'I thought classical music was for boys'

The Royal Philharmonic Society's executive director Rosemary Johnson on how live music transformed her life

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'I thought classical music was for boys'
Rosemary Johnson initially felt excluded from classical music when she wasn't able to join the cathedral choir
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On 9 May, the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards celebrate the best of live music in Britain. Here, Rosemary Johnson, executive director of the RPS explores the special inclusive power of live performance... 

I nearly missed out on classical music. From a very early age my parents regularly took me to services at Canterbury Cathedral where my elder brothers were choristers. I was intoxicated by the music that I heard them sing, hugely impressed by the ritual and, let’s be honest, the idea of boarding school. I just assumed that I would follow in their footsteps. When it was explained that I didn’t fit the brief, I came to a simple and, from my perspective, rather devastating conclusion: classical music was for boys.

• Read more: Girls in the choir - a new tradition


Canterbury Cathedral has since introduced a girls choir 

It is easy to feel excluded from classical music. Sometimes it's the language used to describe it, or musical one-upmanship, where those without an encyclopaedic knowledge of repertoire or performance history are deemed unable to fully appreciate what they hear. And sometimes, there are more fundamental barriers: economic, social, cultural, disability... or (and it seems surprising to be writing this in the 21st century) being born a girl. And yet, music is the most embracing of art forms, and live music, by offering bespoke, yet collegiate experiences to both audiences and performers, is the most inclusive of the lot.

The winners of this year’s Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards will be announced on Tuesday 9 May. This awards ceremony is the only time each year that we celebrate the transformative, joyous experience of live music in the UK, in all its variety; those wondrous fleeting moments that are gone in a minute, but linger in the mind forever. And it’s this transient quality, a uniqueness that comes from unrepeatable listening, that sets live performance apart from recorded music. Recordings can capture that moment in time, but by allowing us to repeat it, over and over, a little of the magic of ‘liveness’ is lost.

There are few examples of cultural experiences that are both individual and collective. If you go to the theatre, the use of words and a strong directorial presence often renders your own interpretation secondary. Listen to live music, and you are very likely to hear differently to the person sitting next to you. Perform live music, and your aural perspective is different again as you focus on playing with and to your colleagues. For both the listener and the performer, the intensity of the experience is underpinned by an awareness that when it comes to live music, you can go anywhere, anything can happen.