a concert, is really lovely as well. Winning the AMC Gold Medal is absolutely amazing, I still can’t quite believe it!

The future

Now that I’ve completed the Artist Diploma at the RCM where I was the Mills Williams Junior Fellow, I am looking towards a future where I can be performing as much as possible, building on what I’ve got already, developing it, and pushing it further. Getting the chance to perform in more festivals and international venues would be amazing.

Having won a big competition like the AMC is hopefully going to help open more doors and set me apart from the crowd. Then the fact that there’s the continued support afterwards from ROSL; recital opportunities; such as going to the Fringe in August, which have given me valuable performance exposure, and the chance to perform around the UK, because as a young musician it’s difficult to get opportunities, especially those that are paid.

The fact that part of the prize is administered by ROSL ARTS is really great because it means I can meet with Geoff and the art department to chat about different projects, get advice about my ideas, and talk about what might be the best way to use some of the prize money. For example, I’m interested in commissioning new works so watch this space.

Find out more about ROSL ARTS' Annual Music Competition here, and read the rest of this edition of Overseas here.

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