Carol Jarvis – A Different Normality

As one of Britain’s most in-demand trombonists, Carol Jarvis has achieved enormous success since graduating in 2001. She’s toured the world with the likes of Sting and Seal, performed with the UK’s leading orchestras, and presented masterclasses to aspiring young musicians across the globe. But in 2004, Carol was dealt a devastating blow when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She shares her story with Hallam Fulcher.

Sixteen years ago, Carol Jarvis was well on her way to becoming one of the UK’s most successful and versatile trombonists. Performing with leading orchestras – including the Hallé, BBC Philharmonic and Orchestra of Opera North – since joining the RNCM in 1996, her career was fast developing to include session music, orchestration and arranging.

But while things were flying high for the then 26-year-old, life quickly put a halt to plans when she was diagnosed with stage 2a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

‘I battled cancer for nine-and-a-half years,’ says Carol, who returned to the RNCM in 2019 as a Tutor in Trombone.

‘I hadn’t been out of college long and my prognosis was really bad. I was resistant to chemotherapy and all of the treatments I tried failed consistently, over and over and over again.’

To increase her chance of survival, Carol was advised to accept any new clinical trial that came her way. And, after three weeks of intensive and invasive radiotherapy, she became one of just 22 people worldwide to be offered Medarex, a new experimental antibody drug to fight the disease.

Medarex marked the first of three trials Carol would undertake, the second of which involved nine days in a leadlined isolation room due to the drug’s radioactive iodine content. Success – in the form of metabolic remission – finally came with trial number three, SGN-35 (or Adectris as it’s now known), and the search for a bone marrow transplant began.

Thanks to the Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow Register, a match was found in a 43-year-old man in Berlin, and since receiving his cells on 21 September 2011 and undertaking over two years of regular blood transfusions, Carol’s been happy, healthy and cancer free. But remarkably, despite over nine years of gruelling treatment, the musician rarely stopped working.

‘I carried on touring,’ she laughs. ‘I was touring the world and the UK in between treatments – I think that carrying on was my escape from it all. If you get diagnosed with something like that it can be completely all-encompassing, and whenever someone asks me now for a bit of advice, that’s one of the first things I say: keep some normality going. And my music definitely was my normality.’

In fact, following treatment, specialists were quick to credit some of Carol’s recovery to her trombone playing. ‘The tumour was between my lungs and the specialists looked at me before radiotherapy and said I would lose about 20 per cent of my lung capacity,’ she explains. ‘I was like ‘wait, wait, wait, I’m a trombone player’ and they said ‘this is your life we’re dealing with’, so I had to put my career aside and get things in the right order.’

Shortly after treatment Carol was performing Holst’s The Planets and remembers struggling to keep up. ‘My lungs were nowhere near what they used to be,’ she recalls. ‘But fast forward a few years and I had to have a lung function test to make sure I was strong enough to get through the transplant – which is a massive ordeal – and my lungs were actually working at 102%. I’d regained what I’d lost, which they put down to playing the trombone.’

During treatment, Carol used her talent to raise funds for a new haematology and transplant unit at the Christie Hospital in Manchester. She regularly performs at hospital events, and has collaborated with a range of cancer charities, including Lymphoma Action, to raise money and awareness. ‘It was experimental drugs that got me to remission in the end, and these are extremely expensive,’ says Carol, who was awarded a Beacon of Hope Award from Lymphoma Action in 2016. ‘So I’ve continued supporting cancer charities and spoken to MPs about government policies at the Houses of Parliament, trying to improve the way cancer is treated.’

Since gaining the all clear, Carol’s built an enviable portfolio career. She’s toured with a whole host of stars like Sting – a ‘stand-out experience’ – six years round and round the world with Seal, recorded extensively (both keys and trombone) with the likes of Rod Stewart, Queen, Amy Winehouse, Bon Jovi, Paloma Faith, Michael Bublé, Ellie Goulding, Harry Connick Jr, MUSE and Taylor Swift, featured on soundtracks to feature films, performed in the West End, and appeared as Guest Principal Trombone with the UK’s leading orchestras. Her arrangements and orchestrations have featured on chart-topping, Grammy-winning albums, recorded at Capitol Studios in Hollywood and played at The Academy Awards Ceremony.

