Steelpannist Luke Walker, one two Trinidadian musicians selected by Kwame Ryan to do a YMXchange in 2015, attended the 2018 Spring Residency of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain at Haileybury College in London. Since his first life-changing experiences performing at Snape, The Maltings and the BBC Proms by way of Symphony Hall Birmingham, Luke has won a National Open Scholarship in his native Trinidad and has been accepted to study Music in the Harvard/Berklee Dual Degree Program. This involves working towards a full B.A. degree at Harvard while receiving weekly lessons at Berklee College of Music in Boston throughout the entire four-year period, following which, he will have the option of doing a Masters in Music (M.M.) at Berklee.
Luke (second from right) with NYO Friends including 2017 YMX participant Simone Moores (third from left)
Luke on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall in London with fellow soloists from National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
It has been a lifelong dream of mine to play a steelpan solo accompanied by a full symphonic orchestra. I got my first taste of that possibility in 2015 when I joined the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain for their summer residency and concert tour. However, I was only able to realise it three years later with the help of Professor Kwamé Ryan, Director of UTT’s Academy for the Performing Arts and founder of Youth Music Exchange. On April 7th 2018, the 110 musicians of NYO directed the attention of the large audience at Symphony Hall Birmingham to my steelpan as I improvised a solo in Mason Bates’ symphonic-techno work Mothership.
This was the main reason why I was invited this year but to my astonishment, I was actively involved throughout the entire programme. As an honorary member of the percussion section, I played timpani in Bernstein’s West Side Story and also had parts in the orchestral suites from Star Wars and the Hunger Games. However, this was no ordinary concert and the innovative way each show began was surprisingly familiar to me. Before every concert, the orchestra split up into six small ensembles and occupied the foyers welcoming patrons with the lively sounds of the Mambo. I led a group of string players in the proceeding J’ouvert-esque procession, escorting audience members into the auditorium.
I was grateful to have been in my element for the introduction because during the concert itself, I had to step up as one of the four presenters chosen from among the orchestra members. This meant delivering scripted lines to the entire Royal Festival Hall between the breath-taking performances. A lot of preparation was required for this which was not made easier by my Trini accent which totally amused everyone (my pronunciation of the word ‘goosebumps’ drove them crazy!).
The week-long run up to the concert tour would have been stressful if it weren’t for the extraordinary musicians who were on this journey with me. Not only were they extremely talented, but every one of them was humble, welcoming and fun-loving. Their accomplished youthfulness renewed my drive to practice and to perfect my skill. The tremendous leadership of our conductor, Kwamé Ryan, inspired us all and brought out the best in us. Personally, sharing the stage with him made me so proud to be an ambassador for the youth of Trinidad and Tobago and the steelpan.
I soon realised that my purpose extended beyond that. After one of the shows, I was approached by two young children attached to their parents who explained to me that their children were learning to play the steelpan and were so excited to hear it brought to life on that grand stage. I was at a loss for words. My solo, which was a truer expression of my personality than anything I could have said to my tiny fans, lit a spark in their eyes. Unwittingly, I had planted a seed of hope in those children.
They might never practise the steelpan again but that moment of awe that I may have triggered in them during my performance was invaluable.
Special thanks to Kwamé Ryan, NYO and the Youth Music Exchange for not only making my dream possible, but also for inspiring future dreamers like myself.