Like many my age, I began my life as a musician with the recorder. I remember the group lessons, the shared instruments that tasted faintly of disinfectant. But most vividly, I remember once playing ‘duets’ with a friend, really just tunes played together in unison. But the feeling of togetherness, of shared endeavour, was palpable.

When a clutch of school violins became available a short time later, I jumped at the chance to give this new instrument a try. I practised 20 minutes each day; I know this because I still have my practice diary that our teacher insisted we keep. I don’t remember much about my early practising, but I do remember our teacher telling us to work for our first music exam until we couldn’t get the pieces wrong.

I remember joining the local junior string orchestra, and sitting at the back of the third violins, yet to make any friends, but transfixed by the sound of fifty players just like me, scraping through a beginners’ arrangement of Land of Hope and Glory. To my adult ears it would have sounded rough, but to my 9-year-old self it sounded like heaven, some huge togetherness like I had never before known.

Despite that revelation, I drifted through years of lessons. I liked playing, especially in orchestras, but it wasn’t until my grade 8 exam – the final and most imposing of the exams instrumental learners in the UK regularly embark upon – that I saw the benefit of focussed work. It helped that the pieces I was learning were ‘proper’, too: music by Beethoven and Shostakovich, rather than the insipid pieces for learners by people with forgettable names that seemed to fill albums for students.

I aced my grade 8, joined the county youth orchestra, the local adult amateur’s orchestra. It began dawning on me that music might be the thing I couldn’t live without. I studied it at university and stepped sideways to the viola. I loved playing with others, but instrumental studies were often lost amongst composing, musicology and the blur of student life.

Making a career as a performer was just one among several options ahead, so when a teacher recommended not pursing it, I began a master’s degree in musicology at York University. I took my viola along, but it spent more time under my bed than under my chin.

That all changed when Luciano Berio, one of my composer heroes, died. My supervisor suggested performing his fearsome Sequenza VI for solo viola in a memorial concert. ‘No way!’ I laughed. He repeated his suggestion…

Learning the score was like climbing Everest. I developed a routine of early morning trips to the practice rooms to maximise my time away from housemates and neighbours who didn’t deserve the hours of frenetic atonal activity the piece demanded. I planned my practice for the first time in my life, breaking down the seemingly impossible goal into manageable chunks and plans on how to conquer them.

After the performance, I no longer needed to practice four, five, six hours a day. As the euphoria of success ebbed, it slowly dawned on me that performing, but also practice and problem solving were what I most enjoyed, what I now most missed: I would become a player.

I auditioned for music college and won a place at the Royal College of Music, whose imposing Victorian façade I had admired as a child queuing for Proms concerts at the Albert Hall over the road. After college, I was lucky enough to gain a place in Southbank Sinfonia, a training orchestra for post-college musicians. It seemed to me that its greatest gift to the world is its hugely uplifting, anything-is-possible approach. Under its spell, I and seven Southbank friends founded the Berkeley Ensemble, a chamber group mixing winds and strings.

Although we had all been in countless ensembles through university and college, we only slowly worked out how to rehearse together, how to improve without our college profs on hand. We’re still together, still evolving, 11 years later, although 2020’s pandemic has forced us to rethink some things.

Covid-19 prompted some rethinking my own instrumental work, too. I was lucky to study with Nathan Cole as part of his online Virtuoso Masters Course in 2020 and am practising practice once again, unpicking problems and exploring new ways to collaborate online, as well as in person; why not get in touch?