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Associate Professor; Fellow and Tutor, Jesus College; Lecturer at Lincoln College

How I came to study music

I grew up in what, in English terms, would be seen as a lower middle-class community in Wellington, New Zealand.  I did a lot of music as a kid – singing in choirs (school and church), piano, violin, and related activities (dance, theatre) – but I couldn’t really take music at my state secondary school until the 6th form (by which time it was too late).  So when I went to university it was initially to do a degree with a double major in English and Drama, with papers in Music (and also Psychology and Italian) as sidelines.  But I quickly realised that I wanted to explore my extra-curricular love of music (singing especially) in an academic context.  Fortunately, the NZ university sector allows students to grow and change direction, and by the end of the first year I had switched to a double degree: still with an English Lit and Drama double major for one, and Music for the other.

I particularly enjoyed the synergies I found when approaching, say, the 16th and 17th centuries from the different perspectives of literature, theatre and music, and knew I wanted to explore these kinds of connections further in postgraduate work.  Ultimately, this led me to specialise in opera, which brought all these interests together.  (Although actually, my choice at the time would have been ethnomusicology, but in those days Pākehā (European-descent) New Zealanders were deterred from working in a field that wasn’t ‘ours’.)  I came to Oxford to continue my research at doctoral level, and shifted focus from the 17th century to the early 18th, with a doctorate on ‘Opera and Nationalism in mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain’ (1999).

Since then, my interest in the expression of identity in music has led me to write a book on two opera prima donnas, The Rival Sirens: Identity and Performance on Handel’s Operatic Stage (Cambridge, 2013), and edit a volume on Operatic Geographies (Chicago, 2019), as well as write numerous articles and essays.  Opera, especially in the UK, is still strongly tied to ideas of elitism.  Exploring modes of representation (from the personal to the national) through opera helps address that perception critically.  My current research projects include a book on the development of musical nationalism in 18th-century Britain, and another on the culture of immersive and country-house opera in the present day.  I also have another edited volume under way on 18th-century opera’s representation of consciousness and the mind.

I have been fortunate to hold Research Fellowships at Robinson College, Cambridge (1999-2002) and the Beinecke Library, Yale University (2002-2003), as well as visiting fellowships at other institutions in the U.S. and at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.  I taught at the University of Southampton (2003-2005) before returning to Oxford as a University lecturer.

My own history and my interest in identity and cultural elitism has an impact beyond my research: aside from helping to found and run the Music in the Community course and teach a course in Dance Music, I am Access and Outreach officer in the Faculty, and volunteer in various ways at the state primary school my son goes to, in one of the most diverse areas in Oxford.


Undergraduate student at Jesus College

How I came to study music

I was raised by my dad, a joiner, in a rural area of south Middlesbrough, an industrial town about an hour from Newcastle. Studying music at university is almost unheard of in Middlesbrough, since classical music has strong associations with elitism and simply isn’t seen as a ‘safe’ option, unlike medicine, law, or vocational education for something such as . . . joinery! Having said that, here I am after years of support from my family, friends, and teachers.

I started playing clarinet at the age of 13 in a secondary school that didn’t offer musical education at all, thanks to an assistant teacher who happened to play the euphonium (rather well) – he volunteered to teach a variety of instruments in our school for free. Whilst I wasn’t given the ‘best’ technical clarinet tuition, my teacher was inspirational and always made me believe I could do anything if I worked hard. Although I began to take clarinet somewhat seriously, my main interests for a long time at school were Theatre Studies and German. When it came to choosing A-levels, however, I decided that my long-term goal was to study clarinet at conservatoire. My new clarinet teacher informed me that I wasn’t good enough to become a clarinettist, but she did tell me that I could study Music at university and then maybe audition afterwards. My new plan was, then, to study Music and German at any university that would take me. Since my school didn’t offer Music (though it was one of the few sixth forms in Middlesbrough that offered German), I had to write numerous letters and campaign for my school to let me take the course. Within 2 weeks of studying A-level Music by myself I realised that I enjoyed reading and writing about music far more than I did performing it.

When applying to Oxford from a background like mine, you don’t really have anyone to ask even the most seemingly basic of questions. However, I personally emailed Professor Aspden (now my tutor at Jesus) multiple times before and after getting my offer. For someone like me, with no family having gone to university and coming from an underperforming state comprehensive in the north east, reading the line ‘I’m pleased you’re still considering applying to Oxford!’ in a first response was one of the most encouraging parts of the journey and shows that the tutors here are approachable and can provide the best first-hand advice if you’re worried about/don’t know something.

