MGC 1975 Leaver

Malvern Alumnae 100 Alison Martin

I have been principal Harp of English National Opera since 1984.  I consider myself to be incredibly lucky in the uncertain world of the Arts. I had great support from Malvern Girls’ College. Piano was my instrument then, and I had wonderful teaching and experiences on Music Corridor. I was dithering about a career path at 17, and the main reason that I am in music is that Miss June Roundhill, the domestic science teacher, insisted that I should go in that direction. I owe her everything.

I began at Music College studying piano accompaniment. It was an engrossing and demanding two years, playing for my own teacher, accompanying other students and learning from theirs.  But music is a very competitive profession and I noticed that despite her brilliance, my teacher did not have a very musically satisfying life. I knew I didn’t want to teach.  So with mad abandon, I changed Music College and instrument. I had been second study harp at school, and now Sidonie Goossens was kind enough to take me on, and I worked my socks off for such an icon. 

Freelancing in any of the Arts is an unpredictable life. You take on everything you are offered and you learn fast.  But I was lucky enough to get the harp job at ENO after five years. I have had a wonderful time, both at ENO, and with “outside” work - guest principal at Sydney Opera House, and tours of Europe, Japan and China.

But it isn’t easy. At 61 I still have to be at my best at all times, up till 10.45pm on long shows, and at morning rehearsals. I can’t go down to a three day week or work from home. I have to make sure my hearing is perfect and that no arthritis is creeping in, that my stamina is right up to the mark. I don’t go sick, because I’m the only harp. There are difficult conductors, and there is immense performance pressure. So far, so good. I can retire when I want, but how can I leave this - and what next?

I have had such a rewarding life; I have spent it listening to and working with the most talented musicians in the world, and laughing a lot. I am still surprised and delighted at how things have turned out. 

Of course I haven’t touched on the tasteless subject of financial reward . Musicians aren’t the best paid , which is challenging for my younger colleagues with the price of property , but we have Oxford educated lawyers who have given it up to play in our orchestra and have been enriched in a different way .  

What is your best piece of advice?

If you have a vocation, you must follow it; be prepared for nose to the grindstone and possible disappointment, but never play safe.

  • Alumnae100
  • OGA