As top young instrumentalists prepare for tonight's concert at the Clandeboye Festival of Music, Joanne Sweeney talks to three of the 'graduates'.
Finding your direction in life is one of the main challenges of being young, so to discover a talent early on in your teens is undoubtedly a bonus when it comes to pursuing your hopes and dreams.
And the hills around Bangor will be coming alive with the sweet music of youth this evening when talented individuals from across Ireland descend on the Clandeboye Estate for a very special concert.
The Young Musicians of the Future Concert is being held as part of the Clandeboye Festival of Music, which is running this week at the stunning North Down estate.
The programme sees young classical musicians undergoing intensive masterclasses and tutorials from world experts, before taking to the stage tonight for a showcase performance at which one will be named Clandeboye Young Musician of the Year.
Whether or not they take the title, though, the participants will have benefited from a potentially career-making experience, not only in honing their burgeoning skills but also developing those all-important contacts in what is often a hugely competitive industry.
We speak to three former young musicians to find out how the experience helped them in their careers, and to see what they're doing now.
'It helped with my costs and played a pivotal role in my career'
Michael McHale (31) is a professional pianist from Belfast. The son of Noel and Carmel McHale, Michael lives in London as do his sisters Anne and Helen. He released his highly-acclaimed debut CD The Irish Piano last year and hopes to record a further two. He says:
Having attended St Bride's Primary School in south Belfast and I then went to Methodist College, Belfast, the same school that Barry Douglas attended.
After my A-levels I went to Cambridge University to study music and followed it up with a masters at the Royal College of Music in London.
Today I split my time playing with orchestras or as a soloist and every season now I will play once or twice with the Ulster Orchestra, in fact, I'm back over playing here on October 10.
I also play in duos and have played with James Galway quite a lot as well as the English clarinetist Michael Collins.
Barry Douglas has been a real mentor and support to me over the years and now I would call him a friend.
He really does a lot of work behind the scenes to support young musicians, from both north and south, and any time that I get with him is worth so much to me as I learn so much.
I was invited to go along to the first Camerata festival as a guest – two years later I was playing with Barry at Clandeboye's second festival as a participant and that was all down to being introduced to him afterwards.
He was very warm and genuine and immediately gave me his phone number and we said we should keep in touch. I'm not sure if I really believed he would then but as I was just starting my degree at Cambridge, we ended up meeting in London when he was playing with the London Philharmonic. After his rehearsal, I went backstage and he listened me play for a while and gave me some tips.
It felt really surreal at the time to play for Barry as I had just watched him play Tchaikovsky's first concerto and then I had a go at playing for him. But he was so warm and generous with his time.
I was one of three musicians who were selected to play in the competition that year. I also won the chance to play with Barry in the concert afterwards as well as a sponsored £5,000 cash prize from Accenture to help with my music costs, so you could say that Clandeboye has played a pivotal role in my career.
Now Clandeboye feels like home to me and I'll always make a point of going when I'm at home."
'The week was a big learning curve for me'
Former Methodist College, Belfast pupil Sarah Smith (nee Brown, 25) is originally from Belfast but lives in London, where she works as a freelance clarinettist and is the daughter of Ken and Linda Brown. She says:
I have actually taken part in the young musician programme twice, the first time in summer 2007, and then around three or four years later. The first time round, I had just won an award which Barry Douglas was adjudicating, and he said I should come along to the Clandeboye Festival.
This was before I went to music college, so it was a big learning curve for me. The teachers there were amazing, though, and it was a week of intensive practice and lessons – great preparation for college!
It's a really great week – you live with everyone else, you practice and have lessons all day, and then there's the performance itself.
You're also going to all the concerts that happen throughout the week. It's just about being submerged in really high quality music, as well as a time for your own development.
Although it's open to musicians from all of Ireland, because Northern Ireland is such a small place people know each other, and having the connection to Barry Douglas was great. I knew lots of people who'd done it before, like Michael McHale, who I had gone to school with.
Doing the big concert is a little daunting because you want to do your best, but it's what you've been studying for for years, to play your best and show what you can do. If you don't enjoy it then there's no point in doing it.
The biggest thing about the programme, though, are the contacts you make. You get to know the people doing the course – in fact, I see all the Irish musicians that I did the festival with all the time, so the connections are great.
London is a great place to live and work for a freelance like myself. After studying here it felt quite natural to stay, though I do go back and forth. Also, I married an Englishman, so that was another reason to stay over here!
All in all, Clandeboye was a very positive experience for me. It's a really brilliant week where you spend time with like-minded musicians, coming together to play really good music."
'Interaction between everyone is just great'
Thomas Porter (26) is a bassoonist from Bangor, Co Down who hopes one day to play in the Ulster Orchestra. While based in Glasgow, his parents Kirby and Elizabeth Porter still live in Bangor and he has an older brother Michael. He says:
When I was a schoolboyI started to play the bassoon by accident, as I was the only one with long enough arms to play it. But picking it up to play has been the best thing I've ever done.
I went to Rathmore Primary School in Bangor before going to Sullivan Upper in Holywood and developed my music by playing in the South Eastern Education board band and the Ulster Youth Orchestra. I've been at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland for the last three years after studying a masters in classical performance, and over the last year I've been helping out in the conservatorie as a junior fellow and playing at orchestra concerts.
I've also doing professional orchestral work with the Royal Scottish National orchestra as well as playing with the more contemporary Red Note Ensemble in Glasgow.
I took part in the Clandeboye Festival's young musicians competition last year and it has really helped me with my career.
It's a brilliant festival and being a local, I had already heard of it and had been to concerts when I was younger. The concerts that Barry Douglas and Camerata put on really inspired me when I was younger so I had always hoped that I would one day take part in the competition. I was even lucky enough to be invited to go to Mexico with Camerata Ireland last September on a week-long trip, which was incredible.
Playing in Camerata is so much more intimate and there's great interaction between the musicians.
As a soloist, Barry is very different to others that I've encountered as he socialises with us and is very encouraging. Working with him is just so inspiring.
Though I didn't win it, I was very fortunate as I applied to the Flax Trust for some funding and they were very generous to give me the funding to buy a contrabassoon, costing £16,000, which is a bass bassoon, the lowest instrument in the orchestra.
Not many people have this instrument and it has helped put me very much in demand."
The sound of success
As part of the Young Musicians Showcase tonight, the Flax Trust will award three bursaries of £2,000 each to a vocal student and two instrumentalists, while the Ireland Fund of France award will see a bursary of €1,500 (£1,190) will be awarded to allow a student to study and undertake professional development in France in 2015.
Meanwhile, the Alan Gillespie Ulster Bank Award will see £1,000 presented to a young musician who has shown particular promise, dedication and commitment.
"Every musician knows the importance of a helping hand early in your career, whether that is tuition, advice or financial support," said festival director Barry Douglas.
"These bursaries are awarded to the very best among our students who work hard to improve their performance.
"We know that their tutors want to pass on as much of their knowledge and encouragement as they can in the four days that we have with our students at the Clandeboye Festival."