Simon is from Derbyshire, in the East Midlands, and has just completed his second year of Music here at Christ's College, Cambridge. At school he took A-levels in Music, Maths, Further Maths and French.
What attracted you to your course?
Over the course of doing my A levels, I found that music was the subject I kept returning to, and thought that I would enjoy most at university. This wasn’t an easy decision to make, though, as I very much enjoyed all the subjects I took in sixth form. The Cambridge course appealed particularly because of its academic reputation, which I thought I would enjoy and would also help with post-university prospects, particularly since at the time of applying (and still), I was not sure whether I wanted to carry on with music as a career after my degree. A course which was generally considered to be one of the more rigorous in the country seemed sensible if I wanted to leave music for another field.
How did you choose your College?
I looked around Christ’s on the July open day, amongst around 10 other Colleges, but to be honest they had all blurred into one at the point where I came to decide where to apply. As it happened, one of the teachers at my school had been to Christ’s and suggested that if I had no other strong preferences it was a great College, and that the Director of Studies was really nice, so I applied here! I haven’t once regretted it and have loved being at Christ’s!
What advice would you give sixth formers considering Music?
Find out as much as you possibly can about how the College you choose to apply to carries out their interviews. This varies hugely from College to College, with some placing much more of a focus on practical tests than others (although all will also have a more general interview). Becoming extremely comfortable with conventional four-part harmony is essential, as it will help not only with the actual harmony and counterpoint papers, but also with analysis. Trying to practice aural training would also be useful (although don’t worry if you find this difficult – many of us still do!).
Really exploring an area of music that you are interested in will always be helpful, whether this is composition, performance or a general period of history/composer. That notwithstanding, having good general awareness of music history is invaluable – interviewers don’t expect you to know everything about every time period, but an ability to look at features of a piece and place it even vaguely within a style or genre will be very useful.
The Riemenschneider 371 is useful for four-part harmony. Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music is good for an overview, but huge – dipping in to different areas about which you don’t know very much can be a great way of beginning to familiarise yourself with a topic (it is also available online which is helpful).
What papers did you study this year?
Every year you have to take six papers (although the Tripos is changing in 2021/22). This year I studied:
- 20th and 21st Century History (aka History III, History I and II are taken in first year and cover the periods 800-1600 and 1750-1900 respectively).
This is one of three compulsory second year papers and covers an overview of composition in the 20th and early 21st centuries. As 20th century music has a more complicated and multi-stranded narrative in comparison with earlier periods, this paper goes into perhaps less detail than the first year history papers, although within that there is still space for specialising in particular topics that interest you.
- 19th and 20th Century Analysis
Again a continuation of the compulsory first year analysis paper, which looks at Classical and Early Romantic works, the second year paper is split into pre and post 1910 (approximately). Lectures are divided equally between these two halves and the exam consists of one half as a set work which is provided 2 weeks before the exam, which is a more substantial piece, and an unseen component which is taken from the opposite side of the time period.
- Tonal Skills
The final compulsory paper of second year. It is a mixture of Style composition (taken from a range of options provided) and orchestration or film scoring. I chose to do three style compositions in fugue, motet and classical sonata.
- Introduction to Performance Studies
I chose this paper as it contains the recital option for second year. The paper is split 50% as a written course on the performance studies discipline itself, and the other 50% on a recital which is given at the start of Easter term. Instrumental lessons are funded for music students at Christ’s, and there is also the opportunity to learn with a professor at the Royal Academy of Music, as part of the CAMRAM scheme. The written side of the paper, whilst initially seeming like an unwelcome addition for those of us that just wanted to do a recital, proved to be an interesting area that is rarely covered in the rest of the course.
I have always been interested in early music, and this course provided an opportunity to look into the development of Western musical notation, building on topics touched on but not fully explored in the first year History I paper. This was one of my favourite courses this year, as it is a largely practical paper, with much lecture and supervision time being spent on producing transcriptions of early polyphony sources. There is also an element of historical detective work, with a third of the paper comprising of ‘gobbets’ questions, where one is presented with fragments of sources and asked to identify them from features learnt during the year. This paper also appealed as it was an opportunity to do supervision work that had a discrete start and end point – often with essay based papers it is easy to get caught up in spending a lot of time wondering whether you should have read more/looked at another article etc whereas the more “exercise” based aspect of this course was a welcome relief.
- Purcell and the English Imagination
I didn’t know much about Purcell before starting this course, apart from having sung a few of his anthems with the Chapel Choir. It looks at Purcell’s music and influences and begins to examine the nature of his reception history and how “Englishness” in music is manifested and created.
What was your timetable like this year?
In an “average” week (if this can be said to exist…), I would maybe attend between four and six lectures of either an hour or an hour and a half, and then have three or four supervisions. That said, this can vary wildly – sometimes, as different courses can recommend different numbers of supervisions, and supervisors pick certain weeks to teach, you can end up with five in one week and two in the next. Instrumental lessons, if you have them, happen as often as you can make them work. If this involves travelling to London, as I do for CAMRAM, once every two weeks is probably the most often this can happen.
I often like to work in the College library, but having lived on Jesus Lane this year I often worked in my room, as my desk was next to the window and it felt like being outside. During Easter term I also spent time in the faculty library and the University Library.
If anything, the music tripos workload gets easier to manage each year. The first year courses are very disparate and quite new for a lot of people, and the general Cambridge workload can be a difficult adjustment at first. This gets slightly easier in second year, firstly as you are more used to how things work and you can plan which courses you pick knowing which term the lectures are in. Especially in music, it is quite easy to commit to too many extra-curricular commitments, as the Cambridge music scene is one of the busiest of any university. In first year I probably did too many concerts, but it becomes easier to find a good balance as you work out what works and what doesn’t.
What was the most interesting thing that you worked on this year?
Parts of the notation course that I took I found fascinating, as it is a completely different style of music to anything else that you encounter in the course.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Lots of music, naturally! In my first year I played in CUMS (the university musical society) as well as in many of the concerts that are put on in Cambridge all the time. I also sing in the College Chapel choir which rehearses three times a week. This is probably what I've enjoyed most in Christ's - it has been a fantastic experience both musically and socially.
Where have you lived this year?
I lived in a room in one of Christ’s Jesus Lane houses behind the main College site – this is a really enjoyable place to live for second year as it has more of the feel of a conventional university experience and it is great to be able to live with friends for a year.
Do you know what you want to do after Cambridge?
No idea! Possibly carry on with music performance, but equally I am not sure about anything so my options are open…
Please be aware if you're considering an application that our student writers describe their experiences. Although the majority of the information stays the same, some details may change from year to year. Do read the student profiles in combination with our undergraduate admissions pages for full information.