My aim is to be a professional cellist of some description. Playing is what I love most and want to do for as much of my life as possible. I’m currently studying music at Merton College, Oxford. People often ask one of two things when I tell them where I study:
Oh so that’s a performance based degree, right?
The first question is completely wrong: it’s an academic music degree. The second question is one I certainly ask myself when staring at a blank word document hoping I can form a 1,500 word essay about a 14th century French composer I have never even heard of, or bashing notes out of a keyboard in the hope my score reading sounds vaguely like Lassus. So why did I choose university over conservatoire in the first place?
The first answer is either overly simple or simply stupid. I don’t know. When I was in year 12 going into year 13, I made the (big) decision that I didn’t want to spend the next three years of my life practising. And practising. I wanted to see a bit more of the world and to meet people who weren’t just musicians.
Here in Oxford some of the best musicians don’t even study the subject: they are medics, historians, chemists, you name it. Secondly I wanted to have the chance to view music from an academic perspective, to get a feel of how and why music is constructed in the way it is, and to contest those accepted traditions of musical analysis and the musical canon. Although this has been a big challenge for me personally, I feel that what I have already learnt in two terms has altered my attitude towards the way I view musical practice. And however difficult, I am really loving it.
Performing at university
It might be easy to think that the performance opportunities at a university would be limited but it’s certainly not the case. In one term alone I did three solo recitals alongside a mountain of chamber and orchestral playing. Emails regularly fall into my inbox asking for a cellist to help out and it’s very easy to get overloaded with opportunities. Quite often I can spend as much of my day playing as I do working! So has it been the right decision? It’s a case of waiting and seeing…
Clearly this is all very one sided. I’ve only done two terms at a prestigious university and so I have no knowledge of the transition to conservatoire after university, or the leap straight into conservatoire after school. So I decided to ask a few friends who have taken different performance paths to give me their views.
The first is a friend who, like me, headed to Oxford after his A levels to study music. However, he has since graduated and now studies the oboe at the Royal Academy of Music so can now see the utility of his degree as well as the transition between the two.
His choice to go to university first was very similar to me as a degree: “It left my options open in a way that I didn’t think a performance course might.” His first year was filled with orchestral playing and he points out that that meant he “did very little practice and had to make a real effort to head over to the practice block amid the tidal wave of other things I could have been doing”.
For him it was chamber music that made all the difference. “Setting up my trio was one of the most rewarding things I did at university and I grew so much as a musician. Oxford also has loads of opportunities to perform in lots of different settings. Every lunch time, there will be a clash of college music society recitals to choose from and it’s a great chance to try out new pieces.”
So I asked him the big question: whether he thought his degree had been useful to his performance plans. “My academic work stretched me and equipped me with the tools to examine and make sense of life in all its richness. I think a good degree will nurture these skills and, in that sense, I don’t think that it’s necessary to study music.”
Thus his concluding advice was as follows: “If you know that you definitely want to be a performer then maybe music college is for you. But if you have a sense of curiosity about the world outside of being a classical musician, then I would strongly suggest an application to university. You meet people interested in all manner of subjects and have the opportunity to expand your view of the world.” And this is ultimately the decision I made when I was in sixth form.
What about conservatoire?
Going straight to conservatoire has its advantages too: you don’t lose out on hours of practice while writing essays and you are surrounded by musicians following the same dream as you. Another friend, a singer who went straight to the RNCM at the end of sixth form said: “It is hard work but I appreciate the fact that 60 per cent of my degree will be based on a 30 minute recital as I feel I can portray my hard work and skill through this far better than I ever could in a written dissertation.”
If you know that playing, not writing essays, is what you want to do then conservatoire is the way forward without question.
The longer I spend at Oxford the clearer my choice is becoming to go onto conservatoire once I have finished my degree. It seems strange that it has been an academic degree that has made my mind up, and that’s not because I’m not enjoying it. But, at the moment, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I feel privileged to be spending three years expanding my mind about music away from the cello and then being able to put that information into practice.
I am astounded by the number of performance opportunities I have been given. But more importantly I feel lucky that I am being given these opportunities by both tutors and students who have such varied interests and such passion for their subjects and hobbies alike.
At the end of school you are told to follow your heart. My heart was undecided and university has been the place where I’ve been given the time to see what I really want to do. And who knows, in a year this may all have changed!