2009 awardee Tom Harrold conducting.

Tom Harrold

I’m a practising musician and composer. I’m 25 years old, I was born in Glasgow and I studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

I suppose music has always been in my household. Both my parents were professional musicians and waking up to Dad practising at 8 o’clock every morning gets quite embedded in your soul. There was always a piano in the house. I was always tinkling away on the piano. I was 8 when I went to my first piano lesson. I had a really fantastic piano teacher Joan Morrison who really, really got my ears acclimatised. When I was starting secondary school at 12 or 13, I auditioned to the Music School of Douglas Academy in Glasgow which is basically a comprehensive secondary school with a specialist music school attached.

I went as a principal pianist and I was a second study viola player for my sins. I have to say me and viola never got on! So at this stage composition wasn’t even on the horizon but the music at Douglas Academy was so fantastic. You get musical composition lessons right from the very beginning. My composition teacher, Colin Broom, who teaches at the RCS now, was probably the biggest influence in my music from that time, in that he really opened up my ears to new sounds, let me do my thing as well. He wasn’t pushing in any direction which was fantastic and really did plant the seed of me being a composer.

I think to begin with I was nothing special. I wasn’t seen as really talented but then their teaching really brought the better stuff out of me. I think to begin with I was very lazy. I make no bones about that. I didn’t really understand that music was actually damn hard work but after a couple of years Jean Hutchinson, my piano teacher, really said if you want to make a go of this you’ve got to start now – in a very nice way, but she let me know.

Both my parents at that stage, all the way through school, were professional musicians. My Mum was in Scottish Opera until the chorus were made defunct.

She still teaches privately so she’s still a musician. My father is still a trumpet player with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

So they were incredibly, unbelievably supportive and never, ever, ever pushy. I’ve got to emphasise how unpushy they were for me to do music. And sometimes they would be real about it and say “You’re going to have no money, no social life, are you sure this is what you want to do? You’ve got the qualifications to go do medicine if you want.”

No, so they were really, really just brilliant support in the right direction, making sure that I did do practice, when I was focusing on piano l but not in a way that made it un-fun which was so important. I think that’s true, for all the people who were sort of looking after me at that stage, so Colin Broom, Jean Hutchinson, my Mum and Dad and the other people who were around me, they always kept it fun, and it was never too serious until I sort of turned 16, 17.

To begin with my focus was so on piano, composition was always in the background but then there was a kind of turning point maybe in my third year at school. I won the Glasgow Music Composition Competition Festival for school age kids which is the first thing I ever won as a composer. I really wanted to win. I’m highly competitive and I suppose that’s when people were saying around the school, oh Tom Harrold can compose a bit!

Probably the biggest moment was when I won the BBC/Guardian Young People’s Composition Competition, with the Proms. That was probably the biggest, and a turning point.

The weird thing is I actually submitted the piece for that without telling anyone. I wasn’t confident enough in myself to do it. And it was a stupid piece that would never get done anywhere but the Proms. It was a piece for percussion sextet (six percussionists) and piano. Which funnily enough has never, ever been done again! So only the Proms has a budget to put on something like that.

I did it because I loved the composer Steve Reich and he wrote a piece just like that. I was a sponge, responding to or blatantly copying this sort of minimalist school which Steve Reich was a big part of. He was a big influence on my music; still is actually.

2009 awardee Tom Harrold. Image: Richard Ion.
2009 awardee Tom Harrold. Image: Richard Ion.

It was performed at the Proms, broadcast on Radio 3. For a 16 year old it was unbelievable exposure and I have to say it was a huge turning point because as soon as I came back from that trip to London, piano was gone – not going to practice you anymore, and I really started writing and listening quite seriously after that. Opening my ears.

I suppose I was becoming more confident in myself as a person, more generally, but it was becoming quite clear that I was wanting to do something to do with composing.

Then Colin Broom left the Academy to pursue his PhD so from 16 until I left school I didn’t really have a composition tutor. Strangely that was useful because it allowed me to go my own way. So, with my whole preparing my portfolio for music conservatoire, for music colleges – basically I didn’t really run it by anyone.