She’s also a past President of the British Trombone Society and currently President of the International Trombone Festival. And, for the past 3 years, a Tutor in Trombone at the RNCM. ‘It’s nice to be back as a more permanent fixture; I feel like I’m following in the footsteps of my teachers,’ says Carol, who graduated with the highest grades possible and received scholarships to study in the UK and America. ‘I’d been back several times over the years, tutoring on the Popular Music programme and giving some lectures, but it’s really nice to be here on a regular basis.’

From her student days, Carol recalls the one-to-one training as being ‘phenomenal’, and learnt a lot about contemporary music and ‘all those crazy rhythms’ from ensemble playing. She performed in almost all of the College’s orchestras and ensembles and established her own quartet, Bones Apart, which won the chamber music category of the Royal Over-Seas League, leading to tours of Europe, America and the Caribbean.

‘I have brilliant memories of studying at the RNCM; we had a lot of fun,’ she laughs. ‘It was hard work as well. I started freelancing in my first year with the Hallé, BBC Philharmonic and Opera North. I was forever trying to juggle things – trying to build a career while still doing my undergraduate degree – but it was a fantastic experience.’

Never one to shy away from new challenges, Carol also served as RNCM SU President during her studies, embracing new skills such as bookkeeping and even helping with building design.

‘As President I was involved in the design of the new Hall of Residence, attending a lot of meetings and sharing the thoughts of students,’ she says. ‘It was the same when the Library Building was built… It was a fun year and I learnt a lot that helped with my career development.’

But it’s not just the building that’s changed since Carol’s time. ‘Everyone here thinks outside the box a lot more now,’ she explains. ‘You have to be so versatile out in the big wide world these days, and the RNCM is definitely geared up for that now; it’s preparing students for the profession in a different way.’

Over the past year, as we navigate through the global pandemic, preparing for the profession has never been more prominent and for Carol, the importance of a portfolio career and diverse skill set is particularly apparent. Due to her health battles she’s been shielding and largely housebound, but despite the many cancelled performances and tours, she’s found herself busier than ever before.

‘I know I’m lucky in that respect. I’m involved in many different avenues of the industry, so I’ve kept busy with music arranging and music video editing commissions, giving masterclasses over Zoom to various universities and music schools, alongside my own projects and ideas I’m developing.’

Carol’s voiceover work has also become extremely busy, with a few TV adverts under her belt, and she’s now narrating a nature documentary series. In addition, she recently secured Arts Council and Help Musicians funding to record a new album.

‘Quite a few media composers have called on me for various projects that they needed trombone on. And I was also successful in the RNCM Teaching Awards Scheme to set up a pilot of an interactive music platform, which is now moving onto the next development stage.’

Carol can also see the positive side of the pandemic, recognising that in such uncertain times it’s enabled musicians to think more laterally than ever before.

‘And I’ve saved a lot on commuting time!’ she laughs. ‘Even though teaching over Zoom isn’t perfect, it does give me flexibility in terms of being able to dash from my teaching, to a meeting with a trumpet player in New York about a commission, and then give a masterclass to students at Colburn School in Los Angeles all in one day!’

For the rest of 2021, Carol’s most excited that gigs, shows and tours are beginning to tentatively land in the diary again. ‘I hope that none of us forget this past year though, even if it’s been difficult for many,’ she muses. ‘I hope that it will have taught us all that we can get through difficult times, especially if we work together.’

To find out more about Carol Jarvis click here.

This article was taken from the Summer 2021 edition of The Northern, our alumni magazine. For the full PDF click here.

16 July 2021