Emily is from Market Harborough, in the East Midlands, and wrote this at the end of her second year studying Music here at Christ’s College, Cambridge. At school, Emily did A-Levels in Music, Maths, Biology and German.
Why did you choose Music at Cambridge?
When researching Music courses at various universities, I found that there were lots I could see myself doing. The papers in the first year are often mandatory, with papers in music history, harmony and counterpoint, and musicology. Students get more choice in later years, with the chance to choose from a number of optional papers. In truth, the deciding factor for me was the extra-curricular and performance opportunities available at Cambridge, such as Choral Awards. I remember also looking at examples of optional papers for the second and third year on the Music Faculty website and thinking that many of them sounded really interesting, e.g. the papers on Purcell and Bizet’s Carmen. Another potential advantage of the music course at Cambridge is that free composition is optional, even in the first year (although you have to do stylised composition in the first two years as part of Tonal Skills). I didn’t realise this before applying, but for me this is another advantage of the course.
The only major difference between the Cambridge music course and other universities is that Aural and Keyboard Skills are mandatory in the first year. You can apply as a beginner pianist, however, and I'd point out that the Aural exam that first year students sit is only worth half a paper (about 8% of the year). Keyboard Skills, again worth only half a paper, are assessed with a practical exam. Students are given twenty minutes to prepare four exercises in figured bass, harmonisation, score reading and transposition, after which the exercises are performed in front of two examiners.
"The reason why I was particularly drawn to Cambridge was the extra-curricular and performance opportunities available."
What do you think of the collegiate system at Cambridge?
The collegiate system is a great way to meet people doing different subjects and students in different years. At Christ’s, this is helped by the number of College societies and sports teams that students can get involved in. Furthermore, at Christ’s first years will often live in the same staircase or corridor as second and third year students. This set-up encourages friendships between the year groups, and the students in the years above can offer advice to new students.
Another advantage of Christ’s is the financial support the College offers its students. All first year students in my year received a book grant of £120, to be spent books relating to the student’s course. This grant is specific to Christ’s. Due to the number of libraries at the university, I often find that I don’t need to buy books. However, the grant has allowed me to buy copies of books which I found particularly helpful, and to buy sheet music. Furthermore, Tutors at Christ’s have access to the College’s Hardship Fund, meaning that if a particular student is struggling financially they can offer extra financial support. For example, if your laptop breaks and you can’t afford a new one, or you have problems with you bank account, the College may be able to contribute towards these costs.
How did you find the application process in general?
The application process for Cambridge can seem confusing and daunting at first - it certainly was for me! I actually applied to Gonville and Caius College, where I had an interview in December. After that, my application was placed in the Winter Pool and Christ’s offered me a place. Before this, I had never visited Christ’s, but I quickly realised that it was the College for me! It’s a slightly smaller and older College, with lots of quaint buildings. The size of the College means that I know, or know of, every person in my year at Christ’s. It also means that it’s possible to stay in accommodation within College for all three years. The details of the application process were perhaps slightly different for me as I applied for a different College, but I believe that interviews are broadly the same at all Colleges.
I had two interviews - these were mostly what I expected, and I had to discuss some musical extracts as well as topics related to my academic interests. I found the discussion of extracts challenging, but the great thing is that the interviewers will guide you and try to help you if you are unsure of any questions - they don’t just leave you to sit in silence! I did a very short performance too, although this was optional. The key thing to be aware of, I think, is that they aren’t interested in asking about you as a person/your hobbies in interviews - the questions are all academic ones.
To prepare for my interviews, I read Howard Goodall’s ‘The Story of Music’, and listened to ‘Composer of the Week’ on BBC Radio 3 regularly. I also read a few articles about the composer Shostakovich online. My advice to prospective students is to do extra research, reading and listening outside the classroom. I was just advised to “read a book”, but in hindsight they’re looking for you to demonstrate extracurricular work and research. I think I would have been much better off reading a chapter in a book and a couple of articles on a topic I was particularly interested in.
