Published: September 20, 2017
From taking an orchestra to Glastonbury and collaborating with Manchester City FC, Sam McShane is not afraid to chart new waters when it comes to classical music. Ready to unleash her unbridled creativity on her alma mater after being appointed Head of Artistic Planning at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Sam is an ideal Graduate of the Month for September 2017.
Sitting in the Royal Conservatoire’s café bar, it is as if Sam McShane has never been away. Our conversation would flit between the present moment and her days as a French horn student. Time had passed in the intervening period, enabling Sam to let loose her creative talents elsewhere, but as she watched students and staff scurrying back and forth, there was almost an element of sizing up their artistic potential. The excitement, she admitted, was palpable.
“The RCS has changed a lot since I was here,” Sam reflected. “With its third in the world status [for performing arts education] and emphasis on collaboration in the building, there are so many possibilities.
“The demands on musicians have changed so much so it is important to ensure our students have the opportunity to thrive, ensuring they are ready for the industry by the time their studies have come to an end.”
Sam’s return to the Royal Conservatoire comes after she graduated from the institution with a postgraduate diploma, the culmination of years of study which saw her evolve from raw undergraduate student to esteemed professional. During her postgraduate studies, Sam – originally from North Lanarkshire – was enjoying a busy career as a chamber musician while freelancing with the likes of the RSNO and BBC SSO. An internship in artistic planning came up with the RSNO at the same time as a full-time teaching position. It was to mark a crossroads in Sam’s flourishing career.
“Before I started at RCS, I didn’t know artistic planning was a thing,” she admitted. “I spoke to my family and Bryan Allen [then Head of Brass at RCS], who offered so much support during and after my studies. Eventually, I decided to take a risk and go for the option I didn’t know much about.”
It paid off. The position saw Sam given a say in the orchestra’s programming, coming up with creative ideas and pitching them to senior management. A spell followed with IMG Artists in London before she returned to Scotland’s national orchestra, working with its concerts team and becoming Deputy Orchestra Manager. Her flair caught the attention of Manchester Camerata, where Sam became Head of Creative Programming in 2013. She said: “My time in Manchester really opened my eyes. That orchestra is quite edgy. They question a lot about common orchestral practice. I had so much freedom to programme what I wanted so I had to learn fast.”
Highlights of her time in the northwest of England include successful concerts with pianist, Martha Argerich and Manchester Camerata’s acclaimed Hacienda Classical gigs, where it covers acid house anthems. The shows saw the orchestra earn a Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award and triple its audience, performing to 150,000 people in 2016. It formed part of efforts to engage with new listeners and take the orchestra out of the concert hall to rock venues, care homes and schools.
Sam said: “How do you connect with young people? We opened the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury – that was pretty cool.
“Audiences can feel very stiff and formal. There is a stigma about how to act in a concert but we need to make that connection with the general public. Playing at Glastonbury may not have been everyone’s cup of tea but it got the orchestra in front of new audiences.
“Programming should be accessible. That doesn’t mean forgetting the core repertoire, though; if the standard rep is treated well, that can be just as effective as collaborating with club DJs.”
In Glasgow and Manchester, Sam notes a mutual “gritty” quality, as industrial pasts have provided a platform for a rich vein of artistic output. Clearly someone unafraid to embrace new opportunities, she is relishing her new role at Scotland’s national conservatoire – and feels the institution has ensured she is equipped with the tools to hit the ground running.
“The Royal Conservatoire is unique. It has so many skill sets and we want everyone to be collaborating. We want people to see how vibrant this place is. It is about opening our arms and getting people through the doors.”
She added: “Being a musician and turning it into a career develops leadership and time management skills. You gain the confidence to present yourself to people, regardless of their position – playing in performance classes does that to you!
“I have so many fond memories of my time as a student. When I went away, I knew I would return to Scotland at some point. Coming back to the Royal Conservatoire was a dream. Now it’s a reality.”