ISABELLE OSBORNE interviews ROSIE BERGONZI about her musical career, exploring different creative opportunities and representation in the music industry.
Rosie Bergonzi is a percussionist, workshop leader and performer who graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as a Master of Music in 2017. Recent engagements have included working with artists Neneh Cherry and Celeste; classical performance with Chineke Orchestra (BBC Proms) and Aurora Orchestra; concert presenting Billy and The Beast for Britten Sinfonia and Glitter Bird for Wrangle.
Active on Youtube, Rosie is an online advocate for the handpan, receiving the Royal Philharmonic Society Trailblazer grant in 2021. She enjoys fusing music with acting through varied avenues, from her raps for social justice to Richard II at the Shakespeare’s Globe (2019), as well as working as Musical Director for Typical Girls (Sheffield Crucible 2021). Passionate about creating music in a community setting, Rosie has led workshops in schools, prisons and hospitals, embolding early years through to older people, and particularly focusing on minority groups. She has worked with ENO, Southbank, Wigmore Hall and many other institutions to lead and facilitate workshops including collaborative song-writing and instrumental pieces. She has spoken at many conferences, empowering people to find space and confidence in public speaking.
Despite envisioning a career as a rocket scientist until the age of fourteen, music had always been a part of Rosie’s life. ‘There was always music around the house. It was when I joined the school orchestra (it was the classic ‘I couldn’t do anything’, so they gave me a triangle), that I found something I really loved’.
Studying music at Goldsmiths, University of London and The Guildhall School of Music and Drama solidified Rosie’s interest in pursuing music professionally. ‘Goldsmiths gave me a really broad education; I had to do bits of composing and musicology as well as playing. It was a very liberal place – there was lots of thinking and questioning. When I went on to Guildhall, I felt that my playing had not been through as rigorous training as people who just did playing full time. I was able to focus on just that. For me, it was a really nice balance of getting to do the uni thing first and then going on to focus on the playing’.
For Rosie, being a percussionist ensures variety and diversity in her work. ‘You have to be a jack-of-all-trades. I’ve chosen to play tuned percussion, as well as timpani and hand percussion. All of that lends itself to different genres of music. That’s one of the things I love about percussion: I can be doing Mambo in the morning and orchestra in the afternoon. It’s a real mix of styles’.
Channeling her work as a handpan musician into music-making has become one of Rosie’s favourite aspects of her work, co-founding Boubakiki with saxophonist Joe Steel. The project started because ‘we were mates who had a free summer after we both left Guildhall. Together we wrote an EP. We didn’t really know what a big undertaking that [recording an EP] is. We were talking about how proud we are of that whole EP because we really just went and did it in about a few months, from never really playing handpan and saxophone to recording it’.
Rosie is also a music educator. Inspired by Beth Higham-Edwards, who she met at Guildhall and collaborates with in Beaten Track Ensemble, Rosie became interested in workshop leading: ‘I got into music because I wanted to communicate something; the best music is always sharing something. So workshop leading was a way to act almost as a translator. You have someone who doesn’t necessarily speak music fluently, and so it’s working as an intermediary to make sure that they can understand the music, and also that the musicians understand the participants to make sure everyone’s speaking and making something together’.
Incorporating theatre into her work has seen Rosie use her musical skills in other creative outlets. Reflecting on her time as the Musical Director of Typical Girls, a play centering on a group of female prisoners who form a punk band, she spoke of how it was both ‘amazing’ and ‘easily one of the most intense periods of [her] life’. ‘It’s not the kind of standard MD job of sitting at the back, it was actually getting the actors to learn how to play various instruments and to perform them in a punk style. They were brilliant, they were lovely, but it was hard. There was an emotionally supportive component to getting people that don’t consider themselves musicians to play music onstage. It was funny, because it really felt so fed by my workshop leading work that I’ve conducted in prisons myself’.
Our conversation turned to Rosie’s experiences within the music industry, and how more can be done to challenge issues surrounding representation both within individual ensembles and the sector as a whole. ‘I was in a panel yesterday of fifty brilliant classical musicians, but I looked around, and it was such a white Zoom room. I’m very, very used to that. Workshop leading is very white because it often comes from classical music. It gets exhausting, really. It’s very tiring to be the only person who looks a little bit different. I’m very fortunate to work with the Chineke! Orchestra, which is the first predominantly Black and minority ethnic professional classical musical orchestra in Europe. It’s so brilliant to turn up to work and look out over a sea of afros and braids and just know that it is a really warm space for that. A few weeks ago, I played a concert with them, and we were walking back to the train station. I was feeling so buoyed up and positive, and this white guy was like ‘Oh, can I touch your hair?’, and reached out and grabbed it. But then there was just this wave of support from around me from the other musicians. I know that if I was walking home from a standard classical orchestra concert, there would be one or two people that were like, ‘Oh, are you alright, was that a bit horrible?’ or whatever. It really does make a difference, when we are the majority rather than a complete minority’.
