TRACE Project – Tickets Announced

In Creativity, Musician-in-Residence8 April 20224 Minutes

Robin Browning

Robin Browning is an established conductor, conducting teacher, coach and arts-leader. He is Artistic Director of SÓN – Orchestra in Association at the renowned Turner Sims Concert Hall, Specialist Conducting Tutor at University of Southampton, and Professor of Conducting for the British Army. This is his official website. He'd love to hear from you, so please get in touch!

"Fascinating, absorbing and eerily beautiful"

TRACE-E Project Performances
Saturday 7 May 2022
1pm and 3pm
Turner Sims, Southampton
(Events will last up to one hour, and may involve short periods of flashing light)

Part of University of Southampton’s Science and Engineering Day 2022

Robin Browning (Musician in Residence) – Composer, Keyboards, Ableton Live
Rowan Baker – Arranger, Co-composer, Keyboards, Ableton Live
George Pertwee – Sound Design, Percussion, Ableton Live
Marike Kruup – Violin
Anca Campanie – Violin
Austen Scully – Cello

Stacey Barnett – Dancer
Lara Prince & Sofia Mykulynska – Speakers

Ian Williams – Principal Investigator
Alice Brock – TRACE-E Project Intern

Devon Williams – Electronics & eTextile development
Alison Westcott – Fashion design

Grab your tickets here

Tickets have just been announced for the two TRACE-E Musician-in-Residence performances this May, and are now available for you to get – for free! – via the Turner Sims website. The team behind the whole TRACE-E Project are super-excited about this, because it not only showcases the work we’ve been doing in recent months, but it also introduces you – our audiences – to crucial things about the issue of electronic waste, as well as inviting discussion with scientists and environmentalists. It also means we can share what we think is some beautiful music with you all. It promises to be fascinating, absorbing and eerily beautiful.

More info will come soon as we continue developing things over Easter. But here’s an idea of what you’ll see and hear at this fascinating event combining science and art…

Completely new, specially-composed acoustic and electronic tracks, fusing found-sound and live-sampling with strings, percussion and multiple keyboard instruments from grand piano to retro 80's synths

The TRACE Project dancer showcases a bespoke eTextile jacket, designed to respond with embedded lights to each of her movements, as well as controlling the sound of the music with other gestures

Two young speakers are writing their own texts, in both prose and poetry, about aspects of eWaste, circular economy and the global environmental crisis. Their words, which they perform themselves, is a key part of the music and will be peppered throughout the event

Musicians on stage will explore multiple sound-worlds using all manner of electronic clips, loops and ambient granular clouds. They'll take live samples from some of the audience's electronic devices – mobile phones, toys, laptops – and turn them into amazing tapestries of sound, becoming new pieces of music right before your ears

Live discussions with the scientists behind aspects of the project, led by principal investigator Ian Williams and other environmentalists in the TRACE team, will explain why we're doing what we're doing, and what it all means. There will also be discussions about eTextile development, how musical sampling works, and what the future might be if we don't take greater action now

Free Tickets Available Now

You can explore more and pick up tickets by clicking on the button below. It would be great to see you all there!

Plus, you can join the discussion on social media now, continuing right through the event and beyond by using the hashtag #TRACE

Follow me on twitter @Robin_Browning and the TRACE Project @TRACEProject22

The TRACE-E Musician-in-Residence Project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council through the IAA at University of Southampton


Robin Browning is the TRACE-E Musician in Residence at University of Southampton

TRACE–E… Latest update

In Creativity, Musician-in-Residence20 March 20228 Minutes

Robin Browning

Robin Browning is an established conductor, conducting teacher, coach and arts-leader. He is Artistic Director of SÓN – Orchestra in Association at the renowned Turner Sims Concert Hall, Specialist Conducting Tutor at University of Southampton, and Professor of Conducting for the British Army. This is his official website. He'd love to hear from you, so please get in touch!

Time for an update. I’ve been a bit silent about this whole Musician-in-Residence project lately, because I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of composing, drafting, sketching, followed by throwing it all in the bin and starting again. You know, the typical creative sequence of self-absorbtion then self-doubt.

This weekend Ableton has gone offline for some reason. It’s not just me. Musicians the world over are screaming at their laptops and venting on twitter right now. But it does mean that I can’t save or export anything I come up with.

I tend to use all manner of methods to capture my musical thoughts as they come – scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, iPhone voice-notes, manuscript, you name it. And I’ll often use Ableton to multitrack loops and ideas which sound well together, but for which I haven’t yet figured a final format.

Right this moment, I’m loathe to boot up Ableton and start noodling around on Noire or Cycles (my two most beloved go-to plug-ins, for now at least). I just know it’ll be sod’s law that the muse will strike (lucky me), but I’ll get frustrated I can’t save anything. So I’m writing this blog post, the one you’re currently suffering, while I wait for Premier Pro to export a test video file (I’ll be using something like that as a background loop for the entire performance on stage in May).

New eTextile Dancer's Jacket

Plans for a bespoke eTextile jacket have moved on well in the last couple of weeks. This will be worn by a dancer, who’ll be moving elegantly and expressively to some of the tracks.

The jacket is in a beautiful, minimalist style (combining well with my music, I think) and will be fashioned out of discarded items and reused fabric (again, like some of my own sound loops). Embedded in the fabric, sewn into a kind of mesh (to make it super easy to remove and repurpose once the jacket has served its purpose) are hundreds of mini LED lights, controlled by accelerometers in microchips at each wrist point. These are like the gyroscope that enables you to read your compass on a mobile phone, for example. In this case, they’re packed into an ultra small chip.

In the photos, Fashion Designer Alison Wescott (from Winchester School of Art) and Neuroscientist and Entrepreneur Devon Lewis (from University of Southampton’s School of Electronics and Computer Science) talk to me about an early prototype for the design. We’re interested in the tech, of course, but also the fit, style, look – as well as making sure that even this early mock-up has sustainability at its core: Alison made it from a simple, stitched square of material from a discarded umbrella!

