Lift Up Your Voices!

Composer Anna Appleby is urging women to take their rightful place in a world of music dominated by men. So, if you have something to say, use the power of your voice – and say it.

Composer Anna Appleby wants to open up new opportunities for women composers, give a voice to the voiceless and empower her young students not to be afraid and let their voices be heard.

After picking up the oboe at the age of ten, Anna had a ‘turning point’ when she was invited to play the  Mozart oboe concerto in the school orchestra at Central Newcastle High School (now Newcastle High School for Girls) just five years later.

Now 25, she was encouraged by her school, which placed emphasis on the arts, and the support she was given by music teacher Richard Gooding (who nominated her for the GDST Trailblazer Award).

“My school created a nurturing environment for the arts; the arts were taken seriously and celebrated as much as the sciences and sport. In a sense they were an equal player in the school’s image and ethos and that really helped to foster a community there,” Anna says.

The ‘eccentric’ oboe was Anna’s musical instrument of choice.

“It cuts through the heart of the orchestra, and I think it takes quite a lot of confidence to play it,” she says.

“People often have that relationship with their musical instrument, it can say something that they might not necessarily be able to express [in any other way]. It’s a really powerful thing.”

Anna started writing music at school but composition became her calling during her time at St Hilda’s College, Oxford: she just knew she had to write music.

The idea of creating something from nothing, improvising and trusting your creative instinct is what composing is about, she says.

“You take an idea that’s just yours and you trust it…”

“… taking it through a development process that can be quite mathematical,” she says. “But at the root of it, you have to trust your ideas and guide them through a process until a listener will connect with them in some way. It’s an empowering thing to do.”

Anna Appleby GDST Alumna

Anna says that finding your voice is something that takes perseverance; even a composer who is 80 might say they haven’t figured it out yet.

Anna’s two musical styles are clear: a contemporary classic style, which fuses fun, dance-based ideas with emotive melodies; and one in which she uses folk and jazz to uplift and energise people. She prefers writing for the voice as it’s something immediate that everyone can participate in.

But composing is not about sitting around waiting for the ideas to turn up – because they won’t, you have to work at it, she says.

“I can’t remember who said this, but it’s a favourite quote of mine –

“Inspiration will come, but it must find you working.”

She adds:“I really believe in that, but you must not overwork it either because if you are overworking you can run out of ideas altogether.”

Despite Anna achieving early acclaim for her work – writing for leading orchestras and being the youngest ever Music Fellow with the world-famous Rambert Dance Company – she says the world of musical composition is still one dominated by men, and women are being left out. Even musical history favours men. But the emphasis is shifting and women are challenging decisions made by men, who often choose male programmers and commissioners.

“They are unaware of this issue,” Anna says, “and they’ll just perpetuate what they know. So the trick is to challenge and to educate and to motivate by saying ‘actually the only future of classical music and of music and of the arts is to listen to all these women’s voices – we are already there’.”

A leading pioneer of change is Vanessa Reed, Chief Executive of the Performing Rights Society (PRS). She wants to see 50/50 commissioning of men and women composers in classical music by 2022, and the BBC Proms has already signed up to the initiative.

Anna is also a key part of the change and in October 2018 she was involved in the Sound Festival, a new music festival in Aberdeen that is addressing the imbalance of programme commissioning.

Anna says she also wants to see classical music reflect all parts of society, with composers of all ethnicities, disabilities and different gender identities involved in the arts.

“Being a woman from a privileged background, I have this opportunity to speak and to say this all needs to change for everyone – classical music is completely irrelevant and doesn’t belong in today’s society if it does not represent the population.”

One of Anna’s career highlights has been writing for Streetwise Opera, a performing arts charity for people who are or have been homeless.

She says:

“It changes the conversation around homelessness, it changes the image and says to society ‘look at these people, they have something to offer you and challenge you with.”

It’s not a one way system. Homelessness does not define them, it’s part of their experience and they can use that to make amazing art.”

Anna wants more girls and women to be part of the music world and for their voices to be heard.

“If you have something to say, find it and say it,” she says. “You have greater power using your voice than anything else, and music is a way of amplifying that voice.

For more information about Anna, visit her website at