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Harps & Trumpets

Rebecca Toal is a talented harpist and trumpet player based in Tottenham. Currently studying at Royal Academy of Music, Rebecca has a wealth of experience performing at weddings, corporate events and functions, and well known venues such as Royal Albert Hall and the Barbican. She is also involved in a mental-health-oriented running group called Run Talk Run which seeks to create a safe, friendly, confidential space for people to chat about anything and everything, whilst advocating the benefits of running in mental health maintenance. Rachel Ho caught up with Rebecca to find out more.

Photo supplied: Rebecca Toal

Where did you grow up and what did your parents do?

I moved around a bit when I was younger, but always around the Hampshire/Berkshire area. When I was 14, I started at a boarding school in Somerset and so spent most of my time there until I moved to London in 2014 to study music. My father is a sales and marketing director and my mother is a lawyer, and so were a bit alarmed when I said I was going to go and become a freelance musician! 

Describe your relationship to Tottenham.

I have lived in Tottenham for a few years now and love it. I moved here from East London, looking for something a bit more homely, exciting and with a few more green spaces, but didn't realise quite how much I would appreciate the area and now I really feel like I'm settled here for good!

Tottenham has become the place I identify with: the green parks and canals I run around most days, the streets I walk through to get to my Tottenham-based music students, my favourite coffee shops and quiet spaces. I like that it's still got the nitty-gritty London feel in some parts, and yes sure, you have to be careful when it's dark, but it keeps me in touch with reality. I've always been privileged to live in very picturesque, little villages & towns, but I find that you end up in a bit of a bubble, disconnected from society. Tottenham to me is the right mix of everything. 

How did you get into playing the harp, trumpet & piano and what inspires you?

I first started out on the piano because that's what all my friends were doing back in Year 3. I would definitely recommend this, as it gives you a great musical basis on which to build up from. Being able to physically see the notes, and differentiate between the black and white ones is extremely useful, especially as a child!

I took up the trumpet next because my mum had played it in her youth but, unfortunately, had had to give it up. I actually hated playing it for such a long time because all the kids at my school would laugh at my puffy cheeks and my face going red, so I didn't really enjoy it until I was at a music-specialist school, and funny trumpet faces were the norm.

The harp came just after starting trumpet - I remember a family friend playing her teeny tiny harp in our kitchen and from then on I wouldn't shut up about wanting to learn. Everyone always comments on how different the trumpet and the harp are, and how strange it must be to play both. For me, it's been a lot of fun to discover the two different sound worlds, and they seem to complement each other very well. My neighbours obviously prefer the harp...

Photo supplied: Rebecca playing the harp.

I find inspiration most in my colleagues and professors at my music college, The Royal Academy of Music, where I'm currently studying for my Masters degree.

Of course I am always listening to recordings and going to concerts, but to see the process of practice and performing up close amongst people you know and see every day can be even more motivational. You see them having to deal with their daily stresses, busyness and emotions, whilst also having to perform to a high standard no matter what. 

Tell us about some of the most memorable places you have performed?

When I was about 11, my harp ensemble performed on a Blue Peter Christmas special and I remember being completely in awe of the TV cameras, the actors, the venue and the audience. I couldn't believe that everybody wanted to hear us play! In all fairness, that feeling of "wow!" never really goes away when you're sitting on stage and you see the huge auditorium filling up just before the lights go down.

Since then I have been lucky enough to perform in many extraordinary venues, such as The Barbican, The Royal Albert Hall, Lambeth Palace and St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. It feels very different performing on trumpet and the harp - with the harp, you are usually tucked away at the side of an orchestra or in the corner of a wedding reception. Playing the trumpet, you are usually on risers, slap-bang in the middle of the orchestra, and everyone can hear everything you play!

What advice would you give to women who want to perform music as a profession?

Being a female musician is getting easier but there are still certain obstacles that male musicians don't have to face. It is of course, slightly different on the harp as it is already seen as quite a feminine instrument.

However, the brass & percussion section of the orchestra has historically been very much male-dominated, and so being a female brass player goes against the stereotype. Some people will automatically assume you can't play loudly/strongly “because you’re a girl”, and proving them wrong can be fun.

On the other hand, don’t feel you have to be defined by being a female musician - at the end of the day, you should strive to be the best YOU can be, whatever your gender. Fortunately we are seeing a lot more female brass musicians nowadays, but there is still some way to go with dissolving the stereotypes. 

You are also involved with Run Talk Run, tell us more about that.

Run Talk Run is a Running Mental Health Support Group. We are a physical & virtual running community committed to supporting each other and being open about mental health - physical in the sense that we have “real” runs worldwide, where we come together on a weekly basis for a gentle 5k jog and a chat, and virtual in the sense that we have a wonderful online community too. I lead the Baker Street branch and we run round Regents Park every Thursday lunchtime. We have a wonderful core group of runners but are always looking for new people to join us!

Photo supplied: Rebecca's Run Talk Run Group

Run Talk Run aims to be as inclusive as possible, and so we are open to all abilities of runner - beginners included! It is never the responsibility of the people at the back to keep up with the people at the front. There is absolutely no pressure on anybody to have to talk about anything either. In fact, you are more than welcome to come along and Monday anything, or you might chat the whole way round about what you’ll have for dinner, or you might feel like talking out a problem you’re working through. No topic is off-limits.

Asa woman, how do you think Tottenham has changed? What would you like to see change?

Although I have only lived here for a few years, I do feel like it is becoming easier to be a women here. As mentioned above, yes of course you have to be careful when walking around at nighttime, but that is same anywhere.

Being a runner, I do occasionally get catcalled, but this would never stop me from running and I am proud of that. In fact, I have certainly noticed an increase in the number of women runners out and about, which leads me to believe that women feel more confident and comfortable exercising in and around Tottenham.

Despite this increase, I think it is important not to become complacent and that more can be done to empower women in the area.

Perhaps some women-led communities/body-confidence or other such empowering groups/more female-lead initiatives? 

Favourite thing to do in Tottenham?

I absolutely love going to Finsbury Parkrun (not sure if this is strictly in Tottenham) - the volunteers and runners there couldn't be friendlier, and it's only two laps around what is a surprisingly pretty park! Aside from that, I love to run laps around Lordship Rec, hanging out at Blend cafe on Green Lanes, and taking a trip to Tottenham marshes at sunrise.

Anything you would like to add?

No thank you, but would just like to say how grateful I am for your work and for this interview!

Find out more about Rebecca and Run Talk Run:

#womenmusicians #harpist #womenbrassplayers #classicalmusic #running #mentalhealth


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