So, when the dancer moves her right arm upwards, let’s say, a cascade of lights are triggered. The glowing thread flows down the right hand side of the jacket, over the shoulder and across the back. It’s all in time with her movements, because she is – quite literally – controlling it all.

At the same time, those microchips are synced to Ableton via MIDI-mapping. This is when you decide that a particular dial on a synthesizer controls a certain thing inside the software. You can pretty much map anything, to anything. So you can assign this knob to control volume, this other fader can control reverb, etc etc…

In this case, we’re assigning certain movements from the dancer (and correspondingly, the chips at each of her wrists on the jacket) to aspects of the sound. For example, she punches the air to her left, and this triggers a Whitney Houston 80’s style cowbell sound, inside Ableton. Except we won’t use that sound (thank God). We’ll be using found sound and other samples. Besides, I never liked cowbells, except in Mahler.

The other arm could open and close a filter on, say, a cloud of notes that are in the same key as the music. Or pan the sound from left to right. We’ll see… the possibilities are kind of endless.

Ultimately, the dancer will be able to shape and control the sound of the music she’s dancing to. And that’s crucial – because it’s an evocative metaphor for what this entire project is about.

A 180º change for our planet

All this is great, but it isn’t just about a cool jacket. Or about cutting-edge semiconductor tech. Or about my music, the players, or any of that.

The point is that if we’re going to have any hope of saving this planet, and turning back the tide of global climate problems, we’re going to have to do an abrupt 180º in our thinking – an about-face in the way we approach everything we do as a species – or else it’ll be too late. The concept of the Circular Economy – the idea of reusing, repurposing, repairing and recycling everything – is at the heart of the TRACE-E project. And it’s precisely this kind of thinking which we need to change in order to prevent the impending catastrophe.

A dancer who triggers the music, rather than simply responding to it, isn’t going to change the course of the world’s waste problems. However, it does succinctly encapsulate the whole idea of the Circular Economy within something artistic, informative and educational – precisely what TRACE-E is all about. The whole project is about sharing knowledge, enabling people to grow more aware of the problems, and to join together in the search for solutions (just as with the original TRACE and SÓN eWaste Projects).

The idea of a dancer creating their own music as they move is a radical shift from what is normally done on stage. And right now, we need to find ways to make a similar change for humanity, as we strive to steer away from the brink of disaster. A 180º is needed, pure and simple.


Musician in Residence: the journey so far

In Creativity, Musician-in-Residence4 February 20226 Minutes

Robin Browning

Robin Browning is an established conductor, conducting teacher, coach and arts-leader. He is Artistic Director of SÓN – Orchestra in Association at the renowned Turner Sims Concert Hall, Specialist Conducting Tutor at University of Southampton, and Professor of Conducting for the British Army. This is his official website. He'd love to hear from you, so please get in touch!

Right. Musician-in-Residence. What’s all that about, then?

It’s a bit of a fascinating one, this, and also a tad convoluted. Stay with me. Won’t be long.

Way back before the pandemic changed our world, I was heavily involved in a big education project, with 85 school-kids all singing about things to do with Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy. Along with SÓN Orchestra colleagues, we managed to perform this, twice, just before the portcullis of lockdown descended.

This was the SÓN eWaste Project – part of the larger TRACE project, the title coming from TRAnsitioning to a Circular Economy. The other part was some inspired artwork by Susannah Pal.

Fast-foward a few years, and here we are again. Not only did the original TRACE Project win Campaign of the Year at the 2021 National Recycling Awards, but funding has recently been awarded from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for another project, this time involving me as Musician-in-Residence. The TRACE-E Project continues themes of eWaste and circular economy, but also brings me into close contact with some of the world’s top scientists working in semiconductor tech (with ARM, the chip giant), eTextiles, optoelectronics, waste-management and sustainability.

In essence, I’m meeting with research scientists, and seeing what triggers an artistic response. Searching for that little gem which gets my creative juices flowing.

And, then, I’m going to be bundling it all together into a performance piece, telling a story about the growing eWaste problem, using sound, music and more. The goal is to sow seeds of change in those who hear it. In other words, informing catalysing change through art.

Electro-minimalism: my guilty pleasure

Over recent weeks, I’ve been plunging regularly down the rabbit hole of Ableton, VST synth plug-ins, and all manner of sounds and samples. One of the chief difficulties has been bringing my music-tech knowledge up to the required speed for a project such as this – no easy matter, I’ll freely admit. I’ve spent 25 years as a professional conductor after all, and can perhaps comfortably tweak a Mahler symphony for performance, but finding where on earth I’ve put that sample loop is something I’m grappling with daily.

And then there’s the composing, the sketching, the finding of ideas that might actually work and not sound eternally crap. Or even, you know, create the actual mood I’m looking for. That’s something I’m finding frustrating and seemingly endless. Two steps forward, two steps back… And only a more furrowed brow to show for it.

But after a lot of faff I’ve developed scribble into sketches, ideas into samples, samples into useable sounds, and begun getting ideas to coalesce. Under a month ago, I didn’t even know what this project actually WAS – I had ideas, but none of them felt right, it lacked coherency and had no forward drive. Now as January eases into February, that has begun to change.

Only yesterday, I decided to add this little ditty – full of unashamedly retro, 80’s minimalist electro loops (courtesy of some marvellous Arturia sounds and a sample or two) – to some film clips of micro chips and circuit boards. And now it’s out into the wild, for all the world to see.

Bear in mind this is quite a big step for me: I’ve spent decades performing other people’s music, none of my own, and now I’ve got to overcome years of inertia and probably quite a few inner demons to get my creative voice out there.

But I’m getting there, for sure. If there’s anything I’ve learned during the pandemic’s seemingly endless silence, it’s to stop waiting, to just get on up, and do things. Life’s too short to second-guess your every creative move.

Thoughts very welcome, of course. I’d love to hear your views and answer your questions. Pop a comment below, or ping me a message on Twitter or Insta.