After a long process (which at first seemed impossible) of discovering, applying to, and being accepted by Oxford, I am now here in my first year studying what I love. At the moment, my main interests are in music and identity, medieval music, and popular music studies (although, my interests seem to change every term). I hope to go on to study for a doctorate in musicology and then hopefully remain in the world of research.

Undergraduate student at Jesus College

How I came to study music

From a very early age I wanted to play the saxophone. So much so that I begged my parents for one age four and was presented with a silver toy version from Boots – it wasn’t until I was seven that I was given a real saxophone and started having lessons with a trombone teacher at school. Although my family weren’t musicians, my parents bought me an electric piano when I was 4, as my mother had read a newspaper article that suggested there were ties between learning a musical instrument and doing well in school. Academia was always at the forefront in my childhood and music was very much pushed aside by my family and school who were all too willing to constantly remind me that a career in music wasn’t feasible.

Everything changed when I was 13 and the music teacher at my secondary school recommended I audition for the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO2). This ultimately led to me meeting someone from the Purcell School of Music who suggested I audition for the music school. Age 14 I won a Government Music and Dance scholarship to study classical saxophone, piano and clarinet at the music school, and later age 16 I also started having lessons on Saturdays at the Royal College of Music in London. I loved my time at Purcell, but it was certainly a place where we were being trained to be full-time performers. Almost everyone in my year went on to attend conservatoire after we graduated and I felt pressured to audition as I thought the only career you could have in music was as a performer. Thankfully, I also applied to a whole mixture of other university Music courses both in the UK and abroad, and the second I walked into my first interview with Suzanne Aspden (my college tutor), I knew that Oxford was where I wanted to be for the next three years.

Whilst I was at Purcell, I was placed into foster care. The UK’s care service has a lot of stereotypes surrounding it, and only 5% of care leavers go on to higher education. Convincing social services that I was going to apply for Oxford got me a lot of rolled eyes and sympathetic smiles, but not much support. However, thanks to the support that Oxford gives care leavers during the application process (as well as during their time at Oxford) I was able to gain an offer and accept my place at Jesus College.

My time at Oxford has shown me that there are countless routes I can take in the music industry that don’t have to include musical performance. For example, I currently sit at the Alto 1 chair in the Oxford University Jazz Orchestra and really enjoy playing with the band. However, I’ve also been the orchestra’s President this last year and single-handedly organised a two-week international tour for OUJO to Thailand. Since coming to Oxford I have worked for the BBC (Music TV), the Royal Opera House (Learning and Participation) and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, all of which helped me realise my love for working in large-scale arts organisations. Consequently, from September onwards I’ll be starting my Masters degree in International Business as I want to become the CEO of a major Opera House. This is a pathway I never would’ve even considered as a child, but thanks to the teaching and support at University, I now know that there are countless options for my career within the music industry.

Undergraduate student at Lincoln College

How I came to study music

My parents both enjoyed music, and played instruments, but were maths and physio graduates. It is, however, probably my dad’s fault, as I sat of his knee when he played piano, that my interest in music was sparked. I had great opportunities to explore music throughout my early life: I started piano at age five, trombone at age eight, and I joined Birmingham Cathedral Choir when I was about nine, which provided me with great training, and a real feeling of belonging within a musical community. I was fortunate enough, having grown up in a comprehensive primary school, to receive a financial-assisted place to the local private school. This was quite a change, but my experience of my school was not one of discrimination, but of genuine acceptance, as well as a wealth of opportunities. There, I furthered my musical exploits, filling my lunchtimes with as many rehearsals as possible. During this time, I also picked up the bass guitar, and then the mandolin, developments which have since grown into a lifelong addiction to guitars and folk music.

When I came to apply to university, I was evenly torn between Music and Physics, even though a quiet voice in my head told me that I ought to do Physics, because it represented employability, respectability, and a good use of my brains. My assistant head reassured me that I ought to do what I would really enjoy and thrive in for the next three years, instead of trying to plan my whole life out at age 17. Quickly discovering that this was Music, I decided to give myself the best chance by striving for the top university I could, and whilst I did not pin my hopes exclusively on Oxford, I was lucky enough to receive a place.

At Easter of my lower sixth form, however, I was diagnosed with an acute medical condition, which progressed rather quickly and I was in hospital needing urgent medical attention only two months later. The condition had a short-term effect on my studies but it did damage my self-confidence, which meant I needed further operations to restore a greater sense of normality. I had the first stage done just after my exams at the end of sixth form, but complications led to a taxing summer and meant I was unable to have the final operation before leaving for Oxford. As a result, I didn’t have the emotional headspace to prepare my mind for the everyday, normal matters of university.

