Inspiration, Perspiration and PianoLAB

By May 24, 2014

Music. Leeds.

“…the thought of spending all my life behind a piano, working on the same piece day in, day out did not excite me at all…”


After graduating from Leeds College of Music in 2010, uncertain of a particular career path, Neil Balfour went on to start his own company, PianoLAB. PianoLAB began by offering music tuition, but in just 3 years, the Company has developed into a successful, music-making and learning experience for young people across Yorkshire.

With a variety of talents and skills under his belt, Neil tells TSOTA the ups and downs of his journey…

My name is Neil Balfour. I am about to turn 25 and I am a musician and educator. Being a musician is sometimes frustrating, exhausting, endless and low-paid but would I change it? Not for the world…

I was just 17 when I decided to pursue music and quickly gave up studying for my A-levels. I enrolled in a full 2-year music A-Level in one year, obtained three Grade 8 exams and began the full music conservatoire auditions process. One exhausting year later I arrived at the doorstep of Leeds College of Music full of hope and wonder, ready to see what the lecturers of Classical Music had to throw at me.

During my degree I specialised in classical piano. Due to a lack of male singers I also ended up singing solos in chamber choir concerts and operas and also conducting the odd movement from a symphony. Throughout my musical journey my individual tutors were always emphasising the need to ‘practice your instrument and craft’ to become that ‘ultimate concert pianist’.

Here was my first major obstacle: the thought of spending all my life behind a piano working on the same piece day in, day out did not excite me at all. I’m half Indian, half Scottish, brought up in Spain, moved to London when I was 9 and spent my teens in rural Lancashire – diversity is definitely my favoured spice! So I decided to make my own path.

During my second year, I had cultivated a deep love for Classical Lieder Musical Theatre, orchestral conducting, pop vocal composition, electronic music and music education. There was not a career option that encompassed all of these and absolutely no one encouraged the pursuit of all of them, so (regardless) I forged my own. I spent the next 4 years of my life working tirelessly to try and sculpt what I am told is a ‘portfolio career’ and hopefully sew the seeds for a long lasting life in music.

This brings me to my company, PianoLAB. I never wanted to like (thought I would like) teaching, but I do. Children are innocent, full of untapped imagination and uninfluenced creativity. I wanted to give young people (or anyone for that matter) the chance to play music and not be confined to tutors who only wanted their students to become mini versions of themselves. Diversity is the spice of life and in a country where the education system is dominated by grades, targets and gaining UCAS points at the age of 7, I wanted to push music completely away from that and focus on teaching and playing purely for the love of it. Is it that bad to want to learn how to play an instrument to fulfill your bedroom dream of shredding that ultimate guitar solo on stage? No it isn’t, and it’s really fun.

PianoLAB. [Photo: James Breadmore. All work is copyright of]

PianoLAB. [Photo: James Breadmore. All work is copyright of]

Countless times I came across young music students who studied tirelessly for exams without ever having played in public. I was outraged!

PianoLAB puts on workshops and concerts for its pupils throughout the year to give them the chance to do this – actually perform music. It also advertises other instrumental teachers (for which I get no financial benefit) that have the same ethos as myself. Every teacher is someone I know personally and work with on many different levels in the Leeds music scene. Eventually, the cross-instrument performances will increase and small ensembles will form but for now I am happy that the students are simply out of their living rooms and standing on a stage. As well as this, I have started putting on workshops for groups of young singers and instrumentalists across the UK spreading the ethos of diversity, fun and performance.

I guess what it comes down to is I love what I do and with serious dedication, unerring commitment and a little luck you can turn what you love into something you do for a living. Students get into music because they love a certain aspect of it, be it song-writing, arranging, performance or even the social aspect. This needs to be at the forefront of all teaching – we are no longer in an age where it is every child’s dream to be a concert pianist. It is okay to want to make music from laptop regardless of what I or anybody else thinks about that!


Here’s a little excerpt from a birthday card one of my piano pupils (who not that unrealistically aspires to be a contemporary musical/visual artist) gave to me:

“I’ve come up with an ethos for myself and I have it written above my bedroom wall. It reads:

Being good at many things is a positive. Use it. Combine music, your eye for art, your love for music and picture to capture the world’s attention. Then you can be yourself and people will follow…..

Enjoy the beer!”

Music affects him radically, and with a little guidance, this young man has made a giant step forward in his own self-realisation. There is nothing financial about it he really did ask himself the question: ‘what makes me truly happy?’ Reading it makes me even more passionate about wanting to inspire young musicians and to open every musical door possible to cultivate the ‘world is your oyster’ mentality.

I currently conduct choirs and musical theatre shows, accompany singers, tour with an originals band, gig with a function band, compose electronic music, teach piano and singing, and record for an assortment of independent producers.

Looking back now from my little recording room in my flat I would never have dreamed I would be where I am today, but with complete passion, hard work, a clear vision and perseverance it’s worked. If you want something hard enough and are willing to work for it, you can make it happen.

Video and audio examples can be found at and anyone interested in teaching, putting on workshops, studying or even just a chat and a brew can get in touch with Neil on the address below.

[email protected]

Follow Neil @neil_balfour









Filed under: Music