Next update soon! Maybe with some more synthy sounds. I’ll be updating you on some of my musical and scientific collaborators, and giving you some glimpses into some exciting eTextile plans being hatched specifically for the TRACE project. Watch this space.


red no music no life signage

Rediscover your inner musician

In Creativity, Wellbeing, Arts9 November 20218 Minutes

Robin Browning

Robin Browning is an established conductor, conducting teacher, coach and arts-leader. He is Artistic Director of SÓN – Orchestra in Association at the renowned Turner Sims Concert Hall, Specialist Conducting Tutor at University of Southampton, and Professor of Conducting for the British Army. This is his official website. He'd love to hear from you, so please get in touch!

Wow. A blog post. I know, I know. It’s been a while.

And that’s kind of the point. As you can see, I’ve been doing some tinkering around here. And I’ve also been doing some tinkering in my head. They’re related, I guess.

The upshot is that, as we all slowly emerge from underneath our lockdown-induced rocks, I’m beginning to come to terms with what strangely feels like a new beginning – as a musician, as an artist, as a creative person. And together with that, I feel inspired to do some long-overdue updates to my website, and also to the software my inner-musician has been running all this time.

I’m sure you, like me, have had a truly difficult journey as the global pandemic swept our world. In my little bubble – that of the musician, conductor and teacher – the landscape was effectively rendered mute almost overnight. It’s been tricky juggling plans, repertoire and programming, as well as income, livelihood and any sense of a career path. But I know it’s been beyond tough for all. And I also know I’ve had it better than most. I still have a roof over my head and work to look forward to. The diary is most definitely filling up (in some cases scarily quickly).

A new beginning – as a musician, as an artist

Despite the difficulties lately, I slowly realised that I was somehow starting to come to terms with who I am as a musician. During the silence, the occasional solitude, the endless hours of cogitation, I was able to check in with bits and pieces of my artistic self that I’d been unable to do for years, decades even. Endless gigs, life on the road, piles of study and admin, always having at least one if not multiple programmes hurtling around in my head – this was all so exhausting, draining even, and I hadn’t stopped to realise it.

But then the world stopped me. Gave me no choice. I did gigs right up until the first lockdown. The final event I gave with SÓN Orchestra was probably the very last time anyone on that stage performed in public for many, many months.

To begin with, I explored everything but music. Gardening. Learning coding. Forex trading. Crypto trading (it’s like the wild west, don’t do it). I kind of pretended I was no longer a musician. Hundreds of my colleagues were posting online, playing micro gigs in their back-garden, or craftily-woven online duets and whatnot. I was both in awe of this – feeling out of my technical depth – and also rather tepid: I simply couldn’t be bothered. I wanted to disappear. I left the ‘music-making’ – online, frankly a bit sterile – to those who did it well, and disappeared down the rabbit hole.

pavement surrounded with dried leaves

Like kicking leaves in autumn just because you can

Yet, in due course, all this self-reflection reminded me what a musician is, and – whether I always felt like it, or not – that is what I am. As lockdown eased, some of us began stumbling back into rehearsals (more were cancelled than not). No matter what the insecurities were, it felt giddyingly reassuring, like rediscovering that favourite toy, or realising you’re not going to fall when Dad takes the stabilisers off the bike. Or like kicking leaves in autumn just because you can.

Months of silence, of not even breathing or thinking like a musician, showed me how deeply I am one. It turns out I have no choice. It chooses me, not the other way around. And (channelling my inner Bowie) that is that.

So now, because I CAN, I’m surging forwards – here, on my website, with some new blog-posts, and with many exciting new projects. There’s much I can’t share with you right now, but I’ll tell all about things very soon. I’ve got things lined-up connecting music & technology, music & environment (always topical, especially as I’m writing this during COP26) and more conducting teaching and training on the horizon, too.

I want to share more with you as this all picks up, and as I steer into the new unknown – like we’re all doing. I’m going to be writing more here, so please follow my social media – especially on twitter – for updates. I may even start YouTubing or vlogging. Yes, I know, I should have absorbed myself in all these skills during lockdown, but I was too busy navel-gazing. Better late than never.

If I have any tips, it’s to never allow yourself to fester too long before you retreat from the world. At least a little bit. I’ve heard of people who build a personal retreat into their schedule and ring-fence it, protecting it like a medieval castle would from the marauding hoards of regular life. One day a month, one week a year, and so on.

I’ve just done the same myself. Disappeared on my own to a little cottage in deepest Dorset. All artists need to restore. That’s the one, small blessing to come out of the lockdowns – it has offered us no option but to reconnect with ourselves, with our inner voice as artists.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. If you’re an artist or musician – or even if you’re not – how did you spend your time through seemingly endless lockdowns? Did you find opportunity to reflect? And, if you did, what kinds of things did you learn?

Do scroll down and leave a little comment below.

I can’t help thinking that the art (of all kinds) that emerges now and in the coming months is going to be some of the most profound, touching, and reflective in recent decades. Personally, I can’t wait to see, feel, touch and hear it. I may even chuck some of my own into the mix.

Stay well everyone. I’ll write again soon.


photo of black digital audio mixer

Young Musicians: The Ambassadors of Tomorrow

3 May 2021In Education, Concerts & Events, Creativity14 Minutes

Robin Browning

Robin Browning is an established conductor, conducting teacher, coach and arts-leader. He is Artistic Director of SÓN – Orchestra in Association at the renowned Turner Sims Concert Hall, Specialist Conducting Tutor at University of Southampton, and Professor of Conducting for the British Army. This is his official website. He'd love to hear from you, so please get in touch!

This article originally appeared on the SÓN eWaste project blog. It takes the form of a Q&A with Robin Browning – composer, workshop-leader and project manager – right when the final performances we’re just around the corner.

Now, just over a year later, as we’re all emerging from lockdown around the world, the global environmental issues concerning Electronic Waste unfortunately hasn’t lessened in the slightest. The giant mountain of old phones, miles of cables, dangerous tv parts and smashed computer spares continue to litter the globe – particularly in developing countries – and we seem powerless to do anything about it.

But we can. We can all play even a little part, as these youngsters showed. This project impacted their lives just at the stage when they were arguably most open to it, and has carried real change moving forwards.

A follow-up post to this one is coming soon, complete with stats, facts and demographics resulting from the project. Scroll down and you can see the showreel from the final events and surrounding interviews.

