skip to main content

YCAT for Young Classical Musicians

Launching a music career as a solo or orchestral musician is increasingly difficult. YCAT is an organisation striving to redress the balance by supporting gifted young musicians.

Last updated: 27 October 2020

Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT), the UK’s leading charity for young artist development, was established to help outstanding musicians make the transition from bright prospects to fully-fledged pros. Its impressive track record reflects an organisation alive to present opportunities and future challenges and awake to the tough realities facing aspiring solo performers.

Alasdair Tait, himself a seasoned performer, teacher and a former cellist with the Belcea Quartet, became YCAT’s chief executive and artistic director almost a decade ago. Thanks to his commitments as a masterclass leader and chamber music coach, Tait travels widely and maintains a broad perspective on the world of work for young musicians. Above all he understands the high demands of making a living in an increasingly globalised, ultra-competitive marketplace.

Giving classical musicians opportunities across the globe

“Musicians in the past would build their reputations in one country before reaching out to different territories,” Tait observes. Markets for classical musicians in Asia, he adds, have grown rapidly and appear set to expand. “YCAT has a very good relationship with China, which means we can send our artists there to gain experience of performing to audiences that are very different from those in Europe. What they learn by experience is crucial to their time with YCAT. Of course, it’s about building a music career in a strategic way. But I believe the heart of that is about getting opportunities to learn more about who they are as performers, what their strengths are and where they need to develop.”

Orchestral opportunities

Artists are chosen by annual audition for YCAT representation. Since its foundation in 1984, the Trust’s alumni list has grown to include trumpeter Alison Balsom, tenor Ian Bostridge, soprano Elizabeth Watts, pianists Alexandra Dairescu and Llŷr Williams, the Belcea Quartet, cellist Philip Higham and guitarist Sean Shibe. The present crop of YCAT artists includes violinist Savitri Grier, bassoonist Theo Plath, the Castalian Quartet and oboist Olivier Stankiewicz.

Benjamin Baker joined YCAT’s list seven years ago and went on to develop a strong solo career under its watch. The New Zealand-born violinist came to the UK in the late 90s to study at the Menuhin School of Music. He made his concerto debut at the age of 12 and went on to the Royal College of Music. Baker decided to pursue the solo path after a trial to become assistant principal violin with Royal Opera House Orchestra and guest jobs with the Philharmonia and London Symphony Orchestra. Although he loved his orchestral experience, he was simultaneously winning prizes on the international competition circuit and receiving concerto invitations.

Securing work and support for soloists

Baker realised he wanted to become a full-time soloist and stepped down from his Royal Opera trial. “It wouldn’t have been possible without YCAT’s representation,” he notes. “You need someone in your corner as a soloist. The music world is too opaque and tricky to manage on your own.”

Alasdair Tait observes that YCAT is adept at counselling young musicians and guiding them through the rocky terrain of self-employment. The Trust covers everything from securing work and easing the hassle of international travel to providing mentoring, marketing and public relations for those on its roster. “I remember the phenomenal support the Belcea Quartet received from YCAT from 1997 to 2000,” he recalls. “The business has changed so much since then. The main thing is that we’re here to give support.”

Amy Harman was a YCAT artist who went on to become principal bassoon of the Aurora and ENO orchestras

Amy Harman was a YCAT artist who went on to become principal bassoon of the Aurora and ENO orchestras.© Kaupo Kikkas 

Making music careers

While there has been a significant increase in overseas work for YCAT artists over the past two decades, Tait says there has been little growth in fees paid by British promoters. “This country still offers terrific opportunities to young artists and the experience they provide is vital. But it’s galling that fees are pretty much what they were 20 years ago.The cost of living is so much higher now; there are fewer opportunities than there were and more young artists vying for them. That equation is not healthy!”

The trick for YCAT is to find meaningful work for its artists at the right moment and for the best possible fee. Without such representation, says Benjamin Baker, young musicians are open to exploitation. “It definitely happens,” he comments. “Young musicians now are caught between a rock and a hard place. I had plenty of solo work before I joined YCAT. I was working in London and could see the cost of things. You’d look at the fees you were making from music societies and even concerto dates and realise that you’d not be able to meet the basic costs of living until you were well into your thirties.”

How YCAT works for young musicians

Baker has forged an impressive solo career since joining YCAT. Now nearing the end of his time with the Trust, he’s set to sign with a commercial agent and take the next career step. The violinist says that, thanks to YCAT, he has gained a clear-eyed view of the music business and of how his career will play out. “With the commercial struggles of the entire music industry, the artistic development of young musicians can easily suffer,” Baker observes.

“You’re told as a student that you have to play this and mustn’t play that – you have to tick these boxes. It can become incredibly formulaic, but it doesn’t need to be. Environments like YCAT offer a better way. They help you to build the platform for the work you’ll do for the rest of your life while giving you the time and space to experiment, even to make mistakes.” He recalls a run of YCAT-fixed recital tours to China and South America, which offered invaluable lessons in the realities and rewards of life as a solo artist.

Career development for young musicians

In addition to fixing and managing concert dates, YCAT offers a range of seminars, individual coaching and project mentoring under the umbrella of its Sounding Board initiative. Alasdair Tait notes that one of the most common refrains voiced by participants is ‘How do I make a living?’ “There’s so much training at conservatoires about career development and how to promote yourself,” he observes. “But there’s something about that moment of reality, beyond the conservatoire structure, when people need advice about making a living without losing focus on what they want to do.”

Timothy Ridout joined YCAT two years ago. The Trust’s representation, he says, came at the right moment. The viola player was born in London in 1995 and studied at the Royal Academy of Music, where he received good professional advice from his teacher and the conservatoire’s Head of Strings. Although solo opportunities followed his win at the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition in March 2016, his career development proper began after he was selected for YCAT two months later. “It’s invaluable to have people to bounce ideas off.” The worth of conversations about what to take on and what to set aside, he adds, has become clearer over time. “Taking advice from someone who’s more experienced and letting them take care of diary planning and organisation has been life changing.”

Ridout speaks most days with YCAT’s senior artist manager, Sue Hudson; he also discusses ideas for recording and concert programmes with Alasdair Tait and other members of the Trust’s team. “That personal working relationship has been so helpful. It pushed me forwards after the Tertis Competition and meant that the right things fell in place at the right time.” He is set to make his concerto debut with the Philharmonia this August at the Three Choirs Festival.

Funding the future

Fundraising from foundations, charitable trusts and individual donors accounts for around 80% of YCAT’s annual income. It also draws money from an active friends scheme. A fraction of the Trust’s funds flow from small commissions charged to artists, part of the learning process for musicians headed for commercial management. Money from a large legacy bequest, meanwhile, has helped extend YCAT’s international reach.

“International festivals, orchestras and promoters trust us to recommend artists for their series,” notes Alasdair Tait. “They know we’ll only ever send the right artist for that promoter. The worst thing for a young artist is to be put into the wrong date at the wrong time. We want people to gain the experience that will allow them to stand on their own feet and become interesting artists of the future.”

Saying goodbye to an artist, he adds, is the hardest part of the YCAT job. “But it’s our responsibility to know when they’re ready to go – and we never lose touch with them.”