Ahead of her performance at next week’s UniBrass 2022 Gala Concert, Brett Baker sat down to have a chat with Isobel Daws about all things UniBrass, her career to date, and her exciting upcoming position at the Berlin Philharmonic's prestigious Karajan Academy in Berlin.
Brett Baker is an Artist for Michael Rath Brass Instruments, Education Consultant for The Geneva Group, an established trombone soloist and long-serving Principal Trombone for the Black Dyke Band. Brett is also a trustee for the UniBrass Foundation, which hosts the National Inter-university Brass Band Championships, UniBrass, in Sheffield on Saturday 6th February 2021.
Isobel Daws is currently in her fourth year studying at the Royal Academy of Music, having been recognised as a very promising young talent through the likes of BBC Young Musician (where she won the Brass Category Final in 2018). Isobel is a member of the BONE-AFIDE trombone quartet, who are due to perform at UniBrass alongside Friary Brass Band and trombone soloist Dennis Rollins.
Brett: So I first met you, Izzy, I think, but you'll correct me if I'm wrong, at a British Trombone Society day in Bromley where you played ”The Conquest”. Do you remember that?
Isobel: Yes I do remember that, I remember wearing a flower on my trombone.
Brett: Yes, that's exactly right and even back then people were talking and saying, “Oh, she's a very good player, she's going to do very well.”. I think that was the first time I’d heard you play, and I think the first time I’d heard the piece of music. Of course, we’d had dealings at the National Youth Children’s Brass Band, but what I didn’t know is that you were a cornet player before moving to trombone?
Isobel: Yeah, I started when I was three. So I had a bit of brass playing I guess before I played trombone which I am very very thankful for now actually, I think it’s really really helped.
Brett: With teaching, or awareness…?
Isobel: Yeah, it helps me with teaching because obviously I can do valves, and I think just in general starting on the trombone is just really hard, especially with the slide and the airflow, but I guess on the cornet you just, I know I'm making it sound easy, but you just push the valves down, and the note comes out.
Brett: We are like-minded people, it is easy to play a cornet, it’s very difficult to play a trombone, we can agree on that. So when you started that young, I guess you just picked up one of your father's instruments?
Isobel: I remember once I used my dad’s cornet and had a band practice, I must have been about seven. I had, you know, those shoes with wheels on, heelys. I was in rehearsal, my dad was conducting, and I accidentally slipped off the chair and had this like brand new cornet of his, dropped it on the floor and it broke in half.
Brett: Yeah, well you are going to remember that. Yesterday, whilst cleaning my instrument, which isn’t a very commonplace thing, I dropped my slide down the stairs, so I’m going to have to get another one. These things always happen in slow motion, it was awful! I was going to talk to you a bit about the BONE-AFIDE quartet, which has been doing really well. Can you give us a bit of an indication of the sorts of things you’ve been doing, and what you might be playing at UniBrass?
Isobel: Yeah, so we are doing a little set with Friary, we’re doing some things with the band, a solo piece, just us four, and then also a piece with Dennis Rollins as well.
Brett: That’ll be excellent! And you do a couple of arrangements, will we get any that you’ve done on the programme?
Isobel: No, not this time!
Brett: Where did you learn that, is that something you have been doing alongside college?
Isobel: I have just done it myself. I’m not very technical when it comes to arranging, but because it’s just trombones I can tell what I want to hear, so I can try to write it. It’s a learning process, it’s been fun!
Brett: It’s good for other people to see that process. I guess you get much more aware, writing and then hearing it.
Isobel: Yeah, and it’s very interesting to know what works well on trombone as well. Even thinking about commissioning pieces from other people, if you want to arrange something, it’s now easier to tell, if I listen to a piano piece, if that’s going to work or not, as I’ve had first hand knowledge, which is really useful.
Isobel Daws around the time she won the Brass Category Final of BBC Young Musician
Brett: Yeah, excellent. Have you had any involvement with UniBrass before?
Isobel: No, I’ve never been to UniBrass, I’ve never been involved, this will be my first time, it will be fun!
Brett: Playing with the quartet, and with Friary, you’ve got a lot to do?
Isobel: Yes, quite a lot to do, a lot of playing in the evening!
Brett: It’s something a bit different, which is what UniBrass is all about. It should work out really well! You’re a double solo award winner at Brass in Concert, and then there’s BBC Young Musician of the year in 2018. What’s next? You’re going over to Berlin, with a position at Berlin Philharmonic's prestigious Karajan Academy. What are your plans?
Isobel: It’s really scary, I got asked if I could go in 4 days time when I was in Berlin on Tuesday, and I thought maybe that is a bit too soon. So, 4 weeks, and I will be moving there, and my plan is just to see what happens. It is a two year programme I have there, and the aim is to one day get a job in an orchestra.
Brett: It’s very very busy in the professional circuit out there. Have you been before?
Isobel: No, it was my first time in Germany when I went this week.
Brett: It’s a fabulous city, especially at Christmas time. Do you speak German?
Isobel: Not at all! I had my first German lesson on Tuesday.
Brett: I’m no linguist, but I’ve certainly found it easier than Spanish or French, so I am sure you’ll be fine! I guess you’ll end up working on quite a lot of German repertoire?
Isobel: Yes, it’s going to be very interesting to hear German orchestras as well, as the style is quite different, and I’ve never heard one live, so it’s just going to be exciting to go to lots of concerts and learn listening as well as playing, so that’s cool.
Brett: Have they told you the teachers that you’re working with?
Isobel: I am going to have Thomas Leyendecker, who is in the Berlin Phil. I don’t know what my schedule is like just yet, we’ll just have to see!