Plans are afoot to continue the legacy and the mission – watch this space!

Why eWaste?

Like a lot of people, I’ve grown concerned about environmental issues over recent years and struggle to feel like I’m doing the right thing, let alone anything of real impact. I’ve seen huge changes in people’s attitudes towards the planet, and towards recycling in particular. I’m not an ardent campaigner for global change, nor a terribly political animal, but reckon I’ve been doing my bit and aim to hold myself accountable for my actions.

Having said all that, the concept of electrical and electronic waste wasn’t on my radar at all really – apart from being dimly aware of things like a growing kitchen drawer of old phones, a basket of speaker cables, wondering what to do with that old lamp over there, etc. Then I met Ian Williams, one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, and Professor of Applied Environmental Science at University of Southampton. Discussing all sorts of possibilities, Ian opened my eyes to the scale of the global eWaste problem – why it was occurring, how it was worsening, and how few people seemed to be aware of it.

This was a matter of months ago, so right at the time when Greta Thunberg was widely known, plastics in the oceans a news topic of real significance, and Extinction Rebellion making a big impact. Yet I was shocked that electrical waste – despite figures showing it as the number 1 waste stream throughout the world – received far less media coverage than it warranted.

Conversations with Ian convinced me pretty quickly that this was an issue in need of far greater exposure, and that – between us – we had the means to do something about it. To cut a long story short, the ‘TRACE’ Project was born, supported by University of Southampton’s EPSRC Impact Accelerator Account. ‘TRACE’ stands for Transitioning to a Circular Economy, and aims to make people aware of how much change we can all make by reusing, re-purposing and simply fixing items – as well as sharing them – rather than discarding and replacing.

The youngsters in this project have made it all happen. They can be proud that it all came from them.

Why was it so important to make it an education project?

Once funding was secured, we worked in tandem with artist Susannah Pal – who specialises in a visual artist’s response to eWaste – and began plotting the vision for TRACE over the next few months. Anca Campanie – SÓN Associate Director – and I worked together to agree our part of the project, and brought the SÓN team on board to push things forwards.

From the get go, we had clear ideas about how best we could impact lives, catalyse change and bring about some really lasting environmental awareness. The project, to my mind, had ‘education’ written all over it from the moment it began. Rather than commission a new piece for the formal concert stage (for example), we devised and began delivering a large-scale, 4 month education project, designed to culminate in a powerful, final performance of music that the youngsters had all played a key part in writing.

It’s worth stressing this fundamentally important aspect here: the students have real ownership of the entire thing, and they can be proud that it all came from them. In essence, it’s their response to a global issue, it’s their message and it’s their way of telling it.

"Yo bro, Go Pro, no go Nintendo"
Some amazing rap lyrics ... written by 7 & 8 year olds. What a response ... from the ambassadors of tomorrow.

So how did you begin catalysing such a response from young students?

We liaised with the staff at Otterbourne Primary, Hampshire, and began working with over 80 of the 3rd & 4th year students (ages 7 and 8). They’ve been as inspiring as any of us, and the teachers have been simply brilliant throughout, supportive, flexible and totally engaged with the project.

We began regular visits to school with Ian Williams and Alice Brock – a postrgrad research scientist at University of Southampton – to explain the global eWaste problem to children curious to know more. We invited the kids to bring in loads of their own eWaste, which we rummaged through, discussing where it might end up, what dangers it might present, the chemicals that could leach out of it, the injuries a broken case or screen might cause, and why this stuff is such a problem.

At the same time, we began workshopping ideas, stories and concepts for our final performance. We got the youngsters writing, singing, and engaging with the whole idea of waste electronics. ‘Bob the iPhone’ was born and the story expanded – where had he come from, why did he break and – crucially – where did he end up?

With workshop leaders such poet and songwriter Ricky Tart, SÓN Education Officer Ollie Downer (also a gifted choral conductor and trainer), and myself, we catalysed a catalogue of songs, rounds and raps. Alongside ‘Bob the iPhone’, another story was written about unwanted Christmas presents ending up on the scrapheap come Boxing Day due to disappointment.

And there’s more. ‘Dead Computer’ took shape from a punchy sequence of kennings – two-word micro-poems, an old-English and -Norse concept, connecting nicely with our own name of “SÓN” which is old English for “Music”. Here, the students began to personalise any electrical items they could think of, shifting them from being meaningless gadgets to having a real personality – a life, if you like.

So, a fitbit is a “step-counter” and camera a “photo-bank”. Chanting them, powerfully and rhythmically, we pitch them against another set of kennings, but this time representing the same items broken and no longer fit for purpose. A shattered phone screen becomes a “finger scratcher” and an old tv, lying in a ditch, a “soil-slopper”. The imaginations of these students, and the keen guidance of Ricky in steering it all, was incredible.

Some ended up on the cutting-room floor because we couldn’t quite make them work in the whole. One truly fabulous line from a potential rap was “Yo bro, Go Pro, no go Nintendo” – remember, this is from 7 & 8 year olds! ‘No Go Nintendo’ was, for some weeks, my working title for this whole project.

And what’s next – what happens to all these songs?

We fuse it all into one whole piece, intertwining ambient sounds (which we’ve sampled from live electronics, some from junk the students brought in) with our string soloists, percussion and keyboard / synth players. This all links into the songs, with passages of spoken words – written and read by the children themselves – about what it all means, why we wrote what we wrote, and at the very end, what kind of world they want to grow up in.

I’m spending the next couple of weeks locked away in my studio doing probably more musical creative work than I’ve done for years. I’m really excited to create all sorts of sounds which we can weave around the children’s fabulous songs, so we can tell this very important story with maximum impact. I’ve got soundscapes coming out of my ears – now I’ve got to get them all down on paper (or Sibelius, because who uses paper these days to compose?). I’ll be using Ableton, too, setting-up rhythm tracks which the youngsters can rap over, built from both standard percussion samples and a load of more obvious, noticeably electronic sounds. So, for example, ‘Dead Computer’ will actually be built on a complex, yet flexible rhythm backing of old computer bongs, iPhone lock sounds, keyboard clicks, doorbells, car alarms, Mario Cart, speak-and-spells – that kind of thing. Funky and a bit retro. With 85 kids chanting rhythmically over the top.

