Lead the way...

By Nicole Wilson  -  31 August 2016

Violinist Millie Ashton wowed audiences around the UK this year as the leader of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Taking the cream of the UK’s youth musical talent, the National Youth Orchestra invites young musicians up to the age of 18 meet 3 times a year in the school holidays for residential courses culminating in concerts in the UK’s finest concert halls. Leading them through a critically acclaimed performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Prom concerts, Millie was praised for her wonderfully energetic and inclusive way of leading. 

Millie leading the NYO at Symphony Hall in Birmingham


Having worked her way up through the ranks from the very back of the second violin section 3 years ago, she’s in a great position to understand what is needed from a leader and has grasped the opportunity and run with it, helping to create a fun and inspirational year of orchestral playing which she for one will never forget. 

But how did her musical journey start? Millie’s mum Laura is a professional violinist and from the age of 3 Millie was tugging on her Mum’s skirts as she practised asking to play too. Laura made her wait till she was 6 before giving her a little violin of her own and after that there was no stopping her.

After a couple of years learning with violinist Rebecca Low, Millie discovered the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s Saturday morning junior department and for 8 years she would jump out of bed, early doors on a Saturday morning and spend the day there learning violin, viola, piano, choir, musicianship, orchestra and choir.  ’I  looked forward to it all week’ she explains ‘I just loved it.’

But, like many children who love music, Millie wasn't aware of the myriad of opportunities out there for young musicians. Thankfully she had a Head of Music who recognised the bright light in her and helped her apply for local and national opportunities. ‘Mrs Graham was great’ Millie says. ‘She sent me to Dulwich Youth Orchestra. She said “You will do it!” and that was that!’ Indeed Mrs Graham got Millie joining up to pretty much every local youth orchestra going as she saw the young Millie blossom into a thoughtful, inspiring musician. It was on her suggestion that Millie auditioned for the NYO, the turning point in Millie’s musical journey.

‘It really clicked for me, when I played in my first NYO rehearsal and I just knew that this was it, this is where I wanted to be.’

Climbing through the ranks of the NYO, learning more and more as she absorbed all the music around her, it was suggested that she think about going to a specialist music school. Millie looked around and finally chose to go to the Purcell School in north west London for her 6th form years to carry on learning with her teacher from junior Guildhall, Alda Dizdari.

‘It was a bit of a culture shock when I first arrived, having gone from a school with 1300 pupils in to one with 150 kids in total from age 8-18 was very strange’ says Millie. ‘But what I loved was that it was just music all day every day. It was just all I could have ever wished for. I spent most of my time in a practice room and playing all sorts of music. I loved it.’ Did the lack of academic pressure worry her? ‘No I got carried away because I was doing what I loved. I could spend all day in a lovely practice room learning all the music I wanted to. It was such a happy time. It was at Purcell that I first lead a Symphony Orchestra and I have wonderful memories of there, social and musical’ she laughs.

This happy, open, honest young lady is so at odds with the image of many young musicians who are striving for excellence. It’s wonderful to see the immense love of music she has and her almost grateful surprise that people ‘let’ her do all these wonderful things. Has she had difficulties making the jump to leader which can be so difficult politically, even in a youth orchestra? ‘Overall people were lovely and supportive but there were a couple of times I had difficult situations’ she admits. I just kept thinking 'be yourself and it will work itself out'. And it did. At the end of the day, taking things to heart and letting them get to you are the worst things you can do.’

Starting at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (senior department) in London this autumn, Millie will be learning with the world renowned pedagogue David Takano. Not surprisingly she’s already on people’s radar as one to watch and already has an incredibly full schedule of chamber music lined up before term’s even started. ‘I hope I can fit it all in, I just want to do it all’ she explains.

And after an action packed four years at the Guildhall, where can she imagine herself? ‘It would be amazing to tour in an orchestra but at the same time I’d love to keep up chamber music and take on any solo work as I love that too - there are just so many things I want to do’ she laughs. ‘But I’ve really loved doing education work at NYO and Purcell  as well. When you see the impact of music on people's lives and the consequences from getting involved with younger aspiring musicians, you remember how much of a difference music can make to people's lives. We need to keep on pushing and working on this in our generation. I’ll never forget an outreach programme we’d done with Purcell, a tour of schools in Norfolk and the kids wrote letters to us afterwards. I got so many ‘I loved hearing Millie play the violin and now I want to play’ letters. I never forgot that and I realised what a difference it makes. It doesn’t take much of our time but the effects are enormous.

 Wherever Millie ends up we’re sure she’ll have a brilliant journey… watch out for her!

About Nicole Wilson

Principal freelance violinist in London, ex London Symphony Orchestra and English National Opera, Nicole is also a CD producer, TV/Radio presenter and founder of Musical Orbit.

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