Brett: It sounds very exciting! What are you going to miss from life in London and England?
Isobel: I know London so well, and I love it here, so I am going to miss just having everything at my fingertips. I’ve just moved into a flat with my friend that I absolutely love, so I am really sad about moving. I’ll need to come back, I’ve got loads of projects on, so I’ll be back every month anyway!
The BONE-AFIDE Trombone Quartet, of which Isobel is a member. They will be performing alongside Friary Brass Band and Dennis Rollins at the Gala Concert at UniBrass 2022.
Brett: Before London you spent some time in Manchester, was there anything different from life up in Manchester to in London?
Isobel: I went back to Manchester for a week recently actually, and I managed to run the whole city centre in 20 minutes. I was like “Wow, I don’t remember it being so small!”. You run for 20 minutes in London and you don’t get anywhere, you don’t even get to the next tube stop!
Brett: What has been the highlight in London of what you’ve been able to do musically there over the last few years?
Isobel: I’ve been able to freelance a lot in London orchestras recently, which I’ve absolutely loved. That’s definitely been the highlight, continuing to work, and be around my friends at the same time, and work with friends, it’s been really nice.
Brett: I guess that’s something with Berlin being such a dynamic city with so much going on, it’ll be a very different experience, but you’ll have the exposure of lots of orchestras.
Isobel: Yeah exactly. Making new friends, going to concerts with them, it’s very exciting!
Brett: I guess Friary will be very disappointed you’re not hanging around?
Isobel: Yeah I think so, this will be my last engagement with the band, which is sad, but everything comes to an end.
Brett: I am speaking to Chris King on Sunday, so I am sure I will speak to him about the programme for UniBrass then! In terms of trombone, have you done anything with Dennis Rollins in the past?
Isobel: No I haven’t, so I am really excited as obviously I have heard so much about him and watched videos of him playing, so we’re really excited to hear him play and play along with him as well, so that’ll be a fantastic opportunity.
Brett: It’ll be fabulous. He’s very easy to get on with and work with, as most professional musicians are, the best ones are easy to work with, so I am sure it will work out really well and it’ll be a real treat for the audience. So in terms of your teachers in London, who have you been taught by, at college, but also have you had lessons outside of that?
Isobel: I had Matt Gee and Peter Moore as my regular teachers at Academy. Ian Bousfield also comes in, and I have lessons with him whenever he is in the UK. I’ve got some one-off lessons coming up with people in London just to get some more experience.
Brett: Lots to fit in before you go to Germany then! For the UniBrass competitors who might be reading this, is there any advice you would give young players to think about as they are preparing for the contest?
Isobel: One thing I would focus on, based on my audition from Tuesday actually, is when I was practising in the practise room I’d play my piece through, it’d go well and I’d think “Oh you know, this is ok”. When I got into the audition room though I went for it, so I think if you can try and have that motivation when you’re onstage, and just think whatever happens, just go for it. If you make a mistake that’s fine, you’ve gone for it, you’ve tried. I think that’s the biggest advice I could give, just go for it as much as you can and something good will happen.
Brett: Yeah! I guess for a lot of people, especially for UniBrass where a lot of musicians do a variety of subjects, often not music, so UniBrass is their getaway from academics, their release, some of them won’t have played for a long time with lockdowns and so on. Some of them will probably be nervous, it might be their first time back. UniBrass had a summer competition last year due to lockdown. Do you have any advice for what they should do to prepare? They’ll all have intensive rehearsals and I guess stamina could be an issue.
Isobel: Ok, yeah. It’s really hard if you haven’t played, confidence could be lower. One thing I really stand by in my own practice is just consistency. If I know I haven’t done much basic practise, I’ve done loads of rehearsals and haven’t had much chance to do my own practise, even just arriving 20 minutes early to rehearsal and just doing some tonguing or slurring, just to make sure it works, will give you that confidence to know that you can do it, and keep everything ticking over. So basic practice for me is what I now focus on, and I would advise that.
Brett: Yeah, yeah! So, finally, what kind of pieces are you going to be working on when you go over to Germany? Have you got some pieces you’d really like to do and haven’t had the chance?
Isobel: I am doing a competition actually in Wigmore Hall in May, and I am playing the Ropartz piece. I’ve played it before, but I’ve never ever managed to play the last note in context, it’s a super Eb. It might not be super for some people… I really want to be able to play that piece and play the last note.
Brett: It’s a fabulous piece! Do you know any of the other people competing in that?
Isobel: That’s a competition at the Royal Academy of Music, so I had to do a semi-final at Academy. Everyone is in different departments. There are 4 of us I think, all different instruments. No brass!
Brett: Very much the last question, honest! Are there any conductors that you are looking forward to working with in Berlin?
Isobel: Yes, it’s really exciting. I have to admit I don’t know much about different conductors for orchestras, I mean obviously I know the names, but it’s just going to be amazing to watch them, just regularly if I go to concerts every week. Working with them, when every conductor is so different, being able to adapt as well, so if some beats aren’t as clear as others, just knowing how to stay together with the section, it’ll be really valuable to watch and learn from.
Brett: It’s been a pleasure talking to you, thanks very much for chatting! Good luck in Berlin, and I’m sure we’ll catch up soon.
Isobel: Thank you so much!
You can enjoy Isobel’s final performance with the Friary Band before leaving for Germany at the UniBrass 2022 Gala Concert. For more information and to get your tickets visit unib.co.uk/2022.
Conversation held on 28th January 2022 via Zoom. Transcript edited by Thomas Hicken.