Leeds Conservatoire student with love for classical piano and boxing to appear on Sky Arts film
“He had these really unique black and white jazz shoes,” Melvin Besbrode says. “And swagger.”
Like Melvin, Ellis was from a working-class background. A rarity in the rarefied world of classical piano. The pair hit it off.
And so when an opportunity arose as part of Leeds 2023: Year of Culture for artists to pitch ideas for a short film in response to the question: What’s worth fighting for?, Ellis put in an application, supported by Melvin and creative agency Cause UK.
Those selected for the opportunity, announced by a partnership of organisations including Studio 12, Leeds Libraries and digital agency, The Space, would have their films featured on Sky Arts.
Not only was Ellis an incredible pianist studying at Leeds Conservatoire, he was a boxer who grew up on a council estate with a single parent.
Ellis says: “I don’t really look like a classical pianist. I certainly don’t talk like one or act like one.”
He explains: “My mum worked different jobs to make sure there was food on the table. We had to leave the oven door open to keep the kitchen warm and warm the house. I really grew up with nothing, although my mum always made us feel we had something.”
At primary school, he heard classical music for the first time as it played during assembly. “All I really knew of music was what mum played in the car – old school R&B and hip hop – so when I heard classical music, I thought what is this? It was one of the most beautiful sounds I’d ever heard. So, at that point I got into classical music and I fell in love with it.”
As he was from a low-income family, he was eligible for a free instrument lesson at his school and started learning piano at 11. “My mum that following Christmas saved and got a really basic keyboard from Argos.
"It was the first instrument I’d ever owned and I practised on that. I stuck with it and worked harder, all through high school. Then when I got my very first job at the local Co-op part-time, I could pay for private lessons.”
The music offered escape. “It was a very unique way of expression. It connected to part of my soul, it’s the only way to describe it. You listen to this music and go into your own world.
"I remember the minute I heard a Chopin ballad; I was like, this is what I want to do with myself, this is as good as it gets. I must have been 12.”
Meanwhile, his mates on the estate were getting into trouble. “I didn’t really have any friends on my council estate because most of them were doing illegal stuff. Classical music was this wonderful kind of distraction. It was more like an obsession when I discovered it.”
Then came the boxing. “I got jumped by this group of kids that beat the heck out of me. It made me so insecure – my pride was hurt – and I thought, damn, I don’t want to feel this scared. Boxing would instil confidence in myself. I just wanted to do it so I could know how to fight, and get to be tough.
"But as I started to get into it, I realised it’s not just learning to fight. I think if I never did it there’s a real high chance I would have got into trouble with the police at some point, but boxing grounded me.
"For me it really centres me. Boxing has done more for me in terms of getting me on a good path than anything else has.”
Cause UK, which specialises in supporting the arts, as well as curating their own cultural events, wanted to create a film that would showcase Ellis – as well as original music.
The agency had worked closely with the composer and conductor Ben Crick to relaunch the newly reformed Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra to support pandemic-hit northern musicians and felt Ben was the perfect fit to compose an original piece that Ellis could play for the film.
Born in Huddersfield, the son of a council worker and teacher, and the grandson of miners, if Ben were a stick of rock, he’d have the word ‘Yorkshire’ running through him. He is determined to make classical music accessible to all; one of his gigs was an orchestra playing a Mozart symphony outside Sainsbury’s in Leeds station.
The film ‘Working Classical Heroes’ won the commission from Sky Arts out of many of entries. The next stage was bringing in a director, a local filmmaker that Cause UK had worked with for many years - Katie Greenhalf.
Clair Challenor-Chadwick, director of Cause UK, says: “Katie just threw all her dedication, passion, and energy into it and worked incredibly hard on a very tight budget.
"She secured a director of photography she knew would add the wow-factor. Then after two very long days filming, she didn’t sleep for a week editing the whole thing together.”
Ellis is now in his third year at Leeds Conservatoire. The hope is that the film will give him exposure to a wider audience, and even inspire others who might not have thought it was for them to get into classical music – as listeners or musicians.
As Ellis says: “The piano is such a universe of complex emotions, you have 88 keys but there is not one spectrum of colour or emotion that cannot be represented. It’s a gift.”
Other films as part of the Leeds 2023 Future Perfect opportunity include: The Last Day – Gomolemo Nyakale; Moon Palace – East Leeds Project; and Push Through, Push Through – Isla Hurst.