Interview with James Burke

Meet the Musician

Interview with James Burke

James Burke is Principal Clarinet of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and will feature as soloist with the orchestra in Mexico in October 2018.

James is also Clarinet Professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and regularly coaches young professional players as part of the Academy’s Side by Side Learning and Participation programme.

In this interview James discusses the importance of music education and the effect it has had on his life.

How do you feel that studying music has influenced your overall education? 

Studying music has massively influenced my overall education. I was involved in so many extra-curricular activities thanks to my musical education; mixing with people from other schools, from other areas and backgrounds. It also helps across the board with so many other subjects. Artists, writers, musicians and composers have had huge influences on so many historical and political events.


What are the key benefits of music education?

I think that learning an instrument gives you two major tools from an early age; creative learning and self-assessment. I’m sure these are things that any educator or teacher would want to instil in any pupil. When playing, you are given instructions and techniques to use, but you have to find your own voice and way of expressing yourself. Being self-critical and never settling for anything remotely “average” is the only way to improve.


What does it take to get to the top of your profession? What did you do when you felt it was too hard and wanted to give up – how did you overcome this?

There’s that saying that, “success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration”, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. You need a lot of man hours, but you also need the passion in order to achieve your full potential. Deep down, I always knew it was what I wanted to do. Growing up, having to choose between the football team or clarinet lessons had its difficulties. My parents were always there, gently pushing against any thoughts I had of throwing in the towel.


Were your talents as a musician something you knew of from an early age? Did you grow up in a musical family that influenced you?

My parents weren’t particularly musical, but were encouraging to anything I’d show an interest in – sports and music in particular. The choices at primary school were piano, violin or clarinet. We didn’t have room for a piano in the house, and I think my mum wouldn’t have been able to put up with beginner violin practice for too long, so clarinet it was! I didn’t even know what it was when they signed me up for the term’s lessons. But I did love it, and I did progress quickly at first.


James working with Southbank Sinfonia musicians as part of the Academy’s Side by Side scheme (image by Evelina Hepp)


What sacrifices do you have to make for this profession? 

Touring can be tough these days. I have a young family at home, and going away for weeks at a time can be stressful for everybody. And even when not touring, a ‘normal’ musician’s schedule means working many antisocial hours – lots of late nights, early starts for “out of town” dates, and whilst everyone else is enjoying a weekend or bank holiday off you are normally just carrying on obliviously.


How do you think we can increase arts education in schools?

I’m not too sure about the specifics of the current curriculum, but in my opinion, access is the most important thing. Make music part of everyday life, whether that be playing, singing or listening. And not just classical music obviously – everyone should be constantly exposed to the huge variety of musical genres that are out there. Music is a vital part of our education, and something that I’m so glad to have at the centre of my life!


James performs Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto as part of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields’ tour to Mexico in October 2018.



Image: James Burke © Upstream Photography