Leeds College of Music graduate Michael Sluman on Paradox Orchestra mixing classical music with rock, pop and RnB

As the classical music sector faces unprecedented funding cuts, a graduate from the Leeds College of Music has overcome not just the challenges against the sector, but his own personal battles.

Michael Sluman, 32, founded Paradox Orchestra in 2020. The graduate of Leeds Conservatoire is now halfway through a PhD at the Royal Academy of Music.

Growing up in a mining town near Sheffield in a working-class family, he is a relative rarity in classical music. His father was a porter and mother a health-care assistant. As such, he’s all too aware how funding-cuts will impact on future young talent from backgrounds like his.

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Michael says: “I think I may have been part of the last generation to receive music lessons in the 70s and 80s when any child was able to access instrumental tuition through their local council.”

Paradox Orchestra perform.Paradox Orchestra perform.
Paradox Orchestra perform.

Without that access, which is now no longer widely available for free in state schools, Michael said he’d have “no idea” where his life would be now.

As it is, he’s forging new opportunities for classically-trained musicians in the city, while keeping alive ‘extinct’ classical instruments. The 30-piece Paradox Orchestra offers a vibrant platform for trained classical musicians, finding new audiences, playing packed gigs with renditions of RnB tunes, rock tracks, and pop classics.

Formed mainly of graduates from Leeds Conservatoire, its musicians have played with some of the biggest acts in pop, including Ed Sheeran, Marc Almond, Little Mix, Craig David, Sugarbabes, and Louis Tomlinson.

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Entirely self-funded by Michael, it has found innovative ways to become commercially viable. The orchestra has an inhouse team of orchestrators, DJs, musical arrangers, and tech staff, so are open to a range of collaborative projects.

Michael Sluman.Michael Sluman.
Michael Sluman.

This year sees an expansion within Paradox Orchestra with future plans to scale up to a symphonic 60-piece ensemble, which is currently in pre-production stage. It also sees the string section launch a new avenue for the orchestra as in the autumn it embarks on a series of acoustic classical concerts, starting with the music of Pink Floyd by candlelight at Manchester Cathedral on the November 10 and Leeds Minster on November 11.

Michael spent his twenties playing guest principal oboe in professional orchestras all over the world, performing in major concert Halls at locations such as Sydney, Tokyo, Seoul, Berlin, Dallas, Los Angeles, Granada, and New York.

A BBC Next Generation Artist, he’s also worked in jazz, with projects at the Barbican for the London Jazz Festival and North Sea Jazz Festival, performing with a hip hop orchestra with LA session composer, Miguel Atwood-Fergason. He’s also recorded Rob Keeley’s Triple Concerto for two oboe and cor anglais (English horn) with the Malaga Philharmonic, which is available from Toccata Records.

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Michael also works with Leeds based DJ, Angel Lee. The pair collaborated in writing Angie’s Disco Orchestra for sold out shows at Escape to Freight Island and Victoria Gate's East59th.

He says: “I find curating and writing shows incredibly stimulating. I believe we shouldn't limit our creativity and we should intuitively follow what is a forever changing landscape.”

Michael’s tenacity is perhaps tied into his own personal challenges. He almost left music as a student after struggling with anxiety and depression, dropping out in his second year at the Royal Northern College of Music, before transferring to Leeds College of Music.

“It was a really tough and a very internal struggle. I took a couple of years out, leaving music behind me for what seemed to be forever. I was struggling with a number of things - self-confidence, not feeling good enough, having panic attacks when performing in front of my peers, feeling constantly judged and just generally being very anxious.”

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He was recently diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia. “Being diagnosed on the neurodivergent spectrum completely transformed my perspective and explained the struggles I have felt. I put all my focus into Paradox Orchestra to ensure every aspect of the production has been meticulously over thought and analysed; I think of it as a kind of superpower now.”

Michael is also exploring projects using the orchestra to work with young offenders in the wider community, using music as a form of rehabilitation. “I am able to draw on all my experiences from my classical training, but also be open minded to new sounds, collaborations and opportunities, whilst not being scared to take risks.”

Part of his PhD is exploring this history of the bass oboe – his chosen instrument, that is largely considered ‘extinct.’ Michael says: “I take inspiration from masterpieces such as Holst’s The Planets, which feature an array of instruments which are now considered extinct, such as the bass oboe. Including these rarer symphonic instruments is I feel important to the orchestra’s identity. Our orchestrator, Laurence Mason, also has a passion for obscure instruments, so the collaboration works really well.” He adds: “If you come to one of our shows, you’ll experience a high-level of musicianship on stage. There’s a level of craftsmanship, professionalism, and showmanship with a large-scale orchestra and a world-class production. You can enjoy yourself, let loose and dance to music you enjoy listening to whilst experiencing a unique concert perspective.”

Paradox Orchestra performs Pink Floyd in Manchester Cathedral on November 10 and Leeds Minster on November 11, from 7.30pm. Tickets are available from Eventbrite and Skiddle from September 1st. Sign up for presale tickets at [email protected]