A lot of my peers wanted to do music. My year at the academy, in the music school, was a huge year. Normally there should be about 4 or 5 but it was a massive intake, actually between 8 and 10. When you have a big group of musical peers you’re spending time around other musicians and I suppose you’re learning how to communicate with musicians which a lot of people at normal schools don’t get. So we were doing rehearsals together and I was playing a lot of chamber music and in that sense I knew how to talk to musicians, I knew how to interact.

There are a limited number of places or conservatoires in the UK so I applied to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, The Royal Northern College of Music, The Royal College of Music in London and Trinity in London as well; all conservatoires as opposed to universities because I was very clear that I wanted my music to be performed.

I got in everywhere, which was nice, and the best vibe that I got from a Conservatoire was The Royal College of Music in Manchester. I think it was the staff they had. There was a teacher I was very interested in, David Horne who is Scottish as well and an absolutely fantastic composer and it just seemed like a very friendly, very open, non-insular department. It had people writing film music for example. You could tell with the teachers as well, there was no house style. They were all doing their own thing.

The Dewar Award came is as I was applying for conservatoires and knowing I needed the money quite desperately to make the move. Because I knew unless things went terribly badly that I did not want to stay in Glasgow. I wanted to move away from home. To be honest I just thought it would be too easy to live in Glasgow, too familiar, too comfortable. In a sense, looking back at where I was at, I sort of wanted to reinvent myself.

My parents being self employed musicians, are not earning a fortune. So the fees were £3,500 – I got a £2,000 scholarship from the college, but needed more and living expenses were another £4,000 on top of that and the rent in halls was extortionate.

It just wouldn’t have been possible for me to do it without the Dewar Arts Award. They sponsored all four years of my undergrad.

The course was great. It was just completely affirming and gave me confidence in knowing I was doing the right thing. Making the decision to go to a conservatoire was definitely the right call for me because it’s the perfect environment for a composer. You’re surrounded by musicians who want to play new music, who are keen to play new music as well. That’s a difficult thing. The teaching was incredible all the way through. I stayed there for Masters as well so I did 6 years with Northern and 4 were Dewar funded.

"You’ve really got to want it and you’ve got to feel that you’re producing something that you’re proud of, that the way that you present yourself you’re proud of, the way that you think you’re proud of. You’ve got to be 100% committed because the Dewar Art Award Trustees will know if you’re not committed. There’s no point going for it unless you’re going to do it 120%."

While I was in college I was applying to lots of prizes and I won quite a few. I wanted to have my work out in the world. It’s the thing that drives me. It’s the thing that I love doing. It’s the most fulfilling thing I have in my life.

The fantastic thing about David Horne as a teacher was that he really pushed me into different directions, forced my hand to experiment in ways that I never had. He taught me technique. That was the biggest thing he gave me, the sort of nitty gritty, nuts and bolts of putting music together – about instruments, how they go together, how harmony works, structure. He said recently ‘You know I was giving you the technique because you had the talent already’.

I also had a fantastic group of composing peers, absolutely fantastic. Two in particular, are real movers and shakers in the contemporary music world just now – Aaron Parker and Laurie Tompkins. I admire their music so much. They were both National Youth Orchestra composers. They were the two who really got me thinking: “Right Tom you’ve got to up it if you want to be in their league.” So I was extremely lucky to be in the same year as them.

The whole ethos of the RNCM is that you’re not in competition with each other. You have discussions, you have seminars, you talk over coffee but you never say “Oh I’m better than you. Or you’re worse than me.” There was never any of that at all. It was a very unbitchy department.

In terms of my evolution while I was there, number one would be gaining an incredible amount of confidence in my music and my style and my voice. My compositional voice really came to the fore in those four years and then when I went back and did Masters I sort of refined it in a bigger way. It was four years of incredibly hard work but it really focused me, gave me further drive, through inspiration. I listened to people who were much better than me. Every note I wrote was performed. Without Dewar I wouldn’t have had that.

It was always an incredible relief when the Dewar Arts Awards said yes to the following year because it had been so incredibly helpful through the previous year. At re-application, I was always relying on this money coming through. Because once you’ve started on this course, you’re really committed to it. And in a sense it made me want to show the Trustees what I could do. I wanted to prove that I was worth their investment. I always sent emails if something good happened. I wanted them to be well appraised of what was going on and I had some good things to tell them.

