Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
Initially, my parents and sister! I grew up surrounded by music – my mum was, and still is, a wonderful piano teacher and also played the flute, clarinet and saxophone. My Dad was a trombonist and pianist and we would regularly watch him play in brass bands. When my sister started learning the piano, I immediately wanted to try aged 6, and that was that!
As I progressed, I became interested in so many different styles of music but what really captured my imagination was the art of collaboration and communication in music. I was very lucky that during my A-Level studies my music class was made up of some phenomenally talented and diverse musicians and we formed a band and had so much fun playing contemporary music together. Quite simply, the idea of having a career making music with others became an absolute dream to me!
Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career?
Initially, my teachers. My second piano teacher, after my Mum, was a wonderful lady called Julia Hitchman, who invested so much time and energy into my musical journey. She had such a diverse and versatile mindset and I have such positive memories of discovering new music together, listening in lessons and finding new artists and composers to check out. My lessons consisted of a mixture of classical and jazz and she really fuelled my passion for both genres. I remember when I first heard Joanna Macgregor and fell completely in love with her approach to playing the piano and her eclectic taste. On the way to those lessons, my Dad and I would often listen to one of the jazz shows on Radio 3 and I would discover something new every week and immediately go out and buy a new CD. That’s how my knowledge of jazz started to expand.
Later on, when I got to music college, it became all the wonderful musicians around me that were so inspirational. As I started playing more jazz, I discovered more contemporary music and composers such as Kenny Wheeler, Chris Potter and Brad Mehldau (I still remember when I first heard his ‘Live in Tokyo’ album and was never really the same again!) We also had some wonderful teachers, such as Steve Berry and Mike Hall, and visiting artists such as Nikki Iles, John Taylor and Gwilym Simcock who were hugely inspirational.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Most definitely the period between finishing music college, up until only fairly recently. When at music college, your life is completely dictated by music and it is the most wonderful, and at the same time intense, experience. Leaving that environment can be quite disruptive – suddenly you are in the real world, and all the practice and performing you have done has to fuel you as you step out on your own. For me, the environment of college was great because I was, for want of a better word, forced into performing regularly and playing with others and my confidence increased every year. Outside of that environment, I really started struggling with anxiety about performing, and low self-esteem. This is by no means uncommon, I am sure, but through my twenties, I really let this negativity dictate some of the decisions I made as a musician. Performances became few and far between until I wasn’t really playing at all, save for a couple of performance with my trio that I had formed in 2010/11, and with my piano duet and duo partner Manda Dorj. I had wanted desperately to study jazz in London following my classical degree, but struggled with confidence even to keep auditioning (places are few and it is highly competitive). A few years after graduating, I decided to give myself the challenge of taking the ABRSM’s highest diploma, the FRSM, as a way of motivating myself to practise and prepare something to the highest level possible. I hadn’t played classical music for some time so this was a big challenge, but I really enjoyed the process.
What also kept me motivated was immersing myself in the London jazz scene – not as an active musician, but as a listener. I went to as many gigs as possible and have listened, and still do of course, to as much new music as possible! This really inspired me to start composing again and I soon had formed in my mind the idea of a sound and a band that I wanted to create. It was an absolute joy to finally bring this music to life when we recorded an album in 2019.
Of which works are you most proud?
It is still very early days for me as a composer, but I am so proud of my debut album ‘Small World’ with my wonderful septet, Ensemble C. Quite literally, I am just so proud that the ideas formed in my head exist in reality; that I could see those ideas through to the end and achieve the sound that I had imagined. I think that is really the biggest challenge of composing. I remember reading in Miles Davies’ autobiography a really interesting phrase from him about how music can soon go down a different path to the one you had imagined for it, and it can soon become something you didn’t expect it to be. Of course, sometimes this can be a good thing. But I think capturing the true essence of something that you first hear inside of yourself is a very special thing, and being able to communicate that to others is what makes music so life-changing and vital.
How would you characterise your compositional language/musical style?
I love music that makes me feel so completely immersed and joyful that nothing else in that moment really matters. Music that takes you on a journey and can completely alter your mindset. As a composer, I suppose those attributes have started to seep into how I put a big emphasis on melody. I love listening to how other composers develop a melody, the direction it takes and how textures change along the way. I am also really interested in film composition, and love the work of composers such as Hans Zimmer and Jason Hurwitz. I suppose I love the drama and intensity of cinematic music. I have so much to learn, but it is such a privilege to listen to the music of composers whom I admire and try to figure out what exactly is going on!