Was there anything you were worried about prior to coming to Cambridge?
I had a lot of misconceptions about coming to Cambridge, but I’ve realised that most of them weren’t true. I found settling in to both College and the course relatively easy, as the other students were a lot friendlier than I thought they’d be and the environment in College is really supportive. Actually, one of the reasons why I would recommend Christ’s as a College is the pastoral support that the students receive here.
Everyone has a DoS (Director of Studies), who looks after you in regards to your academic performance, and a tutor, who is usually a fellow of the College in another subject area. Your tutor looks after your well-being and welfare. My tutor has given me so much support when I am struggling, and all of my friends have said that they really like their tutors and that they do a really good job. Not only this, but the Porters (who keep an eye who comes into College, as well as helping sort the post out and keeping all the spare keys to rooms in College) and the College Nurse are always happy to help you if you are feeling unwell or down. The Porters may come across a little sarcastic at times, but they’re actually really friendly - they have been great at helping me feel better if I’m stressed or upset.
"One of the reasons I would recommend Christ's as a College is the pastoral support that students receive here."
How is your course taught?
For the music course, students take six papers each year. For each paper there will be a series of eight to ten lectures, and around four supervisions. Lectures are given weekly, whereas supervisions are usually every fortnight. Some papers will be taught within a single term, whereas some will be taught across two terms. In the first year I had five or six lectures on average per week and three or four supervisions every two weeks. For the second year this was a bit different - each term I usually had three lectures a week and two supervisions every two weeks. The lectures are definitely useful, but I particularly enjoy the supervisions. The supervision groups are really small (less than four people) and they give you a chance to ask questions on anything you are feeling unsure about.
The workload is fairly manageable, in my opinion. While you are set a lot of work (particularly when all your fortnightly supervisions are arranged for the same week!), if you really love Music then you will find the course, and the associated reading and essays, really interesting. I have been pleasantly surprised by how manageable I have found the workload these past two years. I thought that at Cambridge, everyone would be working incredibly hard 24/7 and lock themselves in their rooms, studying all the time. This isn’t true at all - many of the students are incredibly sociable and there seems to be this communal feeling of banding together, as everyone has so much work to do.
Coming to Cambridge, I was very worried about the Keyboard Skills and Aural exams. However, these weren’t nearly as bad as I thought they were going to be - everyone on the course is in the same boat and Keyboard Skills is quite doable as long as you practise regularly. I would not consider myself a pianist at all, but with practise I got a very respectable mark in the exam. The Aural exam is a bit trickier, but it is worth remembering that there is access to Auralia (aural training software) in the faculty’s computer room. These two exams shouldn’t put a prospective student off applying, as it is such a small part of the course and only worth a small amount of the grade in the first year - these marks don’t even go towards your final degree!
"I have been pleasantly surprised by how manageable I have found the workload these past two years."
What do you do in your spare time?
Music students generally split their time between College, and seeing College friends, and working or doing extracurricular performances at the Music Faculty. As there are only two Music undergraduates in my year at Christ’s, I have a lot of friends doing Music who are at other Colleges. A lot of the extracurricular activities that I participate in are university-wide, such as the Cambridge University Orchestra (which is part of the Cambridge University Music Society) and dance classes run by CUTAZZ (a student-run society which offers different types of dance classes at different abilities for a small fee). Due to this, I probably spend slightly more time at the music faculty than at Christ’s, however the split between College and out-of-College varies from student to student. I still have several College friends who I enjoy spending time with, though. I have also been involved in the College’s music society (CCMS) and as a CRep (Christ’s Representative). CReps do various bits of access and outreach work in College, including helping out on Open Days and during interviews in December.
What are your plans for next year?
I am really looking forward to returning in October, to spend time with all my university friends and get back to studying. I get to choose all my papers this year, so I’m excited to take lots of historical papers on specific periods of music and composers.
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.