I was sponsored by a lot of other trusts for my Masters – the Caird Travelling Scholarships, The RVW Trust, The Cross Trust, Scottish International Educational Trust and because it’s quite a rarity for someone to be sponsored by Dewar that it gave me a bit of credibility with these other trusts.

I wrote a saxophone concerto called Shrouded Licks when I was in the beginning of my third year at college and that’s when privately I thought that was a pretty good piece. That’s when I began to think I might be an artist. And I suppose, a lot of people were saying that it was really fantastic, that it was great, the best thing I’ve heard in a long time, that sort of thing.

During my Masters I got quite a significant Proms commission which kind of launched things for me. It was broadcast live on Radio 3 and Radio 4 simultaneously. By the time I’d left the Northern I had also broken a world record for the greatest number of performers playing on a single instrument. So it was 16 people, 32 hands on one piano. There’s a video online. So I left with significant Proms commission, broke a world record, had had music performed across the world literally, Canada, the States, Singapore, Australia. I’d written everything I could have hoped to, from a 200-piece saxophone ensemble, to orchestra, to solo piano work.

2009 awardee Tom Harrold conducting.
2009 awardee Tom Harrold conducting.

The world was tugging me out into it. I think that’s why I thought well I want to get out of college to prove that I can make it work without the security, comfort and safety net. I was terrified when I left in 2015 but it was absolutely fine.

I’m just into my second year of being free now. I’ve had a pretty exciting time. I had a ten minute commission with BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, which was described by Michael Tumelty as ‘the most exciting piece by a Scottish composer for the last 25 years’. I had a commission from the BBC Proms to open the last night of the Proms. That was broadcast out to 42 million people, worldwide. Just as I was leaving college, I had a 15-minute piece with the Edinburgh Quartet. I’ve been living as a practising composer who happens to have a ceilidh band and enjoys doing that too!

For me the ceilidh band is a huge release, in that I do all the admin and I do the calling. It’s still in the arts. It’s still music. It’s very commercial but I’m there playing fun music with musicians who are fantastic.

We only book pro musicians who are very, very high level, some of whom have been Dewar Arts Awardees as well. It’s so nice to see parts of Scotland you’ve never seen, and I suppose in a financial sense it’s a very quick and very fun way to make money which frees up my week to write music. So in terms of lifestyle it’s perfect, for now.

I enjoy it and for me being in control of it is about pride, pride in my work and what people think of me and how I present myself and pride in how people react to my music and what people think of the band. I think that’s something music college, or my teachers instilled in me. I’m the only one that can do it, no one else can do it for me.

It’s professionalism. In today’s world, you’ve got to be the first person who replies to an email. You’ve got to be quick. You’ve got to be on the ball, be in control of your diary. It’s so important and I think running a ceilidh band has sort of informed the way that I run my career as a composer in terms of just being as professional as possible.

I feel very settled now as an artist, and very confident and very excited about what is coming up and, I suppose I feel sort of proud and really engaged with my art now in a way that I never have been and in a way that hopefully will continue to grow. I’m still incredibly young as a composer. In two years time, I’ll probably think “Oh that’s a terrible piece.”

And there is no way I could you be doing it without the Dewar Arts Award. I am very humbled to be able to say that I’m a practising composer and without Dewar it would not have happened at all.

For anyone thinking about applying, you’ve got to go for it. You’d be absolutely stupid not to try because Dewar are probably the biggest help I got for my undergrad in terms of my career, my professional development, for being able to allow me to become the artist and the composer that I am today.

Without that financial backing and that financial security I wouldn’t have gone to the undergrad, I wouldn’t have gone to Manchester, I wouldn’t have met all these new people, I wouldn’t have had these new experiences, I wouldn’t have grown as a person, or an artist and I wouldn’t have found my compositional voice.

But you’ve really got to want it and you’ve got to feel that you’re producing something that you’re proud of, that the way that you present yourself you’re proud of, the way that you think you’re proud of. You’ve got to be 100% committed because the Dewar Art Award Trustees will know if you’re not committed. There’s no point going for it unless you’re going to do it 120%.

For the last few years, I’ve been told by my teachers, that they’ve never known a time to be worse for the arts than now. So that’s why you’ve got to have the whole drive and professionalism, determination to do it all the more. The most important thing is that no one else is going to do it for you.