First term was hard. I was still recovering physically, and tiredness meant that I often passed on social occasions. This put me at risk of loneliness. I think that if I had been anywhere else, I simply would not have coped at all. It was thanks to the close-knit community of college, our chaplain, our nurse, our accessibility staff, as well as other aspects of Oxford, such as St Aldates Church, that I was able to keep going, find friends and settle in, despite my circumstances. I was even able to find some people who I could share my story with. Now I have had the second operation, and things have returned to relative normality, I am of course far more comfortable in myself, but I am glad that I was able to find a home here despite my medical oddities.

This is by no means intended to encourage those in a medical rut to rush into university, and if problems develop while you are at Oxford, you are able to defer a year to recover. On the other hand, for those who have longer-term issues or a similar insatiable drive to start university, I want to reassure you that Oxford is one of the best places to be, because the support is so personal, familial and honest.

Undergraduate student at Jesus College

How I came to study music

I have been dedicated to music since early childhood, thanks to my dad who is a self-taught musician. I come from a small town, Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia, which is fortunate enough to have many talented musicians. However, the Slovak educational system is not at all friendly towards studying Performing Arts, and I do not think I have ever heard of a Musicology degree in Slovakia. With the mentality from the previous Communist regime still surviving in the political situation, arts are generally undermined as an academic subject, and even though practical performance is popular, most musicians in Slovakia are simply volunteers doing music alongside their full-time jobs. Hence, before coming to the UK I had never even thought about studying Music as an academic subject.

My musical experience started in our church choir at home, and subsequently similar youth choirs constituted most of my musical life in Slovakia. I started attending the local Arts School when I was 7 (in Slovakia you cannot take music lessons in your school but have to attend a separate school in the afternoon), taking piano and singing lessons and singing in a choir. I have always been immensely grateful for my Arts School and for all the supportive and enthusiastic teachers I have the honour to meet there. However, seeing how all of our frequent performances, which were mostly compulsory requirements from the city council, were done on a volunteer basis and organised by our teachers in their free time, I have always been aware of the fact that the life of musicians in Slovakia is difficult. Thus, when I mentioned to one of my secondary-school teachers that I was considering going to a conservatoire, she tried strongly to persuade me to change my mind, warning me that I would not be able to find a job. After that I started taking organ lessons because my church needed an assistant organist – which was also an unpaid position. However, I loved organ music so much (also in large part thanks to the enthusiasm of my organ teacher) that I decided that even if I was not able to study music, I certainly wanted to dedicate a significant part of my time to music.

In 2015 I applied for the HMC Scholarship, and I was awarded a full scholarship for one year at a British private Sixth Form college. Hence, I found myself at Mayfield School in East Sussex, which has been immensely kind and supportive and also granted me a Music Scholarship, seeing that despite my enthusiasm for music I was not able to afford to pay for organ lessons. I was very excited to be able to take a Music A-level because at a Slovak secondary school (equivalent of Sixth Form) that was impossible. Once I started learning about music more from the academic point of view, I acquired a great passion for reading and writing about music. In Year 12 I had to work incredibly hard to get used to English as my main language and English in academic writing, as well as to a completely different educational system. Fortunately, the school appreciated my hard work and decided to prolong my scholarship for another year, so that I could finish my Sixth Form there and apply to a university here in the UK.

One of my Music teachers sent me to an Organ Scholarship Open Day at Jesus College, Oxford. Only on the way to Oxford did I gradually realise that this was the legendary Oxford about which I had only heard in some films and books. I also knew nothing about organ scholarships, but Megan Daffern, the Chaplain at Jesus College, was very kind and supportive, and remained in touch with me, encouraging me to apply. Equally supportive was Jeremy Summerly, the Director of Music at St Peter’s College, who was so kind as to listen to me playing to help me decide about possibilities of studying Music. Now being here in Oxford I have realised that his help was representative of everyone’s willingness to help students pursue their interests at university if they are enthusiastic. Before the admission process, I still had to improve my academic skills, since until Year 12 I had never been accustomed to studying music outside practical performance. Nevertheless, all the interviewing tutors in Oxford appreciate enthusiasm for the subject first and want to give us the chance to improve our academic abilities if we do have that enthusiasm, even if we do not come from such an academic background. And therefore, even though I did not expect it at all, I found myself reading Music and being an organ scholar at Jesus College in Oxford!

I realise that I have been very lucky to come across all the wonderful opportunities which got me where I am now. However, the key decision was to pursue my interests and apply even though I knew I did not have a big chance. Hence, I hope that my experience might encourage you to apply and not be put off if you come from a background that did not prepare you for Oxford admissions, because your enthusiasm for music and willingness to work hard is what counts here!

