Last month a new young star of classical music made his solo debut at the Royal Albert Hall.
Aged just 19, French horn player Ben Goldscheider strode confidently out in front of an audience of 5,000 to play Mozart’s Horn Concerto.
The enchanting performance on an instrument that musicians say is one of the most difficult to master came a year after Ben won the 2016 Brass Final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, and months after being accepted into the prestigious Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin.
Aged just 19, French horn player Ben Goldscheider strode confidently out in front of an audience of 5,000 to play Mozart’s Horn Concerto
But what makes his achievements even more remarkable is that he suffers from an incurable lung condition.
His childhood was beset by lung infections, vicious coughs and breathing problems, for which he was prescribed regular courses of antibiotics.
Concerned, his parents pushed for further investigation and, at the age of six, following extensive tests performed under general anaesthetic at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London, he was diagnosed with the chronic lung condition bronchiectasis.
This is a disease in which the airways of the lungs become scarred and inflamed, leading to a build-up of mucus, which gets trapped and can become infected. It can be caused by chest infections or immune-system problems, although the true trigger is not always clear.
Ben’s parents, Chris and Nicola, both professional musicians, say they were shocked to hear the news. His father said: ‘The doctors treating Ben said he was likely to require daily medicinal care for the rest of his life, and regular monitoring.
‘We were also told that he would possibly find physical limitations in certain situations due to his lung function. At the time of his diagnosis, his lung function was less than 50 per cent.
But what makes his achievements even more remarkable is that he suffers from an incurable lung condition
‘Ben was already a keen footballer who played for a local team, so it was quite incredible to hear this news. Other than regularly suffering from lung infections, he was fine,’ says Chris.
Ben believes his condition is the result of mismanagement of severe acid reflux, which he had as a baby. ‘The bottom sixth or seventh of my left lung was totally filled with mucus,’ he says. ‘I remember having huge problems with coughing as a small child.’
Although it is incurable, bronchiectasis can be managed. Ben had to take three different types of antibiotics daily, which caused unpleasant side effects such as stomach upsets.
‘We were told that he would most likely have to take them for the rest of his life,’ says Chris. ‘He also had to have physiotherapy at home twice a day to clear his lungs of excess mucus.’
Ben says: ‘If I caught a cold or respiratory virus, I would be very ill and find it hard to breathe. There was one holiday when I didn’t sleep for a week because my lungs were so bad. I’d be up crying and coughing all night.’
Ben was already learning to play the cello. But when he was nine, his parents decided he should learn a brass instrument instead, to help his breathing and lungs.
‘It dawned on me that brass and woodwind players have fantastic lung capacity and control,’ says Chris. ‘So at Ben’s next hospital appointment, we discussed with his doctors whether taking up a brass or woodwind instrument would aid in his treatment. They said anything that would make him work his lungs harder would be of benefit.’
Why did Ben choose the French horn?
He explains: ‘It’s a lovely instrument and not as popular as the trumpet – so there are more job prospects than for the trombone or tuba.’
The French horn is considered a difficult instrument to play as it has a four-octave range, yet just three keys, meaning that the adjustments must come from the strength of the player’s lips and mouth – and lungs.
But Ben says he found it easier to play than the cello.
Even though his bronchiectasis made breathing difficult, and he continued to go to the Royal Brompton every three weeks for treatment and lung-capacity tests, he proved to be a natural player.
While the condition did initially make it difficult to play some pieces – particularly those that allowed him no room for taking breaths within long melodies – with the help of his teacher he found techniques to work around his limitations.
When he was 11, Ben won a place at the Royal College of Music’s Saturday school.
‘It was there that I found my love of music,’ he recalls. ‘I realised it was something I could sit in my room and do for as long as I wanted, and I could get better at it.
Mr Goldscheider made his solo debut at the Royal Albert Hall in a performance last night
‘Until then I’d preferred playing football with my friends – I trained at the Tottenham Hotspur Academy, and also played tennis at a national level.
‘But at 13, I decided I wanted to do nothing else but play the horn, and I sacrificed my sports for it. Within a year I’d also decided I wanted to be the best in the world. I believe my sports training taught me the discipline I needed to excel.’
It was also at 13 that Ben was discharged from treatment at the Royal Brompton. ‘They said you don’t need to come back unless you’ve got a problem. And I haven’t been back since.
‘Thanks to my playing, my bronchiectasis stopped being a daily problem. The period between infections became greater and greater.’
Dr Nicholas Hopkinson, consultant respiratory physician at the Royal Brompton, and medical adviser to the British Lung Foundation, says that part of the reason for the improvement in Ben’s condition is that his lungs have grown larger as he has aged.
But he agrees that playing the French horn has also helped Ben because it requires him to use his entire lung capacity.
In bronchiectasis, the airways of the lungs (bronchi) become abnormally wide, leading to a build-up of mucus that can make lungs more prone to infection.
It affects one in every 1,000 adults. Over 12,000 were admitted to hospital in England in 2013-14, the majority over 60.
The most common symptoms include a persistent, phlegmy cough and breathlessness. Severity varies widely.
It can develop if the tissues that surround the bronchi are damaged by a childhood lung infection such as pneumonia or whooping cough. However, in many cases there is no obvious cause.
The damage done to the lungs by bronchiectasis is permanent, but exercises and antibiotics can help to relieve the symptoms.
The doctor says: ‘One of the ways to keep your lungs clear is to breathe more, which is why exercise is so important for people with bronchiectasis. It means there aren’t areas where infection can accumulate so much, and it helps to clear sputum.
‘Playing an instrument well also requires good posture, which is very important for lung health.
‘Any activity that involves using your lungs is good and helpful. For some it might be playing a brass or wind instrument, or for others it might be singing. The British Lung Foundation has a network of Singing for Lung Health Groups across the UK.’
Ben’s mother Nicola says she is exceptionally proud of her son, both for his achievements and for his hard work. ‘Ben’s sheer self-drive and determination have shaped his life and career.
Even when we used to make the regular journeys into London from home in Hertfordshire to see the lung specialists at the Royal Brompton, he had this boundless positive spirit, which for a young boy of six was unusual.
‘He never complained. He just wanted to get better. He beat the odds. He has proved to himself, me, the doctors, that he could get himself off medication and live a normal life. His motivation has remained a central part of his life and personality.’
In September, Ben will record his first album, which comes out in 2018. He is about to make his debut at the Philharmonie in Berlin, and Daniel Barenboim, director of music at the Berlin State Opera, has asked him to play first horn on his orchestra’s summer tour.
‘I want to try to become the best musician I can and to promote the French horn as a solo instrument,’ says Ben. ‘I’m very conscious that I need to stay healthy. Being a musician is a tough profession – you play with your whole body – so I try to exercise and eat healthily.
‘I always have a flu jab and try to avoid getting colds, which can lead to flare-ups. Hopefully, I can keep my bronchiectasis at bay.’