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Where do I begin and where do I end?! Perhaps I will start with some classical composers who inspired me early on, and will continue to do so – Bach, Beethoven, Ravel, Schumann, John Ireland, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Frank Bridge (I adore Frank Bridge – please everyone go and listen to his music, it is absolutely wonderful and still so underplayed!). In terms of jazz – Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Ella Fitzgerald, Nathalie Loriers, Zoe Rahman, Nikki Iles, Gwilym Simcock, Chris Potter, Brad Mehldau . . . . . . I could go on and on! All of the amazing musicians and composers working in London currently also continue to inspire me every day – Jason Rebello, Kit Downes, Ant Law, Laura Jurd, Yazz Ahmed, Fini Bearman, Snowpoet . . . . . I must stop!
What is your most memorable concert experience? (as performer and/or audience member)
As an audience member, I have so much to choose from here! I am going to narrow it down to a couple where I still remember the feeling of being on an actual high for days, maybe even weeks after, such was the experience of hearing this music live. One was definitely Paul Motion, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano at the Village Vanguard in New York. This was also not too long before Paul Motion sadly passed away. An unforgettable level of communication between the musicians and a completely electric atmosphere. I will also choose a classical concert that I have never forgotten and this was Ashley Wass playing Frank Bridge’s amazing Piano Sonata in Lincoln, where I grew up, when I was only 17 or 18, before going to music college. He captured the beauty of this music and communicated it so exquisitely that I remember going home and wanting to practise solidly for days after.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I spend the majority of my time teaching, so this is a very interesting and important question! I think first and foremost, that everyone has the right and the ability to make music, and to communicate their ideas. Secondly, that playing music should be fun, positive and uplifting. Whilst I do believe in having good discipline and structure when it comes to practicing, and I always believe in hard work, any time that negative energy starts to take over is a sign that perhaps music making has become something it shouldn’t be. Finally, I always recommend having a good balance in your life. It is easy to become obsessed with music as a musician – this sounds obvious! But for me, non-musical activities can be just as inspiring as music itself. I am passionate about the outdoors and love hiking, running, cycling and also travelling. These things give me a very necessary perspective.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
If you can communicate something to someone and really speak to them directly, through a performance or a composition, then that is a tremendously special and important thing. If ever I can make someone feel some joy through my music, as so many have done for me, I will be an extremely happy person.
‘Small World’ is the debut album featuring original compositions by pianist Claire Cope, performed by Ensemble C, a brand new septet comprising some of the most exciting artists in the UK.
Claire Cope studied piano at the Royal Northern College of Music, where she won the John Ireland prize and the Principal’s Prize for Improvisation in 2011. Having played regularly with the RNCM Big Band in performances featuring Tina May, John Taylor, Gwilym Simcock and Diana Torto, the ‘Claire James Trio’ was her first project as a bandleader and composer, and their EP ‘Lines’ was released on the Manchester-based Efpi label in 2011. In the same year, the group performed at the Manchester Jazz Festival, the London Jazz Festival and during the BBC Proms Plus Series which was broadcast on BBC Radio 3. More recently, Claire performed in Andy Scott’s ‘Mancunity’ band, a commission for the 2019 Manchester Jazz Festival, and also composed the original piano score for Rob Cope’s acclaimed 2019 film about jazz trumpeter Richard Turner, ‘Richard Turner – A Life in Music’. In July 2020, Claire released her debut album as bandleader of the septet Ensemble C, where she is joined by acclaimed UK jazz musicians Brigitte Beraha, Jack Davies, Jon Ormston, Tom Varrall, Ed Babar and Rob Cope.
Claire is also a passionate educator, and since graduating from music college has garnered a wide range of experience as a piano teacher. Currently, she works as a piano tutor for Donhead Preparatory School in Wimbledon and at Wycombe Abbey Girls School in High Wycombe. Having achieved a distinction level Fellow of the Associated board of the Royal Schools of Music in piano performance in 2017, Claire also now works as a Grade examiner for the ABRSM and is enjoying touring nationally and internationally.