7 min read

Freya's Musical Journey to Conservatoire

Our daughter is applying to conservatoire to study music. This is her journey through the last two years of high school to get there.
Freya's Musical Journey to Conservatoire

Our daughter, Freya, is 17 and is in her final year of high school at Douglas Academy in Milngavie, Scotland. She applied to seven conservatoires in the UK to study for a Bachelor of Music degree and has had six unconditional offers.

I’m making a really big effort to record more videos and write longer entries in my diary because I know it’s an incredibly meaningful and special moment. In fact, I recorded a video last week about why I’m making a bigger effort to record what’s happening in our lives right now, inspired, as I was, by having just come out of the cinema, where I watched C’Mon, C’mon. If ever there was a film that inspired me to make more content and be less precious about it, it’s that one!

As I’m writing this, life is throwing all the usual garbage at me to try and make me forget the good stuff, but I’m not letting it win. My wife’s workload is crushing her; we’re skint; I hate December; my parents are dead; we’re spending over £100 a week on energy bills; it’s dark and cold and wet all the fucking time; our Akita is dying.

You know, the usual?

But I’m watching my daughter grow into a woman in the most amazing of ways. There’s so much more for me to be grateful about, but for now, let me just focus on that.

We live on a small island in Scotland, with a population of around 5,000. It has one high school. It’s not a bad school, but if you’re keen on a career in the arts, forget about it.

Freya came home with a French horn from school when she was still at primary school. When she was in her final year of primary, P7, she was already playing with the high-school brass and performed with them at the Christmas show. The music teacher, James O’Neil, was an incredible teacher and it’s really largely down to him that Freya was so excited about playing. When she started at high school we got her a used student horn and she got better and better, eventually auditioning for and getting a place with the county senior concert band on the mainland.

Yes, the mainland.

That was the beginning of her beginning to outgrow Arran High School. In her second year, James O’Neil left and was replaced by Mr Dickie, a teacher that Freya didn’t get on with at all. And when Freya doesn’t like you, you’ll know! We tried everything we could to try and get them to work together, but it was hopeless. Mr Dickie was never meant to be a full-time replacement; just a temp until they could hire in a new music teacher. But recruitment is one of the biggest problems on Arran because of its rural location, so a new teacher was never found, and, in fact, Mr Dickie is still there and is now clashing with our son. Yikes!

So, the big, bad mainland.

Freya was travelling back and forth a lot for rehearsals and concerts — an hour on the ferry each way — and had to learn to deal with the uncertainty of getting home whenever the wind picked up and the boats were cancelled. There were a few nights when we had to arrange emergency accommodation for her as she couldn’t get home from rehearsals. This was really the beginning of her becoming independent, like the time she called us to say that she’d missed her stop on the train and didn’t think she’d make the ferry in time and we were panicking and calling taxi services and calling the ferry operator to ask them to hang on just a few more minutes before pulling up the gangway… and while Freya was just 14. She did make it home that time by the way!

Freya had also auditioned and been accepted to the juniors program at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow to study French horn and tuned percussion every Saturday while she was in S4. So, not only was she travelling to the mainland for senior concert band rehearsals and concerts, but she was also attending lessons at the RCS every Saturday. She had an amazing December in 2019, playing concerts at the RCS and with the senior concert band and at the annual Arran High Christmas show.

Arran High Christmas Concert, 2019

Freya had decided to skip the National 5 music exam in S4 — National 5s are typically taken at the end of S4, when the young people are aged 15/16 — and went straight for Higher. Her tuition was interrupted by lockdown 1.0 in March 2020, but even before then, she’d been complaining that Mr Dickie hadn’t taught her any of the Higher syllabus composition or theory. We decided a few months before lockdown that we’d find her a private tutor on the island for a few months, and she managed to get her theory up to the requisite level to pass her Higher.

The schools shut down in March 2020, but Freya continued studying theory with a private tutor and to practice at home and she ended up with an A in her Higher.

But now what? She was becoming serious about following a career in music, but she’d reached the end of the line in that department at Arran High.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Douglas Academy

I’m a keen outdoors guy and spend a lot of time and money in the amazing local outdoor shop on Arran, Arran Active. It’s owned and run by a lovely man called Andrew, whose daughter Lucy just happens to be a couple of years ahead of Freya and is now studying music at Guildhall in London. We’d got talking to Andrew, having seen Lucy’s playing in a concert at the RCS. He told us that she’d moved to a high school on the mainland in S4 and said we should give it some thought. By the time we’d learned about it, it was actually past the deadline for applying for the next academic year, but we went for it anyway. It’s a state school called Douglas Academy, and it has one of only three specialist music schools in Scotland attached to the school. We’re not sure if it was down to the pandemic or not, but Freya was invited for an audition over Zoom, followed by an interview, and she got a place!

This was the moment where we really didn’t know how it was going to go. We’d been told that most, if not all, music pupils at Douglas Academy would be Grade 8 musicians. That’s as high as the grade system goes. Freya had just passed her Grade 4. Bear in mind that the grade system is completely separate from the Scottish Qualifications Authority exams, and for career musicians, is a more important benchmark of one’s ability and proficiency.

So, was Freya going to feel enthused and excited by being surrounded by amazing young players way beyond her, or was she going to feel deflated and out of place?

Thankfully, it was the first one!

Somehow, during lockdown, with no live performances, no RCS Juniors, lessons over Zoom, the ferry operator’s making travel extremely difficult, back pain, orthodontic problems, no band practice - somehow, during all of that, Freya got an A in her Advanced Higher at Douglas AND passed her Grade 7 French horn.

And not only that. She also auditioned and was accepted into the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, the West of Scotland Symphony Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

Come on!

It’s beginning to look like leaving Arran High at the end of S4 was a Very Good Decision!

While she was going for lessons at RCS Juniors, it became clear that her student horn was limiting her abilities, so when her horn tutor contacted us to let us know that he had three used horns for sale, we jumped on the opportunity and bought her a Paxman. I’m sure that that helped her in a few ways, not least of which was maybe a sense of obligation to us for having given her such a beautiful instrument.

This year she’s studying A-Level Music at Douglas Academy, which doesn’t normally happen in Scotland. She tells us that the jump from Higher to A-Level is massive, which seems a bit unfair on Scottish pupils, in that they get a lower level of tuition than in England.

Auditioning at home

Besides that, she’s back at RCS Juniors and has spent the last few months applying and auditioning for a place in the undergraduate music programs at all the conservatoires in the UK. Her horn tutor at Douglas warned her that she might not get into any of them, but somehow she’s had six offers out of seven applications.

I took her to Manchester in September for her audition for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. I wrote about how special that trip was in my newsletter, how I got to listen in on her Zoom call with the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama as we were driving down the M6. At that time, I and my wife were a bit hesitant about Freya’s travelling to England on her own, but we soon realised that there was no way that we’d be able to accompany her on every trip, as there were just so many of them! So she’s been travelling on her own by train from Glasgow to London, Cardiff, Birmingham and Manchester.

It actually takes me back to my teens, when I joined the army at 16 and was all over the place. She’s coping incredibly well and I’m still a bit awestruck at just how well she’s doing.

I can’t wait to see where she decides to study and to watch her grow into a career musician! As a musician myself who has always regretted not taking it up as a career, I couldn’t have wished for anything better for my daughter in my wildest dreams. Well, there is maybe just one dream that I’ll hold onto, which is to see her playing the horn in Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall. D'you think it will happen? D'you know what? I think it just might!