Ella Dufton: My Trinity College Story

Sharing music is so beautiful, says youth worker Ella Dufton. But what does it mean to put a grade to that?

Ella Dufton: My Trinity College Story

By Ella Dufton

The resonance of the final note echoed to a stop. The flurry of noise that had encapsulated the high-ceilinged room faded away into emptiness. Silence. Then applause.

I guess this was a kind of validation for me. Months of hard work, early mornings and bleeding lips all seemed worth it for that one beautiful moment. This was my Trinity College, Grade 8 Alto Saxophone exam. Getting a distinction felt like the proudest moment of my high school career. The examiner later told me that she was not really supposed to clap, but she felt that my performance could elicit no other response.

I was good and this was proof. Only days earlier my highly-strung teacher had told me in blatant terms that I was going to fail. These words had shut me down completely and I did not look at my sax again until I opened the case minutes before I entered the exam room. But I had done it.

Taking exams allowed my creative talent to progress massively. Setting manageable targets over a series of years gave me something to work towards, while also providing a certain sense of freedom through the pieces I was able to choose. The technical challenges of the syllabus gave me the opportunity to play phenomenal pieces, such as Witchhunt by Ulrich Schultheiss and Braziliera by Darius Milhaud, which was recently played at the BBC Proms 2018 by the phenomenal Jess Gillam.

Taking exams allowed my creative talent to progress massively.

Finishing the exam filled me with an enormous sense of pride. For me, the next step seemed obvious: I started preparing for an ATCL Diploma (the equivalent to a first-year undergraduate degree). This is where I hit a brick wall. Let’s just say, everything did not quite go to plan.

My pianist was a large, bearded man who looked as if he had been chain smoking since he came out of the womb. Arriving two minutes after my exam start time, seemingly distressed and out of breath, he proceeded to play every piece at double speed, throwing me completely off guard and into what can only be described as a mad panic. This was merely the first of many disasters that led to one of the most humiliating experiences of my life.

I failed. The exam itself left me £248 out of pocket and, having lived my life excelling in an education system – one that breeds pressure to conform to a particularly narrow definition of success – I inevitably found it very difficult to process this information.

It was painful. But after a cry, some moping around and a bit of time, I moved on. I learned that it is OK to fail. Hard work does not always pay off in the way that you want it to – and that’s OK.

The ability to share music with others is something so beautiful. And numbers on a page can never be truly representative of this skill. Creativity has given me a way to define myself and continues to inspire me professionally and in my personal life.

Knowledge of production and performance has provided me with the foundations to build my creative work. Having directed A Surgeon’s Photograph at the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, as well as producing the digital performance piece What Matters? as part of the Octagon Theatre’s REVEAL Festival (trailer above), I am currently working on a show which explores perceptions of female sexuality through sound as a performative device to challenge ideas surrounding emotional responses.

My formal music and performance education – Grade 8 qualifications from Trinity in Alto Sax and Musical Theatre in Production – has also provided me with the possibility of employment. I currently work in a music department at a youth centre, providing affordable vocal and instrumental workshops which deliver tuition in non-formalised settings, where entry costs only 50p. I passionately believe that music education should be accessible to everybody. Not only does it provide focus and a sense of achievement but working with other young people in the arts fosters communication and social development.

Whilst I would wholeheartedly recommend taking graded exams, this kind of tuition is often expensive and cost a barrier to participation. The sector’s capacity to diversify is halted by financial barriers, preventing disadvantaged young people from engaging in adequate training opportunities.

I passionately believe that music education should be accessible to everybody.

According to research by Create London, 18.2% of people working in music, performance and visual arts come from a working-class background, which is horrendously under-representative of society as a whole. Coming from a privileged, middle-class background, I am incredibly aware that without the financial backing of my family to undertake professional training I would not be pursuing careers I am today.

So, what can we do to make a difference? Sadly, there is no easy answer – particularly, given the funding crisis facing schools, with music and other arts subject being swept to the side to accommodate the EBacc. [For more on this, check out Voice’s coverage of Music Mark 2018, the national conference for music education].

Charities such as Youth Music do great work in communities that get less provision, but for higher levels of training and one-to-one tuition it costs a lot of money – and there is little financial support. Trinity runs the Arts Award programme, in association with Arts Council England, which is aimed at developing creativity, leadership and communication skills, for young people from diverse backgrounds. Initiatives like theses allow for greater engagement with a variety of art forms, but more needs to be done within the industry as a whole.

Taking exams in music and drama (such as those run by Trinity), provides young people with a clear sense of progression and allows for more than just a sense of success or failure. It is a feeling and an emotion of true expression, something incomparable. But it also provides a starting point for young people and their continued development well into the future.

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