But we’ve also got lines for strings and live percussion, all mixed in with these electronic sounds. Plus more standard songs involving simple choral rounds, where we divide the choir in two, as well as a really powerful final rap, a kind of grime hip-hop track, about a massive robot made of old discarded junk who befriends and rescues all his sad, unused electrical friends. It’s called ‘Monster Electric’ and features lines such as “He turns Dr Dre Beats into beatbox mics, fairy-lights into Ferrari lights”, featuring 6 rapper MC’s from the school. Brilliant!

Finally, what will become of the project beyond the final performance?

We’re mid-way through the making of a  film of the entire project – from initial sessions at the school where they first heard about electrical waste, through the brainstorming of words and building up of songs, to the final rehearsals with orchestra and eventual performances. We’ll have a film that tells the whole story of the SÓN eWaste Project through the eyes of the youngsters themselves, right up to when they’re all nestled together on the concert stage, doing something they’ve never done before – singing and rapping in public about a subject they’ve begun to really understand.

We want to continue this way into the future, and ultimately treat this wonderful experience as a pilot for something far bigger, far more impactful, and capable of changing even more lives.


assorted paintings on white painted wall

Stand up for mental wellbeing

Our musicians, artists, actors, dancers and other performers put themselves in the frontline every single day, endlessly practising, rehearsing, fine-tuning and showcasing their talents to audiences who praise – but also critique. The stresses and strains of choosing a creative career, or of being a student or a young learner within the arts and culture community, can and does lead to anxiety, addictions, anger management problems and other mental wellbeing issues. With your help I want to launch a global wellness campaign, to coincide with World Mental Health Day on 10 October, to raise awareness of these problems, to protect our performers and to help those who are already experiencing difficulties. Please take just a few minutes to look through my thoughts and to share your ideas to help shape this initiative going forwards.

What’s the issue?

Earlier this year, the Incorporated Society of Musicians asked ‘What do musicians want from the new Parliament?’ Referencing research by Help Musicians UK, the ISM called for the Government to support institutions ‘working to tackle the stigma around discussing mental health’ with more than six in ten professionals suffering emotional problems at some stage in their working lives and 75% experiencing performance-related stress.

The Guardian followed up on these findings in an article – ‘Insomnia, anxiety, break-ups…musicians on the dark side of touring’ – which focused on players supporting mainstream boy bands and punk groups. But the problem is far more widespread than this. It impacts on musicians, and indeed artists, of all levels, lifestyles and ages. From the young children, teenagers and students under stress to continually practice, perform and “create” to professional players, artists, writers, dancers and actors who, more often than not, eke out precarious livelihoods in pressurised working environments.

Why am I determined to raise awareness of this issue?

I am not a doctor, a psychologist, or a therapist. I am a musician who has, over the years, experienced my own fair share of emotional wellbeing issues. As a music student at King’s College London, via many circuitous paths including solo violinist, leader, teacher, university lecturer and artistic director for many and varied youth ensembles and professional orchestras, I have increasingly seen players and performers, colleagues and students alike experiencing stress, anxiety, anger issues, addictions and depression.

Why are performers so affected by mental health issues?

Music, art and literature are healing and therapeutic tools for many vulnerable and marginalised people – and a proven benefit for those with various conditions ranging from autism to dementia. Listening, viewing, watching or directly engaging with diverse art forms allows many of us to express emotions and rekindle old memories – good and bad. A great piece of music, an evocative sculpture, an inspirational poem or a dramatic stage-play can create tears of sadness or joy, it can make us feel angry or excited or passionate. It can be a fantastic and helpful cathartic experience.

But musicians and artists, creators and performers, live inside this emotionally immersive experience day in, day out. We have to consistently reach inside ourselves, drawing not only on our talents and skills, but on our most primeval emotions. Time and again. Often just a single step away from burn-out under the constant spotlight of acclamation or criticism. Add to this the pressures of thousands of hours of practice, hot-house training methods from a young age, the high degrees of sensitivity required by any artistic calling, the poor levels of financial compensation and job security for most, and the public perception that artists love what they do so why on earth would they, of all people, experience emotional problems?

Music, specifically, touches the emotions where words alone cannot. Nothing connects someone to the moment like music. This is good if it is channelled and used in a focused and therapeutic way but potentially dangerous within an industry which involves constant exposure to emotions and feelings and increasingly raw nerves. Music can change lives, it can change our moods instantly or heal our battered souls slowly. But if you are a professional, always having to be at your peak, always having to perform to an audience or a judge or a teacher, or simply to your peers, it can be too intensively damaging. We cannot always escape. And no-one teaches us how to turn the switch to ‘off’.

Why now?

I have seen friends and colleagues, players and pupils increasingly experiencing a wide range of mental health and emotional issues. I welcome the research by organisations like Help Musicians UK and calls to action by the ISM. I am delighted to support initiatives like today’s World Mental Health Day, an annual awareness-raising event focused on overcoming the stigmas and stereotypes which are particularly relevant to those of us in the arts community. And I am encouraged by actors, musicians and artists who are becoming more open about their own wellbeing issues which are often a result of the constant pressure of performing under the bright lights, the constant pressure of producing perfection. Every day. Without fail.

But (and, as so often, it’s a really big and important “but”) the Hollywood actors, the global pop stars, the British classical musicians, and so many others who speak out about their own mental health problems, polarise opinions. While many applaud their courage and support these issues being openly aired, others are dismissive and disparaging. And then there are the fence-sitters who encourage openness but criticise these high-profile speakers as representatives of the privileged few who can afford to access treatment and ongoing support.

Mainstream media coverage is not universally non-judgemental, by any means, but it is social media reaction in particular which is so often extraordinarily insensitive and highly damaging. This fuels the flames of those who choose to stigmatise, further isolates those who are suffering, and stops others from raising awareness of vital problems.

