Young Artist Interview: Ross Learmonth
As I write this, I am looking like a tomato thanks to sunburn after performing at Glastonbury Festival with The Unthanks and enjoying the perks of artist access for the entire festival. When I took up the trombone, I didn’t think in a million years that I’d ever find myself on the Pyramid Stage in front of thousands of people, or getting a selfie with Paloma Faith!
The decision to play the trombone came about in quite a strange way. I remember watching the BBC Proms when I was just eight years old at my home in Scotland, seeing a trombone come on screen and thinking “that looks GREAT!” Consequently, when I was offered the chance to learn an instrument in school a couple of months later, there was only really one option. My mother worked in the school at the time so once I’d collected my trombone I went with my new teacher, Barbara Poynter, to tell her the good news. “Oh God, that’s going to be loud!” were her first thoughts and to be fair, she was probably right.
Fast-forward four years and I left Barbara to study under the tutelage of Alistair Sinclair from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra after gaining a place at the Junior Department of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). Having never been a morning person, my parents were seriously (and probably rightfully) concerned that catching a train to Glasgow at 7.25 every Saturday morning would be a big problem. However, much to their surprise, and mine, when the alarm went off at 6.30am, I was up and showered and ready to go every week.
It was during my time at RCS Juniors that I first experienced what it was like to play in a symphony orchestra. It was one of these performances, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, which solidified in my mind that I wanted a career in music. After attending open days at the Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music and Guildhall School, my heart was set on the Academy and to my delight I was accepted.
At the Academy, I learnt from some of the best trombonists in the world including Mark Templeton, Matthew Gee and Ian Bousfield (an idol of mine since I first became serious about the trombone). While at the Academy, I performed with some of the world’s leading conductors including Semyon Bychkov, Sir Colin Davis and Christian Thielemann. Where RCS Juniors was my first exposure to playing in a symphony orchestra, the Academy was where I first got a proper taste for chamber music. In my second year, a few friends and I decided to form a brass quintet, Total Brass, and we quickly became very successful. In 2011, after just a few months playing together, we entered the WCoM Brass Ensemble competition and were named runners-up. So the next year, we re-entered the competition, won it and became Yeomen of the WCoM. After a very successful time at the Academy I graduated with a First Class Honours.
My relationship with WCoM has provided me with some exceptional opportunities, mostly by enabling me to visit schools, introduce young children to classical music and brass instruments, and to show them everything they do. I know I’m not alone when I say that music education is an incredibly important thing for children. The look on their faces when you first play to them is enough to convince you that music both excites and inspires. I am extremely grateful to WCoM for giving me the chance to meet children who otherwise may not have had any idea about these instruments or classical music and to inspire potential musicians of the future.
With Total Brass I have performed throughout the UK with some highlights being Colston Hall, St John’s Smith Square, performing at the “Celebration of the Arts” for The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, recurring performances on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune Christmas Special, and opening the ceremony for the Gramophone Awards in 2013. The group has won multiple awards including the Park Lane Group Young Artists and Tunnel Trust awards, and gained fellowships at the Royal Academy of Music for 2013-14 and Ensemble in Residence at Birmingham University for 2014-15.
Alongside a very busy chamber music career, I am also fortunate to have played with many of the UK’s leading orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), London Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the English National Ballet. I have also been lucky to do a UK tour with the Bern Symphony Orchestra. My first performance with the LSO was actually my first ever professional concert which was a daunting experience to say the least. It was at St Paul’s Cathedral playing Berlioz Requiem with Sir Colin Davis. With Berlioz Requiem, all of the trombones are involved in offstage bands and the positioning of mine just happened to be above the North Transept of St Paul’s, sat on a ledge with our slides hanging over the edge of the balcony and a rather long drop below… Not good for someone with a fear of heights! This memory will probably stay with me forever not only for it being my first concert with a professional orchestra but it was the last concert that Sir Colin Davis had with the LSO before he sadly passed away. I feel hugely privileged to have been a part of that.
As well as working with these professional orchestras, I am also a member of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (GMJO), a pan-European orchestra filled with some of the best young players in Europe. So for two months of each year since 2013, I have been able to go on tour with this incredible orchestra and perform in the world’s leading concert houses with the world’s leading conductors which is an experience I will never ever forget.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this spiel, I have just returned home from performing at Glastonbury. This kind of thing is a massive perk of the job and something I just can’t quite believe has happened. I was also incredibly lucky to perform with Sir Elton John in 2013 when he received his BRITs Icon Award. We got to work closely with him and his band, which as a recent graduate from the Academy was an amazing experience. After the performance at the ceremony, it started to snowball somewhat and all of a sudden we were booked for another two performances, one at the iTunes festival and one on BBC Radio 2 in front of a live audience as a launch for his latest album. When I decided to pursue a career in music, I knew I would probably perform in front of a lot of people but I had no idea that sometimes it would be thousands and with true legends of the world!
I am incredibly lucky to have had such a very wide-ranging career and so many amazing experiences at such a young age. It is mind-boggling to think that every day is completely different and I am making a living from doing something that I truly love and find so rewarding. In terms of the immediate future, I will be heading off again with GMJO to perform at festivals in Lucerne, Salzburg and Amsterdam to name but a few. Further down the line, I am looking at developing Total Brass, including recording a full commercial CD, and continuing to freelance in and around the UK – and who knows, maybe I’ll be back at Glastonbury next year!
You can read more about Total Brass and its members at www.totalbrass.co.uk where you can also listen to the group.