Foreign entrants dominate Leeds piano contest shortlist

Callum McLachlan Leeds piano contest
Callum McLachlan, from Stockport, is the only homegrown pianist to be selected for the Second Round

Britain’s music education has been “vandalised”, leading to the classical music scene in the UK being flooded by pianists from abroad, the chief executive of the Leeds Piano Contest has said.

It comes as just one British musician this year made the competition’s shortlist of 24, with the contest helping to launch the careers of some of the world’s greatest pianists.

In a damning indictment of music education in the UK, Callum McLachlan, 25, from Stockport in Cheshire, is the only homegrown pianist to be selected for the Second Round, ahead of the semi-final and final in September.

Half of those shortlisted are from China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam – with others from Canada and Croatia picked from this year’s record 366 entrants.

Great British pianists of the past include Myra Hess and Clifford Curzon, yet only two or three British musicians have generally got through to the First Round of the Leeds competition – and only two Britons having ever won.

Now Britain’s participation in its own competition has reached an all-time low within the past decade.

Callum McLachlan
Callum McLachlan's talent was recognised early by his parents

Fiona Sinclair, chief executive of the Leeds competition, told The Telegraph that this is a stark reflection of the “vandalism” of Britain’s music education: “Without an urgent change of direction, the chances of Leeds finding another British winner are slimmer than ever.”

She added: “It’s absolutely horrific. It’s such vandalism.”

Ms Sinclair added that while millions of Asian schoolchildren are encouraged to play the piano, British youngsters are no longer offered such opportunities: “If a British school even has a piano, it’s a knackered old thing in the corner, hidden behind a curtain.”

She added that primary school teachers receive “about two hours’ worth of music training” and that “music is a struggle for schools [facing] so many financial pressures”.

Ms Sinclair, a former viola player with the Halle and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic orchestras, said: “In East Asia, the education system is producing musicians of the highest calibre, many of whom are pursuing further training at Britain’s prestigious music colleges.

“Audiences of South Korea’s concert halls are young and educated, about half the population of Japan can play a musical instrument–and there are an estimated 60 million piano learners in China.

“Incentives, such as bonus points from piano exams counting towards college entrance exams in China, clearly have helped, although this has changed recently.

“But we can see the result of that sustained investment in the number and quality of East Asian competitors, who make up half the cohort at Leeds this year.

“It does explain why conservatoires and competitions have so many Asian musicians.

“It’s partly the massive population, but it’s also because they’ve got the good students… I’m 51 and had free piano lessons when I was growing up, but the generations after me haven’t.”

In this month’s report on education in state schools over the past 14 years, the Cultural Learning Alliance condemned the “erosion” of the arts, saying “There are schools which no longer offer some Arts subjects at all at GCSE level: 42 per cent of schools no longer enter any pupils for Music GCSE.”

Noting its “depressing” findings, Ms Sinclair said: “If you don’t have grassroots football, you’re never going to get the [Premier League Marcus] Rashfords happening naturally.

“Increasingly, it is the parents with the ambition and the money to pay for individual lessons that will get them to the level of somebody who could [pursue] a career in music.”

Virtuoso pianists such as Murray Perahia are among previous winners of the Leeds competition, which has been held every three years since 1963. Britain’s Michael Roll won the first one and Ian Hobson in 1981.

McLachlan (this year’s British shortlisted candidate) had his talent recognised early by his parents, who are professional musicians themselves. His younger siblings, Rose and Matthew, are also prize-winning classical pianists, with all three studied at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester.

His father, Murray McLachlan, a concert pianist and head of keyboard at Chetham’s and professor of piano at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), recalled that by the age of ten, his son had done his Grade VIII, and that he has performed in international concert halls.

He said that Chetham’s has many Chinese students: “The piano has really taken over the imagination, the soul and motivation of the Chinese people...If you go to any music conservatoire in the world, you’ll see lots of Chinese pianists. There are lots of budding [UK] musicians, who haven’t had the chance.”

Prof Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, said: “Accessible early-stage music education has seriously declined in the last 40 years and so of course British pianists are not going to compete in numbers.

“Most importantly, many of our students who have played debut recitals at Wigmore Hall and made commercial recordings aren’t interested in doing competitions.

“They’re hardly the passport to professional careers in the way they used to be. Moreover, many outstanding young pianists with already burgeoning careers were turned down in the earlier round, and so the selection is inevitably subjective.”

The RNCM said that they currently have 81 classical pianists of Asian nationality – including China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand – although the numbers do not detail when and where students were educated: “In total, we have 130 students currently enrolled to study [Classical] piano… Many of our students have come to us from all over the world and gone on to international acclaim.”

The Royal College of Music said: “We’re an international conservatoire, proudly so, with over 50 nationalities studying with us. But music education in UK schools is an issue.” Pedro Lopez Salas, a Spanish RCM student, is also on the Leeds shortlist.

Ms Sinclair said: “Countless studies provide endless evidence that music also makes people happier, improves children’s schoolwork, builds self-esteem, reduces loneliness. It matters in almost every way.”