As an Associate Performer of ‘Gender and the Large and Shiny Instruments’, Rosie is contributing to challenging the lack of gender representation in musical spaces. ‘It’s not just enough to be like, ‘Oh look, we’ve got some girls around’. Why are more women being drawn to violin than tuba? What is that about, and how can we help to address that to make sure that we’re not missing out on half the world’s fantastic tuba players because they don’t feel welcome there? Orchestras and ensembles are becoming more forward-looking about committing to being ‘50:50’, but it’s important to look within the actual makeup of instruments. Often, ensembles will have 50:50 men and women, but all the women are in the string section and maybe the wind section, and you look at the brass and percussion section and it’s still 100% men, or maybe there’ll be one woman. I think it’s still as much of an issue as ever’.
‘I think it’s so good that we’re all speaking about it more and bringing attention to things that have often been laid under the surface. Our default is not necessarily to be inclusive, so we have to actually work on it to make it a lovely, beautiful space’.
The pandemic has taken a huge toll on the creative industries, particularly as live music performances continue to be affected. ‘[The lockdown] made me so incredibly grateful for the music making opportunities I have had. It made me continue to reflect on how fantastic bits of my job are’.
Making her first YouTube videos during the pandemic enabled Rosie to connect with others within the music industry, bringing about surprising collaborative opportunities. ‘For me, the most important thing was that I really focused on the handpan. It was something that I’d done before, but no one was hiring me to play the handpan, and so therefore it’s harder to make the time to practice it in a busy schedule. I’d always said I wanted to make a YouTube channel and to educate, because I was really lucky to get a scholarship to Guildhall, there was no way I could have afforded it without a lot of help. I am really conscious of my knowledge and want to share that to people who haven’t had the privilege of conservatoire education. So I sat down, balanced the phone on a pile of books, and just gave it a go…It has led to some really good opportunities for me, including a collaboration with a handpan maker. Handpans are expensive instruments, and so working with the brilliant guy from Celestial Sound in Australia, I’ve had access to professional pans that I would never have been able to afford’.
As well as hosting regular live streams on her YouTube channel, Rosie also explored rapping during the pandemic. ‘In my workshop leading, I’d really encourage [participants] to use their voices. I’d speak to mums and say that your voice is the most beautiful thing your baby will have ever heard, so do sing, no matter how it sounds. I’m so pro-singing and using your voice for other people, and then this was the first time that I’d ever been really brave. That’s something that I’m actually sort of trying to continue doing, because it was a terrifying thing to do, honestly. When you’re used to hiding at the back, it’s a really different thing to kind of have my own agency. But also, it was just so rewarding. It almost felt like it was something that I just had to say.’
Looking to the future, Rosie is eager to continue to introduce the handpan into new areas of her work. ‘I love classical music and ensemble playing, and I love the handpan as well, and so I’m really intrigued to bring them together. A friend of mine has just written a piece for handpan and spring quartet, which I’m hopefully going to play. I’d love to see a handpan in an orchestra at some point’. Writing music has allowed Rosie to overcome the feeling of ‘hierarchy’ in orchestras, where ‘you’re kind of hoping the conductor doesn’t talk to you, because they’re probably going to be telling you off. Going from playing music to writing music has required a real mind-set shift – I’m no longer just there to serve the score, but rather I get to make choices about what goes into it.
‘In terms of theatre, I really love making kids theatre. I’m very excited that ‘Billy and the Beast’ with Britten Sinfonia, the play that I spent nine months making and only got to do one week of because of the last pandemic, is going to come back and we’re going to do a school’s tour. I’m hoping that my career continues with this kind of puzzle piece patchwork of bits and bobs.’
Our conversation concluded with Rosie’s words of wisdom for anyone who is interested in pursuing a creative career, whether within the music sector or an alternative artistic field. ‘You have just got to do it. Don’t wait until it’s good. Especially with the internet, it feels like you can’t put anything out until it’s the best it possibly can be. It’s never going to be the best it possibly can be. Everything is always a snapshot reflection of where you’re at at that moment. Shouting about some of the things that you’re doing is really important as an artist. Have a go at sharing what you’re doing’.
Featured image courtesy of Rosie Bergonzi.