James and the magic flute

By Matthew Moss 2min read

What do Sara Bareilles, Chick Corea, Mikhail Glinka and Mozart have in common?  The four finalists in this year’s Homerton Performance Competition couldn’t have chosen a more diverse offering if they’d planned it.

The winning performance was by PGCE student James Cairns – from Mozart’s Concerto for flute in G.

As one of the judges, College Director of Music Dr Daniel Trocmé-Latter said "James wowed us with his playing which simultaneously demonstrated sensitivity and technical prowess.  He played lovingly” - an accolade that James especially appreciates.  “Competitions are terrific”, says James “they give you something to look forward to and to work towards.  And playing from memory requires you to really know the music, the relationship of the orchestral part versus the flute part – and there’s nowhere to hide!”

James’s relationship with music is rooted in his childhood.

“My family were super-poor”, says James.  "Music for me was a lifeline, an escape and a therapy”.  No-one from his council estate gave a second's thought to higher education, and he discovered music by himself, starting as a singer – “my class teacher inspired me”.  He was tutored through A-level music, excelled all the way, and was finally shocked to be told by his tutor “you are a ***-ing idiot if you don’t go to music college”.

Heeding this frank advice, he studied for his degree on a scholarship at the Royal Northern College of Music, graduating in 2012, and then did a Master’s at the Open University.  After graduating he taught in schools in Lancashire while playing professionally and conducting choirs, before coming to Homerton to qualify, through a PGCE, as a teacher.

“The Mozart is a standard piece in the repertoire, but not a piece I’ve performed in competition before”, says James.  “Mozart is often said to have disliked the flute, but the evidence is from a remark he made in one letter he wrote when he was 22 – when he wasn’t fully paid for his flute commission”.  Mozart, after all, would go on to write the opera The Magic Flute as his last major work.

James is quick to recognise his debt to many mentors and role models.  He studied at the RNCM with Peter Lloyd (London Symphony Orchestra), and cites as personal inspirations Richard Davies (BBC Philharmonic) and Joanne Boddington (the Hallé Orchestra), along with Hansjoerg Schellenberger – lead oboeist at the Berlin Philharmonic who “took me under his wing – a really special person.  Very strict but magical.”

James’s PGCE provided teaching practice at Saffron Walden County High, famous for its wonderful public concert hall.  He has been appointed Director of Music at Helena Romana School – part of the Saffron Walden Trust, from September 2023, where he will teach music to children from reception to Year 13.