We live in a time when we have the technical tools and expertise to raise awareness of key issues in such a great and positive way; to openly debate and discuss and support people and causes on a global scale; and to share not only problems but potential solutions. But it seems that as our social media traffic increases, our social consciences plummet. Let’s all just stop for a moment. Just imagine for this single moment in time what an impact we could make, what a significant difference we could make, if we choose compassion not condemnation.

What can we – and more importantly you – do?

We already use this same technology to benefit from online therapy, we download apps to practice mindfulness and e-books of therapeutic resources. And we make full use of every digital device we own to ensure we have 24/7 access to art galleries across the world, to dance and drama productions, and to all kinds of fabulous music.

So, we can join forces to support the ISM in calling for governmental support, we can volunteer for mental health charities, and we can buy into the invaluable initiatives led by organisations like Help Musicians UK. We should all endorse their work.

But for us, here and now, let’s go big and let’s go global. We all understand the power and the reach and influence of social media. Maybe, just maybe, we can raise awareness of the mental health issues I’ve touched on by trying to turn social media into a force for good! Controversial? Yes. Clichéd? Yep, maybe that too!

Have a look at the proposed campaign manifesto – and then it’s over to you. I want your input – your views and feedback, your ideas and suggestions. Constructive stuff will be especially welcome! And please spread the word, share this, talk about the issues, ensure everyone has their say and their input to help kick-start what I want to be a positive and beneficial global wellbeing campaign.

Campaign manifesto

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  • To help protect musicians, artists, writers, actors, dancers and other associated students, players and performers against work and environment-related mental health issues
  • To support those in the arts and culture community who are already vulnerable or directly suffering
  • To understand that while performing and creating can be stressful and mentally challenging experiences and environments, the arts must be seen and positioned as powerful healing tools for many in society, especially our young people, supporting them in reintegrating with friends, family, and communities and potentially benefitting their emotional wellbeing
  • To create and sustain an ongoing debate, discussion and support network via social media to raise awareness of these issues, to share experiences and to work to identify ways of helping and healing, and of preventing problems in the first place wherever possible
  • To work with established charities, with politicians and other opinion leaders, with advocacy groups and with the media, to raise awareness and to overcome stigmas, stereotypes and unhelpful public preconceptions attached to discussions and debates about mental health in general and the issues related to musicians and other artists in particular

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Robin conducts SÓN during their launch concert in front of a sell-out Turner Sims audience

How to launch an orchestra — a guide to creative entrepreneurship

I thought for ages about this. Pondering, scrawling mile upon mile of notes, pondering some more, scrawling some more. It took me ages. Then I began. And I’m only talking about this, my first Medium post. I haven’t even told you about the orchestra stuff yet.

In late 2015, along with some other established musicians, I decided to create SÓN, a new professional orchestra based in the UK. So far so good. Quite a simple beginning, but the floodgates opened fast and we were up and rolling, the tsunami of reality lapping at our heels. Launch concert booked, musicians to hunt-down, endless favours to call in, photographers and videographers persuaded, all the mate’s-rates begging wearing a little thin real quick…

Fast forward to mid-2017, and we’re approaching the end of our second season, eight incredible gigs later (over half have been a complete sell-out, too). We’re still rolling, still juggling, still robbing Peter to pay Paul (they’re not players, it’s an expression. Not sure it translates stateside). We’ve got some big plans, some huge, life-affirming plans, some that’ll-never-work-and-besides-it’ll-cost-a-bomb plans.

Of course, money is an issue, as are things like staff (and finding them), as well as being bold and exciting, but not wild and whacky. It’s tricky to settle on a niche artistic direction without breaking the bank, not to mention being isolated in the equivalent of that grimy annexe where nobody wants to go.

There’s lots to tell. Loads of it. I’ll unload some of the most pertinent nitty-gritty next time. Nearly all of it, I think, is relevant to musicians and performers, all of us cultural entrepreneurs. Thing is, for freelance musicians (conductors, composers, grime rappers, bagpipers, whatever) we are all entrepreneurs. You may not like such an appellation, nor agree with it — everybody wants to be an entrepreneur right now, after all, and it can certainly put people off embracing the whole thing — but it’s what we are.

We need to start thinking like creative entrepreneurs, whether we’re searching for a breakthrough as a soloist, creating a community opera, getting gigs for our quartet, or launching a new orchestra. It’s all the same.

It’s not what gets taught at conservatoire or university.
It’s what gets taught by life.

And it begins with beginning. Actually doing. No amount of planning, no amount of dreaming, is going to lift any artistic project you may have off the ground. If you want lift-off, it’s simple: Act. Act now. Stop faffing around, waiting for things to be perfect. They never will be. Stop waiting until your proverbial ducks are in a row. They’re all excuses. And none of them matter at all.

Whatever your plans, your project, and your dreams — begin now!


An edited version of this post first appeared on Medium


Robin Browning conductor Oxford Orchestra 2016Robin Browning conductor Oxford Orchestra 2016

Interview with the Oxford Student

Back in May I was invited to conduct one of the top student orchestras in the UK – Oxford University Orchestra. Our performance in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony, coupled with Debussy’s La Mer, prompted rave reviews (more of these later) and an almost immediate re-invitation. In terms of their scheduling, it was nice to be sandwiched in between such esteemed company as Daniel Harding and Hugh Brunt, as it were.

As part of the pre-concert publicity, I gave an interview with the Oxford Student newspaper. As you can imagine, being Oxford, this was a little more probing than a many interviews often are – full of erudite questions, and possibly even some erudite answers (I hope). Despite the event being a few months ago, I thought the Q&A is worth reproducing here.

With many thanks to James Chater and OxStu magazine


On Saturday 21st May 2016, Robin Browning will conduct the Oxford University Orchestra (OUO) in Debussy’s masterpiece La Mer and Bruckner’s  Symphony no.7 in E Major at the Sheldonian Theatre. Robin is an established conductor, performer and music-educator. Praised as an “expert musician and conductor” by Sir Charles Mackerras, he is a passionate advocate for music and for the arts in general.

In the interview, Robin speaks to OxStu about working with OUO, the repertoire they will perform, and his admiration of Bruckner.

