Q&A: Sarah Burnett

Michael Pearce
Thursday, November 23, 2023

Sarah Burnett teaches at the Royal College of Music when not playing principal bassoon with the Britten Sinfonia and London Mozart Players. Here, she talks to Michael Pearce about the RCM's new Young Bassoon Programme and why it's needed.

Courtesy Harry Rankin

MP: How did you come to start playing the bassoon?

SB: I come from a rural community in south-west Scotland, where music is definitely not the thing, but I was completely addicted to BBC Young Musician. It was my only exposure to young people playing music at such a high standard and I was captivated. I knew I wanted to play a woodwind instrument. We had a family friend who was qualifying as a GP and decided he was going to buy himself a sports car or new bassoon. He bought the bassoon, and so I got his old one and just took to it like a duck to water. I was very fortunate. He started me off a wee bit and then I moved to the local peri teacher, who was incredibly supportive. I’d only been playing for a few months before he had me auditioning for the National Youth Orchestra (NYO), Chetham's School of Music, and Douglas Academy in Glasgow. I was completely out of my depth, but I got into all of them. I couldn't read tenor clef, I was about Grade 5, but they clearly saw something in me. So, aged 12, I went off to Chetham's and joined NYO, which was the first orchestra I’d ever seen in person. We played Shostakovich 5, and I still remember the tingles and being utterly overwhelmed and lost. But then I got the bug – and here we are!

MP: What do you think are the main barriers to playing the instrument?

SB: I think there's a myriad of things, but cost is a huge factor. A beginner bassoon will set you back £5,000 to £6,000, and second-hand instruments are almost as expensive. Very few schools, music hubs or education authorities have instruments to hire. Even then, add in the cost of reeds – and how quickly beginners get through them – sheet music and tuition, and it's a pricey business. On top of that, the bassoon is big and heavy to lug around, especially for young people on public transport.

MP: How did the RCM Young Bassoon Programme come about?

SB: At the Royal College, we're lucky to have such a large bassoon department, but last year there were only four undergraduate applicants. None of them enrolled, for various reasons including Brexit and finances, so we don't have any first-year bassoonists for the first time in decades, possibly ever. Most bassoon departments in the UK also have a year-group gap at some point, so it is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed.

The RCM used to organise an annual bassoon day, partly as a recruitment tool, and so I enthusiastically approached our new head of wind, Marie Lloyd, to restart them. I was thinking about a one-off event, but Marie ran with the idea and decided to create a whole new programme. This is going to take place over five Sundays during the academic year and is aimed at bassoonists aged 11–18 and Grade 4 or above. The players will meet our cohort, receive specialised group tuition, play in ensembles, explore repertoire, have classes on breathing, posture and reed-making – indulge in bassoon nerdiness, basically! We were hoping for 20 sign-ups, and we've had to close the books at 75, so there is clearly an appetite for programmes like this. Of course, we’d love some people eventually to apply to RCM, but this isn't just a sales pitch. We're trying to build a big bassoon community. You're happiest when you find your clan, and we want to create a safe and exciting space for like-minded young people to come together and learn from each other as well as RCM teachers.

MP: What changes would you like to see in music education?

SB: I feel very strongly about the decline of provision for young people. When I was growing up, the local education authority loaned instruments and offered lessons for pittance, if nothing at all. The education authority paid for me to attend NYO. We've got to make it easier for kids to access music and put music at the heart of the curriculum, right from the early years. If talent isn't being fed through, we can't develop it. And the only way to feed it through is to get it started. And the only way to start is to make it accessible to everybody – you never know who's going to have that special gift or passion.

The RCM Young Bassoon Programme is fully booked for 2023/24, but prospective students can join a waiting list.