Interview: Uchenna Ngwe

We caught up with our new BMus in Popular Music Performance tutor to learn more about changing perspectives in classical music...


Uchenna Ngwe is a freelance classical musician, PhD researcher and now tutor on ICMP's BMus in Popular Music Performance programme. 

As a researcher and performer, much of Uchenna's efforts have been invested in unearthing the talents of black classical composers of the past. Her Decus Ensemble's recent project focused on exploring brilliant music from the likes of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Yannick Hiwat. 

We caught up with Uchenna to learn more about her and changing perspectives within the world of classical music...

How did you get involved with ICMP? 

I’ve known Professor Louise Jackson for a number of years through my PhD research, she is one of my supervisors, so I’ve been into ICMP before, met a few people. 

Last year I was invited to come and speak with some of the Masters students and present some of my research as a performer, researcher and activist in classical music. I did that, it went well and I met some great students. Then I was invited to come back and teach on this module. 

What are you hoping to get from the experience and how does it inform your own research? 

For me, it’s a great way of gathering together all my different interests. My training was in classical, the research I do is on the work of black musicians of African/Carribean descent in classical music, so lots of different influences from outside Europe. I work with lots of fusion sounds too while the music I listen to and grew up with is all very varied - from pop and hip hop to jazz.

Leading this module will give me a chance to consider all this and work with students to explore their interests too. We’ll all be able to share how we learn, think and write about music."

What was your route into classical music? 

I started by undertaking free music lessons at school. I was messing around on the piano at primary school and a teacher asked if I wanted to do music lessons. I went on the waiting list for piano, then picked the oboe while waiting for piano lessons. I played a bit of cello too, ended up going to Junior Trinity to have music lessons there, then did my undergrad there - now I’m back doing a PhD. They can’t get rid of me! My training is in classical but I’m always interested in collaborative projects outside the genre as well. I’m really interested in where people’s ideas come from which is the focus of my research. I work a lot on curating classical performances and trying to find different ways of presenting this to new audiences. 

Is classical music changing, becoming more diverse and younger? 

It’s interesting because I think the genre goes in cycles. There are older musicians from diverse backgrounds, then younger players from very similar backgrounds. If you look at socio-economic backgrounds, then it’s not really diversifying at all. But if you look at cultural backgrounds, then it is. It’s partly to do with the way funding and music education works. 

In terms of classical, there’s a lot of funding for projects but not necessarily individuals to take it to a high level. There are aspects of classical - such as accessing expensive instruments - which make it more restrictive than it needs to be, and a lot of that comes from socio-economic issues. 

Who do we expect to see in this world? Certain people will be put off or not encouraged because they don’t seem like they might be interested or encouraged. But if you give people more opportunity to explore it, then we’d end up with a more diverse field of players and professionals."

Alongside joining ICMP, what projects have been keeping you busy? 

My PhD has involved lots of research and navigating what I need to change due to the ongoing restrictions as we obviously can’t work with large orchestras now. 

I did a project with my Decus Ensemble called 'Hidden Sounds Experiment' back at the start of summer where we showcased the work of black composers. We recorded everything remotely so there was a lot of time spent trying to work this out. It was exhausting but one of the best things we’ve done. 

Have you any advice for any music students wanting to progress onto a PhD? 

You don’t need to be too specific at the start. 

Come up with an idea or topic, then find a mentor or supervisor who can help you with the proposal process. There you can narrow down what you want your research to focus on. 

Lots of people told me before I started that I need to understand it will change. You’ll get pushed in different directions so you need to be open to this from the beginning. But finding someone who can support you through this academically is really important. 

What is next for classical music? Are you optimistic about the future of the genre? 

Yes, there are organisations working to make classical music more relevant, coming up with new ideas learned from other genres on how these gigs can be presented and enjoyed - both as performers and listeners. 

There’s more flexibility in how music is staged, different income streams - the way we make money is changing with monetisation now from online. People are beginning to realise on a wide scale that we can’t stick to how we’ve been doing it over the last 250 years. 

Visit to find out more about Uchenna's musical work.

Photo credit: Clifton Harrison 

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by Jim Ottewill
October 12, 2020
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