Herbert Meets: Zara Hudson Kozdoj

Zara Hudson Kozdoj by Denzel Gaisie 

Zara Hudson Kozdoj in a London-based cellist in the final year of her Masters at The Royal College of Music. She is also a member of Chineke! Orchestra, the first professional orchestra in Europe with majority black and minority ethnic musicians.  

I wanted to find out more about her experiences as a performer and her thoughts on the wider classical ecosystem and if it needed to change to stick with a younger generation. 

Do you remember first playing? Or first hearing the cello.
I’ve been classically trained since I was six but I actually don’t have many early memories of playing (pauses)...what I do remember is the almost ritualistic practice schedule I had. It never felt like a massive chore, more like a guided meditation (laughs). I would come home from school, snack, practice, watch the Simpsons – it was something that was embedded into my daily life. I took it seriously because my mum is a musicologist and it was way for me to get into private schools as otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to afford it
I also do have a memory of the way I felt after playing my first concert and thinking how nice it felt that people responded the way they did…to this day it’s my favourite part of being a musician.
Is there something specific about performance that you love?
I love performing for specific audiences like children and elderly people. I find they are the most receptive to being moved and they have the space for it in their life. Perhaps because it's a marker for them in their day or they’re going through a hard time and it helps…Moving people with music moves me a lot (pauses) and I quite like the attention generally (laughs) and I have a lot of fun on stage. 
Are you able to enjoy the music you play when you play?
It really depends... if I am playing solo from memory, I have more space to experience a kind of catharsis and when it’s over it does take me a couple of minutes to get back into the room. When I don’t know a piece as well, the focus is on nailing the technique and then it feels like a kind of sports training. And  if I am playing an orchestral or chamber piece, it's like being an actor in an ensemble scene in a play versus a lead performing a monologue play in a group – it feels more like a conversation.

Do you think there is a valid comparison between sports and classical music?
I went to a music school for sixth form that was very much a pre-conservatoire school so it was very competitive. (Laughs) I think it takes a certain type of person to practice for hours a day.  When it comes down to it, unlike music, I don’t think that in sports you work towards training to access a specific frequency of emotion. There are definitely musicians that build a skill set in order to perform pieces in a flashy way but for me, that’s not what being a musician is about. 
Was there ever a point where you questioned the path of being a musician?
I always knew I wanted to be a musician, but when I was a teenager, I rebelled. I was going out, partying …my playing took a back seat because my priorities shifted. I would always still turn up to the lessons but probably after a late night the night before. At the time, I was  on an academic and music scholarship, and I felt a huge amount of pressure to perform across the board. But going to a different specialist music school for sixth form was the best thing that happened and probably the moment I became really serious about pursuing a career in music.
I then went on to do six years at The Royal College of Music (pauses) If  I wasn’t a cellist, I would probably be a conductor… I did a conducting module in my masters and it suits me because I am bossy. (laughs) I also really love orchestral playing and conductors can guide overall feeling of a piece. It’s also much better paid.

Zara Hudson Kozdoj by Denzel Gaisie 

Do you think your exposure to classical music through your mum has been a critical part of your journey?
Definitely...if you haven’t been exposed to classical music in your home environment or from a young age, it is a language that is difficult to understand -  
Do you listen to a lot of classical music?
Not a huge amount beyond listening to a piece I am learning. I listen to reggae and dub, jazz, pop. My boyfriend subjects me to classic rock (laughs). I do occasionally listen to big pieces like Mozart’s Requiem – this is really when I want to be moved… The other composers I love are Eric SatieChopin (obviously being half Polish), Brahms, Sibelius – I find their musical language is more accessible.
Are there specific composers you enjoy playing more?
I love playing the big ones like Brahms & Bach and in terms of contemporary composers, I think Errollyn Wallen is amazing – I have just played her cello piece called Dervish and I played Concerto Grosso with Chineke! and The Mighty River which is about the abolition of slave trade.
Why do you think it's rarer to find younger people that are interested in this type of music?
I think  it comes down to the fact that at a pop concert you can dance drink, chat – it’s more of a social experience. Classical music used to be like that – it was after- dinner entertainment or played in the house and probably not taken so seriously but now there’s more of a performance around going to a concert and being well behaved that’s not so appealing. I also believe there is a big barrier to entry for POC. My dad is black and my mum is white so I can flip between two mindsets but when you go to an orchestral concert, you barely see any black people in the orchestra-
Or the audience...
Well exactly. It feels very odd. We live in a multi-cultural hub here in the UK, we should have a mixed audience and mixed performers. I’ve been playing with the Chineke! orchestra for five years and it’s really interesting how diverse their audiences there are. There’s not the same sense of formality, people clap in the wrong places but no one cares! There are all these myths – like the myth about clapping in the wrong places – musicians I know don’t care if you clap in the wrong place. It shows that you are enjoying it and that’s what matters. 
I would also say that there has been progress. I have just finished a module on women in music and  Errollyn Wallena black female composer was saying that she had seen a shift for the good during her career.
What do you think needs to happen to push the needle?
It’s a really hard question but ultimately, for racism in classical music to end it has to end at a societal level. I have a lot of hope in my generation to push this change further. Seeing young black musicians like Sheku Kanneh-Mason in mainstream media is also powerful. Having said that,  I do also worry that public funding cuts will affect exactly the type of person we need to see at the front of this change
I also think there’s an opportunity in creating performances in non-traditional classical performance venues. Creating a space where people feel like they can drift in and out, stand up, get a drink – removing that pressure of having to sit still and watch something for hours of end… I would go to events like this. Of course, you still need to make sure that there is a sense of performance but it’s about loosening the parameters on how audiences are ‘meant to behave.’ Also switching up the presentation - have you heard of 12ensemble?

Well, what they’re doing is amazing. They perform in all sorts of places It’s a lot funner than going to see a 12-piece ensemble at a traditional venue- it’s so refreshing.
Now that you are graduating have you given much thought as to what's next?
Well, before the crisis, my income was split equally between teaching & performance. In an ideal world, I would like to re-balance this and do more performance if I can. I also do a lot of cross-genre work – I play with a garage group and I would love to do more of this. Success to me – is playing different types of concerts regularly at a high standard to people that appreciate it… that’s it.


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