UNIVERSITY NEWS LAST UPDATED : 05 DECEMBER 2023
Hours and hours spent in “brutal” lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 gave Ben Shankland the time to hone his piano skills. Now, more than three years on, the talented 19-year-old Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (RBC) student is BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Jazz Musician of the Year.
“I was at home with my family in Edinburgh,” recalls Ben. “It was the really quite brutal lockdown period that started in March 2020, when you could only go out of the house once a day.
"School had kind of ground to a halt, so I had to work out what I was going to do with my time. The obvious answer was music. That’s when I really found jazz. I had all this time alone to practice in the house when everyone was shut away.”
Ben, a second-year BMus Jazz student at the RBC, which is part of Birmingham City University, beat five other finalists to claim the BBC prize.
Performing at BBC Scotland’s headquarters at Pacific Quay, on the banks of the River Clyde, the teenager dazzled judges by performing three pieces in 15 minutes.
“You couldn’t run over,” says Ben. “We’d had two days of rehearsal, which was really fun. It was a very friendly atmosphere. It didn’t feel like a competition. I went fourth out of six, so there was some waiting around. I thought my performance went well. I was happy with it afterwards.”
Did he think he would win?
“No,” he says emphatically. “There was an RBC graduate there, saxophonist Matthew Kilner. I thought he was amazing. When the result came through, I was absolutely gobsmacked.”
A few days on, his victory is still sinking in.
“It's very surreal at first,” says Ben. “I’m really happy. I’ve had lots of supportive messages from friends, which was great. And from the college and staff, too.”
Ben began playing the piano at the age of eight, spurred on by his father, a high school music teacher and cathedral organist, and his mother, a librarian and musician.
“They are very much classical musicians, but they let me do my own thing, which I'm very grateful for,” says Ben, who also plays the bassoon. “I was 16 when I started playing jazz. I love the freedom of it. Each performance feels so unique. I like classical music, but the communication with other musicians when you're playing jazz is so much deeper.
“Someone can throw an idea out there and someone else can respond. The music can take a completely different direction at any point. It's just so exciting and I think that’s the appeal for me.”
Ben’s BBC triumph will undoubtedly lead to more opportunities to experiment.
“It's definitely very helpful,” he says. “It comes with a gig at the Glasgow Jazz Festival next year and a recording session back at Pacific Quay. “Just having the title is a super encouraging. It makes me feel like I'm on the right path. It's very affirming in that way, but it will be very helpful in terms of booking more work for my trio and my projects. I'm sure we'll get more gigs from it.”
The ‘trio’ he refers to is the aptly named Ben Shankland Trio, which already boasted a BBC award winner before Ben’s success.
Aberdeen Ewan Hastie, who plays the double bass, won the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year in 2022. The third member of the band is Glasgow-based drummer Chun-Wie Kang.
“I go to Scotland quite regularly, to see family and play gigs,” says Ben. “But I also have started to build this whole new network of people down south in Birmingham. It's really nice to have the two.”
What was the appeal of the RBC?
“I wanted a change of scene, somewhere completely new to explore,” says Ben. “I knew the RBC had a strong jazz course and fantastic facilities. When I visited, it felt right.
"The value of the one-to-one tutoring, with some of the best teachers in the country, has been huge. A massive part of the reason I came to Birmingham was to meet new people and play music with them, too. There's a real community here.”
Ben has made a firm impression with RBC staff, too.
“Ben has star quality, in that all challenges are met with positivity and humility,” says Head of Jazz Jeremy Price. “Consequently, he seems ready for anything the jazz department or the wider jazz scene can throw at him. The visibility this award has brought him is so thoroughly deserved and we recommend everybody looks out for his future successes.”
John Turville, Visiting Tutor in Jazz Piano at the RBC, adds: “Ben is a wonderful student to teach, always receptive to new ideas, disciplined and creative.
“He is the perfect all-round musician - a great reader, technician, composer and a skilled classical pianist but thoroughly grounded in the history and feel of jazz. I hope that this award will give him the wider recognition and profile he deserves in Scotland and beyond.”
So what’s next for Ben? Does he have the UK Young Jazz Musician title in his sights?
“I'm sure that's a consideration,” he says. “I haven't decided yet, but it's definitely on my radar.”