This the first time that you’ve conducted OUO; are you excited about the prospect of working with the orchestra and in Oxford?

Very much so. I know OUO have a history of inviting fine, established conductors to work with them as guests, and it’s great to be in such good company. I felt sure it would be a strong orchestra – quick-witted, aware and flexible – even after one rehearsal this turns out to be true. I regret to say I know Oxford far less than I should – it’s only my third visit – but I hope this will change.

With OUO, there’s a fairly short period of rehearsing with an orchestra you don’t know. What are the particular challenges and benefits associated with this type of preparation?

In many ways I prefer it – it limits the amount of time one can faff about, and focuses the mind! I’m a firm believer that, unless you’re Carlos Kleiber, a conductor’s work always seems to expand to fill the time available. Having said that, you need good players who respond well and think enough in between rehearsals, too. It’s similar to what one expects with professional orchestras – fewer sessions, clumped together shortly before the gig.

Perhaps, going on from that, what do you enjoy most about working with students?

Open, inquiring minds. Quite apart from the considerable talent within the orchestra, I’ve already sensed a generosity of spirit from the ensemble as a whole. This isn’t always the case – either with students or pros. With OUO, I get the impression that every single player wants it to be a really strong performance.

Arguably, the two works we’ll be performing couldn’t be aesthetically further apart. Firstly, how do you think they’ll complement each other?

It’s fascinating. They’re kind of odd bedfellows, but I think they work well. Bruckner can appear so formal, monolithic and weighty. I used to programme his music with other Austro-Germanic music (Wagner, Strauss, etc) and it can all get a bit much. Debussy is another world entirely. Plus, despite the apparent contrasts, there are subtle similarities when one comes to rehearse them side-by-side: there’s more of a “modular” side to Debussy than one might think…

Secondly, what are the performative difficulties associated with moving between Debussy and Bruckner?

One must take care to find the other world, to breath the “new” air when crossing between the two of them. There are enormous differences in colour and timbre, of course – but also in the way one has to breathe, where one chooses to centre the sound, and how to balance and structure chords – they must all be approached differently. Ultimately, as a conductor, I must be clear to inhabit the appropriate world and not let one bleed through into the other, and strive to bring the orchestra with me in that regard.

What is it that makes Debussy’s style of impressionism distinctive for you?

I think particularly the use of light. He not only finds a breath-taking array of colours, but dances with the interplay of light, pretty much throughout La Mer. Like a series of brushstrokes, his rhythmic cells, dabbed across the entire orchestra, create a constantly shifting aural tableau which is then viewed from different angles, each time with different light. It’s not just the sea he captures in La Mer – he also captures the changing light.

Critics have also noted that the score of La mer in many ways anticipates those of film scores. Do any particular episodes from la mer strike you as such?

Well, I guess all those colours can easily be re-purposed for film. In truth, it doesn’t strike me so overtly like film-music, perhaps apart from some general tones and colours. The Bruckner does far more so, to me – harmonically so, and in terms of instrumental colour, for example strings and horns: think John Barry or Hans Zimmer (depending on circumstance)

Debussy resisted calling the work a symphony outright – but many since have labelled it as such? How do you think it resists or perhaps even supports such a label?

In that way it’s a curious juxtaposition in this concert, being placed with Bruckner – something we’d regard as a “typical” symphony. Whilst La Mer may embody the true original meaning of the word, being as it is packed full of sounds and motifs, all developing organically, I don’t view it symphonically

From just one rehearsal with you it was clear that you have a particular affinity with Bruckner. Could you briefly sum up why that is in a few sentences?

Harmony. Pure and simple. Yes, there’s FAR more to Bruckner than that, I know. But most conductors are harmony geeks (I certainly am) and he accesses parts of the brain – and heart, if you like – that few others reach. Plus there’s this naivety in a lot of it, coupled with melancholy (not quite as much as Elgar – no one’s in that league) which I find desperately touching.

You mentioned a striking relationship between Bruckner and Schubert – immediately after you said that, a lot of the music suddenly made sense to me (the shifts in harmony particularly) – could you describe the effect and how Bruckner achieves this?

It’s about seeing Bruckner as the natural heir to Schubert, rather than Wagner, despite the obvious connections between the 7th and his idol. Because his writing can be (superficially) so “blocky”, many interpreters sacrifice his extraordinary sense of line, and the shifts of colour and balance he creates throughout such long spans become lost. One often hears a monolithically sculpted edifice of sound. This, to me, is more suited to Shostakovich – and maybe the early Bruckner symphonies where his architectural sense is less developed.

Finally, what is it that individuates Bruckner 7 from his other symphonies?

Maybe it’s light – and how appropriate that is, when we’re coupling it with La Mer. He lets more light shine through this symphony than the others which surround it, and that’s apparent right from the very opening bars: bright, radiant and somehow incandescent to the symphony’s very end.


Mahler - and a bit about Life

Not everyone "gets" Mahler. Whether they're musicians, or not.

Some people can't spend a day without it. Remember that scene in Educating Rita, where Julie Walters is met at the door by Maureen Lipman - complete with Mahler 6's finale blaring away behind her? Indelibly etched upon my memory of childhood was the phrase "wouldn't you just DIE without Mahler?"

 

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And then there are plenty of musicians who can't stand the stuff, avoid it like the proverbial, ask for time off the orchestral schedule whenever it's on the programme, that kind of thing. I'm most definitely not one of them. I suppose there must be people out there who are placidly indifferent to Mahler, although quite how that's possible is beyond me - Mahler is all-involving and consuming (if you're doing it right), and remaining dispassionate is, well, I just can't imagine. Mahler is like Marmite: you either love it, or you hate it.

I've just conducted two performances of the 6th symphony, and have No 5 coming up the weekend after I write. Here's a little audio-glimpse into the recent performance (a film - with some longer extracts, rehearsal, and interviews - is planned for later in the spring.)


These Mahler 6 performances were with the fantastic young musicians of Southampton University Symphony Orchestra. All 109 of them, on stage, for an 85-minute epic. What strikes me now, only days later, is how many of them feel the gaping hole in their lives, now that Mahler isn't filling it. I know this because of that eternally-accurate arbiter of fact and knowledge: people's facebook statuses. Many of them write as if they've lost something, or even someone. Gloomy and despondent. Truly a post-Mahler malaise.

