Alumni Spotlight: Michael Biggins

It’s only March and already student Michael Biggins can chalk 2021 up as an extraordinary year. Michael, who is currently in his final year of undergraduate study on the BMus Performance course, was awarded the prestigious BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year award in January, the first pianist to win this prize since the competition began.

This award is a huge event in the traditional music calendar and the accolade has often been the launch pad of some of the most revered professional trad musicians. We chat to Michael about music, winning and what makes RCS like nowhere else.

Your first study is the piano. How did you first get into music?

I was always drawn to the piano, I was always begging the teachers in school to play even though I knew nothing about it. We would sing hymns in school assembly and I used to be able to play them by ear with one finger on the piano. I was given a little keyboard by my cousins when I was 10 or 11 and eventually my parents found me a piano teacher in the village where I lived. I tried to quit a few times but I always found my way back.

I used to play the tuba as well. We were given free music lessons in school and, as I was already learning the piano, I said I would try a brass instrument. I think they needed a tuba player in the school band so I got that. I got to a reasonable grade but I was rubbish at it!

Photograph by Martin Shields

Why did you choose to study at the RCS?

When I was in school there was a lot of push to go down to London in order to ‘be successful’ but I spoke to a few piano players I knew and I was told that wasn’t true. A lot of people around me growing up had amazing things to say about RCS. I auditioned everywhere and when it came to making my decision, I decided that Glasgow had the best traditional music scene, and people are much friendlier up here!

Piano can take you in a lot of different routes, what drew you to traditional music?

My degree was in classical music at RCS so I’ll always love playing that. From a young age I played in Youth Folk Bands (with the tuba) and that was my first experience playing as part of a group. I really enjoyed the social nature of it. When I first moved into the RCS student accommodation, I happened to be on a floor with mainly traditional musicians which was really nice, so we made a band. Most of my friends throughout my course studies have been traditional musicians because we made such strong bonds living together. Pianists have to be happy spending 6 hours a day practising on their own, but I find sitting in the pub playing with other people a bit more enticing!

The crowds in Glasgow are brilliant, especially during Celtic Connections. You get a crowd there that absolutely love traditional music. You can always tell when a crowd is enjoying themselves or if music has been forced upon them!

Michaal Biggins playing with his band TRIP
Michael playing with his band TRIP

What was is like winning Young Traditional Musician of the Year?

I’d been considering entering for a couple of years, but lockdown really gave me the final push because I just thought, why not? I didn’t know if I wanted to enter on the accordion or the piano, but I’ve been playing the piano all my life so I’m much more comfortable on that. I knew everyone in the semi-finals, either from RCS (5 out of 6 of the finalists were students or graduates from RCS) or from working around Scotland. It was odd competing against my fellow RCS alumni. Everyone was really nice to each other but it was weird sitting back stage in a small practice room watching all the performances on a little monitor that you couldn’t turn off.

There were technical difficulties before the show (the BBC building where it was being recorded had a small electrical fire just before shooting) so we spent a lot of time standing outside in the cold. By the time we went back in I had mentally resigned myself to the show being cancelled and everyone going home! I think after I won I went home, had a celebration drink and played Xbox. I’ll definitely have a bigger celebration when we get out of lockdown!

Michael playing with Northern Company

What are your highlights of studying at RCS?

I always enjoyed playing at the Piano Festival, they’re well curated and the crowds are nice. I got to work individually with people that I had worked with through the larger ensemble. I also really enjoyed accompanying the singing competitions, which can be really fun or hard work depending on the piece that you’re given! There’s an added pressure to that work, but I got to perform with people I knew well, which was always a positive experience. It’s more of a collaborative project with the singing students, which is unique to RCS. Not a lot of other conservatoires do that.

My piano teacher, Sinae Lee, and the whole of the piano department, were amazing and I’ll definitely be keeping in touch.

What projects do you have coming up?

My band TRIP has an album which is almost finished and will be released soon. We want to be able to do gigs around it so it may be released in the summer. The band got a Make It Happen grant through the RCS Knowledge Exchange department which has helped with the initial costs.

Finally, how do you personally measure success?

Being able to make a living making music and having a good group of friends that you can always call on. That’s quite nice above everything else.

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