Undergraduate student at Jesus College

How I came to study music

My path into studying music at Oxford began in my home in west London. Fortunately, despite my Dad’s complete lack of musical knowledge and my Mum’s limited piano skills, we had an old upright piano in the house so she got me started learning around the age of 5. My own spark of love for music began to grow when at the age of 10 I started being able to perform in small concerts that my piano teacher would host for her pupils. Playing in front of people gave me such a thrill. As I approached my teens, I got a new piano teacher who inspired me with a new view of, as he would say, “playing the music rather than the notes”. This came as my musical ear was developing and I began to experiment with piano covers on YouTube as a hobby. These all contributed to a path where piano became my love through my teens. Another reason for this emergence was when I managed to get a sponsored place in a Saturday music school in central London. The joy of making music with others in piano chamber groups and on bassoon, which I took up at the age of 13, made Saturdays the highlight of my week.

Despite my love for music throughout my life, I was unconvinced about whether I wanted to study music at university when I had to decide during sixth form. I saw it as something that seemed far less valuable when compared with other more practical subjects, and certainly studying it at Oxford seemed such a step into the clouds of unnecessary academia. My aim to make the biggest difference I could in the world didn’t seem to fit with a path studying music. These doubts even continued after I decided to apply for music; the only thing strongly convincing me to apply was that it was a subject I deeply loved and had invested a lot of time in during my life. However, I’ve come to see that the skills and content that I’ve learned on my course as well as the experience of being a part of a vibrant college community have been far more valuable than I envisaged.

Although Oxford might seem a daunting and traditional place to study music, the verbal and written communication skills developed through tutorials and essays accompanied with the close links between students and tutors allow for a hugely dynamic and increasingly flexible course. The doors that studying any subject at Oxford opens afterwards along with the connections created with other keen aspiring musicians as well as those aiming to go into all sorts of fields leave the future wide open for me. Although my career plans are hazy, I think that I’m in such a fortunate place to be able to think through the options. Helping others through music is something I’m keen to do and therefore becoming a music teacher at a school as well as a piano tutor is likely. I can also see myself continuing in performance in some way. Perhaps you see studying music as impractical or as a dead end. The opportunities to learn skills which are applicable to a huge range of things whilst focusing in on studying an art form that genuinely fascinates and inspires so many of us makes me say I can highly recommend music to all considering it.

Undergraduate student at Lincoln College

How I came to study music

I grew up in a market town in Lincolnshire and went to a primary school there whose curriculum at the time was quite limited in the area of music. My musical encounters mainly took place outside of the classroom, at choir clubs and school bands where I enjoyed singing. Instrumental tuition began being offered when I was in year 6 and that was really my first exposure to the study of Music as a subject. My family isn’t incredibly well off, and instrumental lessons aren’t cheap, so I was hesitant to ask my parents to potentially waste money on a passing hobby. However after deciding to give it a go on a whim, several years later here I am studying for a degree in Music at Oxford University.

I originally wanted to learn the guitar but I did not have my own, whilst we did have an old keyboard at home, so that is what I started on. The teacher I had in primary school eventually urged me to move onto the piano. My new teacher inspired me greatly and helped me grow as a pianist and all-round performer. I now have a guitar of my own which I have taught myself to play, and also play a bit of drums and violin. My piano teacher encouraged me to continue my musical studies and supported my wish to pursue it at university.

When I was first thinking about where to apply, I hadn’t even considered Oxford. I assumed that Oxford was not the place for me, that I wouldn’t fit in, that I wasn’t good enough. The UNIQ summer school programme was what changed my mind. We were told about this summer school at Oxford, which prioritises students from state schools and low-socio economic status backgrounds, by our head of 6th form. As I’d previously known of very few opportunities as such for music, I was eager to sign up. I succeeded in the application process and attended in the summer of 2016. The week I spent here opened my eyes to the fact that there is certainly a place for me and others like me at Oxford. I also learnt that studying music in higher education does not have to be performance centric. Studying Music at university is so different from A-level and GCSE music; it is incredibly diverse and there are so many interesting areas of music to explore.

Currently, I am enjoying studying music here very much. Through the research I’ve done for my extended essay, my interest in social media and its interactions with the music industry has been piqued and I am considering continuing higher education after my undergraduate degree. It will be interesting to explore media and communications with respect to music in this age of rapid technological integration into many aspects of our daily lives. That’s my plan for now at least; let’s see where the coming years may lead me.