‘It’s the music, mate’

‘At the end of the day, it’s the music mate. That’s why we’re talking, that’s why we’re here, that’s why we tour the South West, that’s why the Arts Council give us money, it’s the music.’ 

Roger Preston is considering his four decades as a Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra cellist, forty years that have seen his life change in ways he could never have imagined. Not only did he meet his wife Judith, a viola player with the Orchestra, bring up a family and make his life in Dorset thanks to music, he also acknowledges it played a huge part in saving his life after he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma some five years ago. 

BSO Resound’s first major performances was at the Royal Albert Hall where it joined the orchestra for the BBC Relaxed Prom, 27 August 2018 for a performance of ‘Hoping’ written by Alexander Campkin, BSO Resound’s composer-in-residence. Photo courtesy of BBC Kirsten McTernan

‘I can’t say why I’m still here, but as far as I’m concerned the medical and psychological benefits of music are proven. People tell me that I am a very determined person but I have been supported incredibly well by many people including the board, musicians, management and especially the Chief Executive, Dougie Scarfe. I think as an organisation it is quite special in the way it takes care of its people.’

Barely two years after leaving Guildhall School of Music, Roger successfully auditioned for the post of second cello at the BSO. It proved to be his dream job, a job he would still be doing it now if complications from the multiple myeloma – cancer of the white blood cells – hadn’t nearly ended his life. Not that he knew about it. The first he heard of it was when he came round after life-saving treatment. Soon after that he realised he might never play again.

‘I’ve been very lucky,’ he concedes, wrily. ‘But then that has been true for a long time. All I was ever interested in was playing the cello so I didn’t pay much attention school when I probably should have. It was never part of my consideration that I would do anything other than play music.

‘It’s fortunate I’ve recovered to the extent that I have and, again I have to say I’ve had a great deal of support. I have severe curvature of the spine due to the myeloma but I’m able to do most things, principally play of course, but I can get about with a stick most of the time. It just takes a bit longer.’

Roger now plays about a third of the Orchestra’s concerts and he is a founder member of BSO Resound, making Bournemouth the world’s first professional symphony orchestra to have a disabled-led ensemble as a core part of its activities. It combines violin/viola, percussion, cello, flute, clarinet and LinnStrument, a MIDI controller with backlit note pads instead of keys that enable expressive music performance to rival acoustic instruments.

Last year BSO Resound was nominated for the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Ensemble Award and the BSO won the RPS Impact Award for its work in improving access and prospects for a new generation of disabled talent with the BSO Change Makers programme and BSO Resound.

‘BSO Resound has been a revelation,’ says Roger. ‘As soon as I heard about it I volunteered myself and was involved in the auditions and selecting the musicians. It formed as a collection of instruments for which no music had ever been written and as a group of players we had to find ways of working that incorporate disability into the normal run of things.

‘For example, we get arrangements made and one of our players who is visually impaired commits everything to memory; she receives manuscripts far enough in advance to learn them and now we have developed our own way of working. Our musical director James Rose, who won the Arts Council Change Maker funding to work with us as a training placement, has cerebral palsy and usually works with a personal assistant to communicate. I have just got to the stage of having a direct conversation with him. That was a marvellous development that without the music and without the multiple myeloma I would never have had.’

Roger playing with BSO Resound at Lockyer’s Middle School in Corfe Mullen.

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is very different to what it was when Roger first took up his post. At its heart it is still a band of players that exists to tour the South West, but the way it covers that patch has changed immeasurably and, if anything, its tentacles stretch further into the wider region that ever before with outreach programmes, rural ensemble touring and a range of educational and community engagement projects

And Roger, who sits on the Board as Musician Trustee nominated by the members of the orchestra and in the past has acted as Assistant Orchestra Manager and Chairman of the Orchestra’s Players Committee, is proud to play his part with BSO Resound. 

‘The reaction we get from the SEND schools is amazing, it’s genuinely touching. The kids have to be free to get up and move around and express themselves, but they’re not just watching us they actively enjoy the music. It’s a shame that music is taught is fewer and fewer schools because the benefits are clear.’

It is, of course, an act of absolute folly to ask a man with as much music coursing through him as Roger to single out his favourites, but having run such a gamut of human emotion and feeling, perhaps there are pieces that have helped along the way?

‘There are many, many pieces and just as many emotions. It’s impossible to be definitive because my choice would change a moment later. But I’ll tell you what I love and that is the very special mixed diet the Orchestra programmes of classical greats I have played many times and lesser-known pieces I’ve never heard. The fact I have to take pieces home to practice is as it should be. I may not end up necessarily liking them but I relish the challenge.

‘As a young man I had a special feeling for the symphonies of Mahler, but have come to appreciate a much wider range of music with age. I’m probably more open-minded now.

‘I’ve learned so much in my life and I’m still learning thankfully… and all through the cello. As I say, it’s the music mate.’

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