I’ve been writing music for more than 30 years but it’s only in the past few years that my work has started to reach a wide audience. Although I had written piano pieces from the age of eight, it was only after I was married and my children were at school that I started writing in earnest. My mother had been a great influence on me. She played the piano and accordion and found me a piano teacher when I was six. I was taught a wide classical repertoire and entered for various music festivals. She used to give me a list of pieces by Beethoven and Chopin that she required me to play for my daily piano practice. Even when I was married she used to call me to tell me that I should tune in to the Third Programme [now Radio 3] to hear Composer of the Week. And now I realise how grateful I am to her. Her passion has become mine.
When I first started out in the music business, the reasons given for rejecting me and my work were, predictably enough, that I was too young and too inexperienced. Over the years I’ve heard every reason under the sun why my music wasn’t suitable for a particular project. In the early days, a music publisher offered to promote me as a singer/songwriter. I turned him down, as I had no desire to perform and preferred to sit at home writing and looking after my children. Later on, I was told I was not hungry enough and that I was too old. These continual rejections took their toll on my confidence and my spirit. Many times my family advised me to give up writing music and to find a sphere of work where I would be more welcome.
Although I was discouraged, I carried on writing because my reward was the satisfaction of crafting a melodic phrase and adding the perfect harmony. I gradually became less sensitive to what people thought of my work; I saw other people in the business whose work I admired being rejected. It didn’t actually matter. There are too many musically talented people for everyone to get recognition.
I wasn’t ecstatic about being called Brenda (not a cool name for a composer) but it wasn’t until I changed it that I realised what a difference it could make. A producer in New York gave me the idea. He picked out my initials from my business card and said: 'BB Cooper, now that’s a good name for a composer.' I began to use it immediately and couldn’t believe how differently people treated me. They couldn’t tell I was a woman unless they spoke to me.
Until then, I was writing mostly for musical theatre, which I love because you get an instant reaction from the audience. However, a breakthrough came with the stage version of The Jungle Book, which is now in the second year of its tour. Neal Foster, the remarkable actor/manager of the Birmingham Stage Company, was looking for a composer and I noticed that his office was a short walk from my home, so I decided to drop in some of my music in person. I don’t know whether this helped but I ended up being chosen out of a field of around 50 composers.
I have written many styles of music and dislike being pigeonholed. I know how to find my way around the various musical worlds. The theatre is a good one to work in; the worst for prejudices of all kinds is the pop industry. My next project is music for a feature film. I disagree with the idea that songs for children need to be simple. I enjoy writing jazz, especially for children’s shows. I find it rewarding that very small children come to experience the magic of the theatre for the first time and hear music that I’ve written. The look on their faces makes up for all the years of rejection.
In the past three years I’ve formed my own publishing company and record label and have released three CD albums. I enjoy working with jazz singers, especially those who bring a creative vocal interpretation to my music, like Jacqui Dankworth, Trudi Kerr, Christine Tobin, Gwyneth Herbert and Barb Jungr, with whom I collaborated on The Jungle Book. A favourite of mine is jazz singer Ian Shaw, who arranged and produced my two latest albums.
My work has brought me into contact with some extraordinary, creative people who lead very different lives from my own. My husband’s work doesn’t involve creative people, so I am able to leave all of that behind when we’re together. We get a good balance.
The best thing about being a recognised composer is being part of a skilled and gifted team that cares about music. The success, though, isn’t as important as doing what I want to do and keeping my passion alive.
This article originally appeared in The Financial Times Magazine