#LoveHE: Cambridge hit the right note

A rewarding education set up a relationship for life, woven into my work as a composer, says Cheryl Frances-Hoad

August 5, 2010

My experiences in higher education have benefited my work immensely, and have made me a much more confident, secure and fulfilled person.

I work as a composer now, writing pieces to commission, but I started off as a performer, playing cello and piano. I went to the specialist Yehudi Menuhin School when I was just eight, and was immersed in a world where everybody was utterly dedicated to music. I became increasingly interested in composition, so when it came to thinking about higher education, I was convinced that I should go to a university to learn about the history of music, and to immerse myself in analysis and the application of complex musical techniques to really learn my craft.

I'm still convinced it's down to a typing error that I got into the University of Cambridge, with my five GCSEs and two A levels. In truth I'm extremely grateful to both the composer Robin Holloway and the college director of music Geoffrey Webber, who must have seen something in my compositions that made them overlook my poor academic record and disastrous interviews.

I found my undergraduate years hard work but rewarding. Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned was that everything could be really interesting! Several of the courses that I was obliged to do in my first year filled me with dread but turned out to be utterly fascinating, and this discovery has affected my approach to life and work ever since.

After my BA, I went on to do an MPhil and a PhD in musical composition. I've always been a very intuitive composer, and still write music that simply sounds "right" to me, but I feel that for it to sound right one must have absolute command of musical technique and an understanding of structure and form, and during my postgraduate years I was able to make a great deal of progress in this regard.

I think that for me, simply "having the time" was one of the most important aspects of my PhD.

Although I was working to commission, the token fees I received at that time would have been nowhere near enough to support myself: if it were not for the Arts and Humanities Research Council grant, I very much doubt I would have even started a PhD.

Since finishing my PhD in 2007, I've been living as a self-employed composer. Three years of having to meet deadlines and being obliged to stand on my own two feet have been good for me. It was important to live in a world where I had to just get on and write, to learn to publicise myself, negotiate commissions, propose and devise projects (and fill in copious application forms) and become more business-minded in general - because when it comes down to it, to fulfil my dream of being a composer, I have to be able to eat and pay the bills.

But I'm constantly drawn back to associations with a university: either by supervising composition students, working collaboratively with other academics, or undertaking residencies.

In September I begin my two-year post of DARE Cultural Fellow at the University of Leeds in association with Opera North. I'm going to have the opportunity to devise projects with a wide range of departments within the university, which is tremendously exciting, and I will also be able to work with Opera North, learning as much as I can about opera, and writing an opera myself. I know this job will be as fulfilling as I can make it, and I intend to embrace all its possibilities wholeheartedly. I know that it is largely my experience of higher education that will allow me to even begin to imagine those possibilities.

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