Photo Credit: Maria Alzamora

Course Studied: BA (Hons) Music (Jazz)

Year of Graduation: 2015

 Top Career Highlights:

Since graduating in 2015 with a BA (Hons) degree in Jazz, vocalist Nel Begley has found her feet in the British jazz scene as a vocalist, composer and educator.

Alongside performing with her jazz quartet, Nel is also a vocalist in Rafe's Dilemma - a group which provides an eclectic mix of spoken word, improvisation, synthesised soundscapes and carefully crafted songs.

Outside of a busy performance schedule, Nel has hosted vocal workshops and worked as a vocal tutor for a number of educational institutions including Leeds Junior Conservatoire, Hackney Music, Collaborative Sound and the Global Music Foundation.

What have you been up to since graduating?

Since leaving the conservatoire I've been up to all sorts... I guess figuring what areas I work best in. This has ranged from performing with festival band The After Hours, a huge range of jazz ensembles, running events and choirs and a wide variety of teaching including for The Global Music Foundation, Collaborative Sound, Leeds Junior Conservatoire and now Hackney Music.

What made you aspire to become a musician?

I've been singing and performing since I was about 7, mainly in choirs and local musical theatre companies. When I was about 12 my choir sang with the Laurie Holloway Trio and my ideas of the possibilities of music changed. I attended Montgomery Holloway Music Trust summer schools ran by the trio and found out that people could do degrees in Jazz!! But in honesty, it was only after being at the conservatoire for a few months that I considered being a musician professionally might be possible.

What was your favourite thing about studying jazz? How important were the connections you made during your time at the conservatoire?

Having been something I'd mainly practiced alone, or had glimpses at, it was incredible to meet people who were into the same thing - it was a revelation. Having the opportunity to play with so many different musicians was incredible and I began to understand the possibilities different ensembles created. I've always loved big bands and have found no greater rush than performing with one  - in particular the SU Big Band I set up with some friends!

The connections I've made through the conservatoire are so important, not only incredible friendships but also professional partnerships. Due to the high standard of jazz musicians that come from the conservatoire, it is always easy to establish new partnerships with musicians and find work in the field of music.

Having performed all over the UK, what has been your favourite gig to date?

Hmm… I actually don't know how to answer that one, so many gigs are brilliant for totally different reasons. I had a headline gig at Pizza Express Soho a couple of years ago and that was such a great honour, but one performance that sticks out was at a tiny little venue in Darwen Bar 39, it was crammed with the most enthusiastic listening audience I've ever had, we were performing new material and it was really special!

You play in Jazz quartet ‘Rafe’s Dilemma’ alongside Jamil Sheriff, Katie Patterson and Pete Turner – how was Rafe’s Dilemma formed?

Rafe's Dilemma formed from a commission from the Bolton Worktown Festival. The focus of the festival was to celebrate playwright Bill Naughton and Jamil asked if I wanted to compose a set of music with him based on the play 'Spring and Port Wine'. It was a really new approach for me as I'd not written to a brief before and not created such an extensive amount of material collaboratively. We then with Katie and Sam Vicary recorded our first album with Sam Hobbs and have performed at a number of jazz festivals. We're now writing some new material which is very exciting!

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Photo Credit: Maria Alzamora

What has support from the likes of Jazz North and Arts Council England enabled the band to achieve?

I cannot thank Jazz North and Arts Council England (ACE) enough for the support they've given us - their help has enabled us to create so much more than music, establishing the project to the professional standard we wanted. With help from ACE we were able to master and release our first album alongside a funded tour and via Jazz North's Northern Line we have secured a number of performances (with ever changing dates but fingers crossed these will be able to happen soon). Keep your eyes peeled on what Jazz North are up to, they bring so much life and drive into the jazz scene and they are a rich resource of artist/promoter support, education and more!

Storytelling is an essential part of the project. How do you convey various perspectives and emotions through your compositions, and sound?

The project fuses improvisation, compositions and a range of spoken word, field recordings and clips to create our sound-world. So much thought goes into everything from the sound and emotions we want to tap into within improvisations to how exactly spoken word and recordings are manipulated. I generally work with these audio layers using my RC-505 looper, which in a band setting may not always be the easiest to handle but has some brilliant effects that tie everything together.

How does your approach differ when working as a featured artist to ensembles in which you are a core member?

As a featured artist I always enjoy being directed and exploring how I can create sound appropriate for the project. I feel that when someone has a clear idea for what they want me to do it opens up a different sort of freedom, as I know my restrictions and am forced to work and create in new ways.

In projects I lead I have to invest a lot of creative energy in the writing process, it can take me quite a while to create a song I feel satisfied with. When I bring new songs to Rafe's Dilemma the sound shifts dramatically and unpredictably which I always love - they push me to explore sounds deeper.

Could you tell us a little bit about your involvement with the Global Music Foundation?

Stephen Keogh runs Global Music Foundation and offers a number of scholarships to graduates from the major music colleges including Leeds Conservatoire. On the first year I received a scholarship place and have been involved ever since. I've been to 5 now, teaching vocal improvisation and body music and working as coordinator during the courses. Since the first lockdown Stephen has worked incredibly hard to deliver live-streamed jazz performances as many as 5 times a week. Alongside this he has hosted a great series of workshops including Sunday morning Tai Chi, meditation and vocal freedom (the latter I lead) - these are still going ahead, you can find more information here!

What advice would you give to an aspiring jazz vocalist?

Do it… and keep singing as much as possible!

Make sure you're checking out as many artists as possible, both singers and instrumentalists and practice as much as you can with other musicians. I think for many singers one can feel like a bit of a burden as we pick the songs, often change the key and then perform songs in tempos instrumentalists usually wouldn't - always respect that and musicians will too (even if not at first) - if you know how you want something to sound your clarity will lead the other musicians. Have confidence in that.

Follow Nel on Facebook, or check out her website

Listen to Rafe's Dilemma on Spotify or Bandcamp

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