Natalie Bradford – Yeoman of the Month

It’s never too late to learn a musical instrument! Despite the popular misconception that unless music lessons are started early in childhood progress is likely to be limited, I have been on an incredible journey discovering just how wrong this can be. I started violin lessons at the age of 40, and now 10 years later I find myself studying for a PhD at the Royal College of Music.

Two of my children were pestering me to start violin lessons. I tried to ignore their relentless pleas in the hope that this was a phase that would quickly pass but it didn’t – I gave in and a suitable teacher was found. The lessons began and all was going well for about six months or so until Daughter Number 2 announced that she no longer wanted to play. This was slightly awkward as the teacher was due to arrive any minute for their weekly lessons. Quick thinking on the hoof, I decided to have the lesson myself. I had always wanted to learn the violin but like most people thought I had left it too late. The teacher looked slightly surprised but was happy to oblige and jokingly said: “You never know you might actually like it!”

Well I loved it and I became absolutely hooked. I progressed through the ABRSM grade exams (up to Grade 8 practical and theory) and found myself with a new found passion for music. With a desire to further my skills as far as I could, I soon found myself auditioning for a music degree. As a mature student this was a truly terrifying experience but I was delighted to be offered a place. This was a pivotal point in my learning as it allowed me to fully immerse myself in a musical environment every day and to explore everything that this had to offer. This included lectures; 1:1 lessons; many ensembles; chamber choirs; performance workshops; competitions and lots of solo opportunities. After three years I graduated in 2014 with a First Class Honours degree and my appetite for both music and academic studies continued to grow. By this time I was teaching violin to adult beginners, as well as coaching a violin ensemble for adults at a local community music school. I was keen to be able to share with others the benefits that I had experienced through being an adult music learner – I began to wonder where the next stage of my journey would take me.

By chance I met with an inspirational and talented composer and music teacher located in my home area. This was Mr David Stanley, founder of the Music Man Project UK (MMP UK), which is a full-time music education service specifically for students with learning disabilities. This seemed like an excellent opportunity to utilise some of my newly acquired musical skills, helping others to benefit from everything that music has to offer, irrespective of any individual needs and challenges. I have now been working for this Mencap-funded charity for the last three years and run a thriving group based in Essex. In addition to working as a teacher, I am also the Director for Mid-Essex and Head of Research and Development for MMP UK.

Having graduated and left university I was now missing the musical environment that my degree had provided. I therefore decided to apply for another course, this time a Master’s degree at the Royal College of Music in London. This was a very interesting year and created further interesting possibilities. Following on from this graduation, a PhD seemed to be the next natural step of my musical journey. Having witnessed first-hand the wonderful benefits that music can provide to my students with learning disabilities, embarking upon research in this field would allow me to combine my enthusiasm for music learning with my specialised area of work for MMP UK. I am now in the third year of my doctorate and very much look forward to publishing my findings in the future on my RCM Research page.

This summer I was very fortunate in being able to attend the International Symposium on Performance Science conference in Reykjavik, where I gave a presentation on my research project to date. Last summer I spent two weeks in South Africa carrying out research and establishing the first overseas Music Man Project group at a children’s home, which is still thriving and continuing to expand. Another highlight for me was just last weekend when MMP UK put on an inspirational show at the famous London Palladium theatre – ‘Music is Magic’. It was a sell-out evening and over 200 students with learning disabilities had the opportunity to perform on this iconic West End stage. More details about this can be found on the MMP website.

In conclusion, my 10 year journey has been an incredible experience – and it’s not over yet! It has led me to some wonderful places and I have met so many interesting individuals along the way. My love of music combined with a passion to share this has changed my life beyond recognition. There have been difficult times with lots of tears of both joy and despair along the way, but in reality anything that is worth pursuing is not without an element of risk or a bit of ‘blood, sweat and tears’. Alongside my work with MMP UK and my PhD studies, I still continue to play my violin as much as possible and I still love this as much as when I started my journey!

The underlying message here is that if you have a hidden passion, then just be brave and take the plunge. It really is never too late to learn a musical instrument!