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Six tough lessons we’ve learned about being a young musician

Over the last few weeks, the BBC Young Musician podcast has been a faithful companion for musicians of all ages who are following the 2018 competition at home.

Every episode, 19-year-old saxophonist Jess Gillam is joined by her friends Sam Becker (bass) and Zeynep Özsuca (piano) to explore what it means to be a young musician in 2018.

So far, we’ve found their chats useful, inspiring and sometimes frankly hilarious. So what are the most helpful things we’ve heard so far?

1. Everyone gets stage fright at some point

If you love music but dread freezing in the spotlight, then don’t worry because you’re definitely not alone! Even musicians with years of experience can still get inexplicable pre-performance panics. Violin superstar (and former BBC Young Musician winner) Nicola Benedetti joined the team to chat about stage fright. She bravely admitted that even now, as a top international soloist, she still occasionally suffers from concert nerves.

Luckily, though, we learned there are tons of techniques out there to help young musicians get past their fear of performing. Episode one helped us come up with seven ways to to avoid stage fright, from tough love to power stances – and there are heaps more tips in the podcast.

2. It’s completely normal to not want to practise

Bass player Sam probably spoke for a lot of us when he said that there are days where the last thing you want to do is pick up your instrument and play, even for ten minutes.

… but you gotta do it

We’re sorry to say it, but no-one else is going to do your practice for you. If you want to be a great musician (or even an okay one), there’s only one way to do it – and that’s hard work.

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason dialled in during episode two to brainstorm some practical tips for motivating yourself and finding focus – including finding a suitable practice location...

3. Everyone’s route into music is different

Zeynep’s dad sent her to intensive piano lessons aged four (!!!).

Sam’s mum vetoed his early preference for the harp and got him cello lessons instead.

Jess started out playing percussion in a carnival street band before switching to sax, and the composer Mark Simpson ended up with the only instrument he could get a sound out of at school (find out which one in Getting into music).

Episode three taught us that you don’t need to be posh or rich to get into classical, but being exposed to music – especially live music – at a young age definitely helps. We also learned that having a great teacher can be the key to a lifetime’s enjoyment of music.

Who was yours?

4. Memorising music is HARD

Why do we memorise music? Zeynep, who absolutely hates it, couldn’t really think of a reason – but Jess felt that having her music off copy totally liberated her performance. Whether you love it or hate it, learning music by heart is something that most musicians will have to do at some point. Episode four gave us some great memory tips, from listening to recordings of your piece to sleeping on it (that’s our kind of homework).

But one of our favourite bits was a call from pianist Martin James Bartlett, who had an AMAZING story about the one time he failed to learn the music properly. Listen to the clip for a masterclass in how to style out a memory lapse like a boss...

How to style out a memory lapse

As Martin sat down at the piano, his mind went totally blank. Here's what happened next.

5. Stay true to the music – and yourself – and your performance will benefit

Percussion master Colin Currie joined the team in episode five with some solid gold tips for being your best self on stage. When it comes to performing, the best strategy is to KISS – that stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Don’t rely on impressing the audience with elaborate flourishes or by pretending to be someone you’re not. Instead, keep things "clear, crisp and accessible" and be as faithful to the music as possible, whether it’s classical or pop. Audiences will respond to your honesty, and you’ll feel more in control.

6. And finally – image does matter

Today’s generation of young musicians is probably the first to have their online persona scrutinised as closely as their physical appearance. In episode six, Jess Sam and Zeynep were joined by composer and singer Kerry Andrew to explore the many different aspects of image – ranging from what musicians wear on stage to how they present themselves on social media.

Jess told us about a study that showed how your clothes can affect an audience's view of how well you play, while Sam and Zeynep ranted about the tyranny of making boys wear tails for concerts. And all of us felt a twinge of envy about Jess’ favourite concert outfit – a Bowie blazer, silver sequinned trousers and massive boots.

Comfortable AND shiny. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The first six episodes of the BBC Young Musician podcast are available to download now! To subscribe, search for “BBC Young Musician” wherever you get your podcasts.

The Grand Final of the BBC Young Musician 2018 competition is on Sunday 13 June. Jess Gillam joins Kate Molleson to present live coverage as three brilliant young soloists perform a concerto with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: watch it on BBC Four or listen on BBC Radio 3.