RNCM announces inaugural recipient of the Lucy Hale Award

A new award set up to champion and support disabled and neurodiverse students at the RNCM has named its first recipient.

The inaugural Lucy Hale Award, which honours the talented composer who died aged just 26, has been presented to Spanish pianist Gema Lu Cai – a fourth-year student specialising in music education who was diagnosed with a learning difficulty and ADHD during her time at the RNCM.

She plans to use the £5,000 award to purchase her first piano.

Gema Lu Cai sitting behind a piano

Gema Lu Cai

Gema started playing at the age of six and applied to study at the RNCM when she was 17. ‘I never thought I would actually end up here,’ she remembers, ‘but it was the best decision I could have ever made.’

Gema’s ambition is to become a piano professor and, having already established herself as a gifted piano teacher, she will now be able to offer lessons to her students at home. This will reduce her travel hours, creating more time for her to practice and write academic essays – both of which are more challenging for Gema as she needs extra time to absorb information and to take breaks.

‘Having an instrument of one’s own is of course one of the most important things for a musician,’  says Gema. ‘But for me, I could not make that my top priority. My mother owned a small bakery, and that made me really grateful for being able to afford the essentials, but coming from this background means I could not afford to buy myself an instrument here.

‘This award means I can finally call an instrument “my piano”. Not rented, nor borrowed. This is a guarantee that I will be able to practice and teach. Whenever I am feeling down, teaching makes me feel better.’

The Lucy Hale Award was established by Nicky Hale and John Mellor to honour their daughter’s incredible achievements as a composer, and as a mentor to disabled and neurodiverse artists. Lucy, who was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disability at a young age, was the inaugural associate composer with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s disabled-led ensemble Resound project, and had been a composer in residence at the National Orchestra for All.

Lucy Hale

Lucy Hale

She graduated from the RNCM with both undergraduate (BMus) and postgraduate (MMus) degrees and was set to begin a PhD studying assistive technology in music.

Speaking about the impact of the award, Gema added: ‘Ever since I have been diagnosed, I have tried to make peace with it. On one hand, having a diagnosis means I can finally explain why some things are more difficult for me than for other people, and to understand myself better. On the other hand, it confirms why I always must work doubly as hard as everyone else to achieve the same results.

‘I thought nothing good could come from my disability. But the Lucy Hale Award has given me hope that I am seen and understood. It has made me feel like I am not always at a disadvantage, and I will always be grateful for that.

‘One of my dreams has come true thanks to this award, and as a consequence more dreams will come true. I can’t wait to see how this award supports future generations of students, giving them an advantage when they are always at a disadvantage.’

The news comes ahead of the return of RNCM Disability Week from January 31, which features events exclusively by disabled, d/Deaf and neurodivergent artists, creatives, and researchers, including talks, performances, workshops, and demonstrations.

1 February 2024