Young Artist Interview: Katie Cowling on Recorders, Careers and Becoming a Musician

Who could have known that my mum’s old descant recorder retrieved one day from the loft, when I was eight years old, would become such a defining discovery. Despite being desperate to play the cello, which I was told I was too small to hold, the old plastic recorder soon stopped the tears and I became very triumphant after learning Lord of the Dance from what my mum could remember from her school years (all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order)!

By chance, when my mother was discussing my new-found enthusiasm for the recorder with a friend outside the gates of my primary school, another mum, and recorder player, Angela Chapman was standing behind her. Angela’s weekly visits to Marldon School fast became the highlight of my school life. Six of us huddled in the staff room, or occasionally the instrument store cupboard, learning various pieces, rehearsing for the Christmas carol concerts as well as school fetes. ‘The Broom Cupboard Six’, as my dad used to call us, became a formidable ensemble!

Whilst I understood that I needed to practice, I just wanted to play all the time, so it wasn’t something that I had to make myself do. The inspiration came from Angela’s passion for the recorder, as well as a weekend trip to Malvern to see and play in Piers Adams’ Recorder Roadshow; for a small girl from Marldon village, I was completely awestruck (as were my parents!). It was from here that the seed of realisation of actually being able to make this a career was sewn.

Now armed with the knowledge that I could continue learning the instrument that I loved, and didn’t have to ‘move on’ to the flute or clarinet, I was even more delighted when I was offered funding by the Sarah Redheffer Trust to buy my first wooden treble recorder, an instrument I still use regularly today.

I always look back on those years very fondly, they have certainly influenced the way that I teach now. Teaching and outreach are a big part of my career and I want children to know, like I did, that they don’t have to ‘move on’. I think it’s the responsibility of all recorder teachers to change the perception of our instrument and to inspire younger generations, like Angela did for me.

Moving on up to secondary at KEVICC in Totnes, the then Head of Music, Richard Burdett, was extremely influential and supportive in the early stages of my career, encouraging regular performances in school concerts, even smuggling me into the school orchestra playing as ‘Flute 1’. Although being one of only a few ‘classical’ instrumentalists within the class at that time, the strong mutual respect we all held for each other, and what we were trying to achieve under his guidance, inspired confidence and belief that has served me and no doubt others well ever since. I can still remember the feeling waiting backstage at the KEVICC’s Theatre, listening to my classmates perform on electric guitars, basses and drum kits, whilst I clutched my descant recorder, preparing to perform a set of Jacob van Eyck variations immediately after; learning to combat nerves started here…

Following advice from both my mentors, I started learning the piano to further my musical understanding. I was paired perfectly with Penny Humphrys who even offered me the occasional harpsichord lesson, taking me further down the early music path. What I couldn’t know at this time was how in future her daughter, Sarah Humphrys, would also become a major contributor in my learning and subsequent performances on baroque oboe. Along with regular visits to Newton Abbot-based Trinity Fellow, Derek Browning, who taught me music theory, baroque counterpoint and keyboard harmony as well as accompanying me throughout grade exams and providing me with performance opportunities and regularly allowing me to practice on his beloved harpsichord, I owe a great deal to all these individuals who had such great foresight and belief in my abilities, especially on occasion when I may have doubted them myself.

With this amazing team of mentors and my family’s support, I was so proud to be accepted into the Royal College of Music and now I’m even prouder to have received a First-Class Honours Degree, a Masters in Performance with Distinction as well as being awarded HRH Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Rose Bowl in 2017; the first recorder player to receive this award. Whilst at the RCM I was generously supported by a number of scholarships including the Henry Wood Trust, the Worshipful Company of Musicians,the Countess of Munster Trust, Help Musicians UK and I was pleased to be the Fenella and Harry Hope Memorial Scholar supported by an HSH Dr Prince Donatus Von Hohenzollern award.

I entered as a recorder player and graduated six years later as a recorder player, baroque oboist and dulcian player; I am indebted to the RCM for their tuition, support and encouragement. I am now fortunate enough to have a portfolio career made up of all the things I love; performing, teaching and working in the Creative Careers Centre of the RCM.

Performing has taken me all over the world. I caught the travel bug after going on tour with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 2014, visiting theatres across China, Russia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. As a founding member of BLOCK4, the first recorder quartet to win the Royal Overseas League, we travelled to America (conquering the Chincoteague Chamber Competition), Austria and Amsterdam, and performed across London at the Queen’s Gallery, Wigmore Hall and the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall (to name a few).

I have performed Marcello’s Concerto in D minor in the middle of the Bolivian Jungle, been a member of the orchestra of the 24 Violins du Roi performing at the Palace of Versailles and sang (yes sang…!) and performed to HRH Prince Charles; it’s been a fantastic whirlwind since day one!

But why am I telling you all of this? I write this because I want children, music students or anyone who wants to follow their dreams to know that you don’t have to have a lot of money and you don’t even have to come from a musical background to become a musician (or whatever it is you hope to be!). Simply love what you’re doing and work hard, then anything is possible.

You can find out more about Katie on Twitter @katiecowling, Handel & Hendrix in London and YouTube in which Katie discusses RCM historical performance opportunities with Ashley Solomon.