Thing is, for the vast majority of them, it was their first experience playing Mahler, any Mahler. Imagine never having really heard Mahler before, let alone played any - and suddenly being hit with the ferocity of emotion that is Mahler 6. At the first rehearsal I told them that this will be a journey - and at its end there will be tears, and longing for more. Few, if any, believed me at the time, but I know how poignantly many of them will be feeling it now.

And here's the crucial point - this is only the START of the journey. There are another 9 symphonies, of course, and songs, Das Klagende Lied... In turn, Mahler will lead to Berg, Shostakovich - and over the shoulder to Bruckner. It can unlock all kinds of things. Imagine the harmonic possibilities suddenly unleashed inside a Mahler-fuelled brain... Or klangfarben, as vivid and intoxicating to a musician now as it would've been to (say) a young Schoenberg, or Bruno Walter, a century ago.

Deep down, some of the players will now be different musicians than when they began this Mahler journey. Somehow, they will approach their craft differently. And not all the members are studying music, either. Few things warm me more than reading that a medical student has listened to the entire symphony twice more in two days, and that a geographer can't wait for her next fix of Mahler. They'll flock to the Proms this summer - always plenty of Mahler there. Who knows.

It will have changed lives - only a little tiny bit, perhaps, but it all counts. This is the power of music, and of Mahler. 109 young musicians may be wandering around like lost souls right now, but it'll pass. What is most vital is that they'll remember it for the rest of their lives, no matter where they're destined, and however high they climb as musicians.


Mayhew and Marvelling Young Minds


Just recently, I was lucky enough to share the stage with the fabulous James Mayhew. Every year we work together, preparing, rehearsing and performing our incredibly successful series of Family Concerts. These are a highlight of the de Havilland Philharmonic season, attracting huge crowds - largely, but not exclusively, made up of youngsters with their parents in tow. Grown-ups come along with their kids - and end up loving it. And the children adore it too: a telltale sign of this is how quiet they are, particularly during the music. As a conductor, even with my back turned to the auditorium 99% of the time, I can always tell when an audience is really listening, deeply tuned-in to all the activities on stage. 

Undeniably the star of the show is artist, presenter and master story-teller James Mayhew. He has a quietly engaging charisma, drawing audiences into his fantastical world, whether through speech (often delivered as verse, and always adhering to the true character, plot and drama of any classical masterwork) or through those wonderful paintings.

Thanks to the technical marvels of 21st century HD-cameras, coupled with a clever technical crew and a well-appointed concert hall, James is able to paint on a massive canvas. All his work is projected super-size above us all at the back of the stage: just watch the film above to see it all in action. There's even a glimpse into the technical box, mid-concert, during our performance of Superman.

James is not only a deeply expressive, brilliant artist, but a warm, involving speaker and presenter too. Like me, he cares deeply and passionately about classical music... about its depth, colours and delivery. James and I won't compromise, abridge nor water-down any of the orchestral "classics". We feel that children, and adults, not only can but should experience a full-size symphony orchestra performing classical masterpieces. Either in their entirety, or as close as we can get. No trimming. No sanitising. No dumbing-down. 

And we trust each other implicitly. Having performed together so often, we know what works for one another. "I think we make a great team, Robin and I," says James. "He is that rare thing - a conductor with a sense of humour. The sense of fun is palpable to the audience and our concerts together are the highlight of my year." Thanks James - that's praise indeed!

He, too, is a joy to spend time with - whether talking about comic timing, brush strokes and speed of delivery on-stage... Or where he gets his sheriff's badge from:

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Of course, James and I don't simply play the music. All I do is rehearse it, conduct it, perform it. That's my whole (wonderful) career in a nutshell. Sometimes I speak to the crowd, introduce James, or act as a temporary stage-prop. Together we pace the concert - me syncing with him - like accompanying a good soloist. He uses verse, commentaries, little asides - whatever the drama needs, and I time the music to the cadence of his text. In turn, James times his artwork neatly and deftly with our music-making. Watch the showreel above (or any of the footage here) and you'll see this very thing in action: look at the very end of Superman, where James times the final swoosh of the superhero's flowing cape elegantly in sync with the final musical cut-off.

Classical music is the most extraordinary experience for young children and their families. If our concerts make just one youngster pick up a cello or trombone with increased fervour, or pushes a young lad or lady to revisit a half-finished composition, then the whole venture has been a success. No question. Anything that connects youngsters with their inner, musical pilot-light - making them yearn for music, to make music, to experience music - can only be a good thing. 

With the axe about to fall on music services across the UK (as I write, Bromley, Redbridge and Wiltshire are facing this - they could easily not exist by summer: what a TRAGEDY that would be) - anything which gets the power of music over to youngsters is desperately needed. We all need to work on cultivating the audiences, and musicians, instrumentalists, singers, of tomorrow. All of us need to do this, starting now. Like we mean it. With passion, integrity, and humility. I'd like to think that James and I do our little bit in this regard, but I'd love to do much more.


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"Working with Robin is the highlight of my year," James says. "I couldn't wish for a better colleague for this mission we both share." And I feel exactly the same. The reason we both do this is because we love what we do: getting the magic of music across to people of all ages, particularly youngsters. When we each watch the youngsters marvel at what they witness unfolding on stage, we know it's the single best drug there is, for professional musician and professional artist alike. This is why, no matter how many books James may write, and how many Mahler symphonies I may conduct, our projects together remain a cornerstone of my concert life, and of James' artistic work. And it's why both of us long to do many more - so we can see those marvelling young minds, first-hand, loving every minute of the music and the art.

And thank you James - for all our concerts together. Here's to many more to come. Long may it continue!


"Heroes & Villains" Family Concert

complete repertoire:
Copland - Billy the Kid Suite
Grieg - Peer Gynt (Morning Mood, Death of Åse, Solveig's Song, Hall of the Mountain King)
Rossini - William Tell Overture
Williams - Superman Theme