The pressure of studying for A levels is enough for most teenagers to deal with in sixth form. But extraordinary musician Jack decided to end his school career on a high note, by taking on a piano diploma usually reserved for specialist conservatoire players just days after sitting his A levels.
The passionate Monmouth School pupil, who achieved two A*s and an A in his exams, also passed Grade 8 in flute this summer – the top grade available.
Jack, 18, played a demanding 30-minute programme of intricate pieces by Beethoven, Copland, Debussy and Khachaturian to an external examiner to pass London College of Music’s DipLCM in Performance.
He said: “I knew I was setting my sights quite high and I’m still in disbelief about it.
“I prioritised my A levels first because they are what I needed to get into university.
“When I did have some time I tried to devote as much of it to music as possible.
“It was pretty intense towards the end.
“Going into something like that, you need to know the pieces so well so despite all the nerves and adrenaline, you can just focus on the music and it should come naturally.
“I found myself asking why I’d decided to do this, but I wanted to see if it was actually possible.
“If you don’t aim high, you just won’t be going anywhere.
“It has all come as a surprise – the academic results and the music exams have been an amazing way to end my school career.”
Turning to music proved to be therapeutic at one of the most stressful times in Jack’s life.
He added: “Some people see sitting down and doing hours of practice as something hateful and torturous, but I’ve found it’s something I can do to get away from everything, especially at such a difficult time.
“I can sit down and relax, or let off steam depending on what I’m playing.
“Finding the time to practise the piano has been an irreplaceable emotional tool – it was something different I could do and enjoy.”
The diploma called for Jack to perform a wide variety of styles to showcase his abilities and musical knowledge, from the jazzy feel of Copland to the dramatic punchiness of Beethoven.
He was able to choose one piece away from the syllabus, and he went for Toccata by Khachaturian – a piece with which he previously won a school competition.
Jack performing Toccata by Khachaturian
“It’s extremely exciting and intense at times and then there’s an extremely emotional section in the middle,” Jack added.
“The composer was writing at a time during Armenian massacres.
“There’s something about music, more than any other form of art, that can capture the emotion of an experience and he just does that so well.
“I had a connection to all the pieces I played – I’m sure they will be in my head for quite some time to come.”
Jack, who has been playing the piano since he was eight, last took a piano exam four years ago when he passed Grade 5.
He admits to suffering with stage fright despite his astonishing ability, but says overcoming the ‘shakes’ to deliver several top quality performances has been rewarding.
He added: “I entered the school competition for the first time in the third year – I was horrendously frightened and shaking.
“It’s always very nerve-racking getting up there.
“But people have told me how much they enjoyed listening to me, and that’s more than enough to make it worthwhile.
“Throughout the time I’ve been playing, I’ve picked up a piece that’s been too hard, and then worked on it until I could do it.
“I really pushed myself in the last two years.”
Jack begins a degree in Classics at Durham University in October.
“I think I spied a piano there when I visited,” he said.
“I hope I’ll be able to continue playing at university.
“I can’t imagine life without the piano now – it would be a lot less interesting.”
Alison Milledge, who has taught piano at the School since 1991, said it is rare for a student of Jack’s age to achieve this qualification.
“It doesn’t often happen – it’s very rare for someone to reach that standard while still at school,” she said.
“That diploma is normally taken by piano specialist students, practising three to four hours a day, at the end of their first year in a conservatoire.
“Jack is a particularly talented boy, and hahars a humility and eagerness to learn which would benefit all pupils.
“One of the things that makes his playing so good is that he has not only worked very hard to gain technical mastery of the pieces, but that he cares so much about the music he plays and of course that comes across.
“He can give truly individual performances because he cares so much about the music.”