Queen's Access Podcast Episode 9: Music
Below is a transcript of the episode.
Kyla: Hello and welcome to the Queen's Access Podcast. It's so lovely to have you here and I hope you find this a useful resource in learning more about life at Oxford, but more specifically about life at The Queen's College. My guests this week are Rachel Howe, a third year music student, Rhiannon Harris, a second year music student and Rowan Ireland, a third year studying fine arts. We'll have a chat about the musical opportunities on offer at Queen's. My apologies for any poor audio, these interviews have all been conducted over Zoom and the internet connection isn't always completely reliable. For a transcript of this episode, please visit the Queen's website. I hope you enjoy!
Kyla: Hi everybody, thank you so much for being here I really appreciate your help and I'm sure you'll make really interesting guests! Thank you for being here! If we could just start by each of you telling me a little bit about your Queen's journey, so how you ended up in college. Rhiannon, can you start us off?
Rhiannon: Yeah, so I originally decided that I wanted to apply for a physics degree, then decided that was a horrible idea. But by that point, I had missed the Oxford deadline for the year, so I ended up taking a year out and teaching in a school for a bit and decided that music was what I really wanted to do. I then applied to Merton originally and got transferred to Queens during the admissions process, and I don't think I could have been put in a better place!
Kyla: Aww lovely, I'm really glad you're happy with where you ended up! Rachel, how about you?
Rachel: Weirdly, I actually have a very similar story to Rhiannon, only that I originally thought that I was going to apply for English and didn't think that I was going to apply to Oxbridge. I then decided that that was a horrible idea, because you have to read so many books and that was not for me! So I took a gap year and I taught music in a school. I also studied Pre-U music, because I hadn't done it at IB. Then, I did an interview for Queen's in that December and ended up at Queen's! It's a weird turn of events that got me here, but I'm definitely so glad that this is the place I ended up!
Kyla: Fantastic! Rowan, how about you?
Rowan: I always to study fine art, but I also always wanted to do a course at Oxford, so when it came to applications, I applied for a choral scholarship first, then for fine art. I was pleasantly surprised at every stage of the application process!
Kyla: Perfect! Okay, thank you all so much. So, let's start off with talking about music quite casually in college. So, Rachel, as the outgoing president, can you tell me a little bit about the college music society EMS?
Rachel: Of course I can! So EMS stands for the Eglesfield Musical Society and it is the oldest music society in Oxford (woo)- it was founded in 1842! I had to look that up, sadly I didn't actually know that off the top of my head. So it's a very prestigious society and it's based it Queen's, which is really cool, especially as a music student, because you feel like you're a part of a piece of history there, which is quite exciting. The society is probably one of the most active college music societies in Oxford. We have a host of ensembles- this year we had an orchestra, a singing ensemble and a jazz band. In previous year, they've also had an acapella group, string quartets, wind quintets... so it varies year to year, depending on how many people want to be involved. We also have two recital series every term, which means that, every week, we have an organ recital on the Wednesday and a performance recital (a general recital) on the Saturday lunchtime, where we invite performers from throughout Oxford and actually from throughout the country and even the world, which is really exciting. It's a great opportunity to be involved in either a performance or to be involved in a more managerial role. We get really good audiences at Queen's, which is very encouraging. Aside from the ensembles and the recital series, what else do we have? We have jazz nights every term in the beer cellar, which are definitely a bit hit with the whole college. I think music societies at large can be a little bit more niche I suppose and not everyone is interested in being part of the society, but I'm pretty sure everyone loves the '5th Week Blues' night that we do, so it's nice that we can connect with everyone in the college. We also do slightly bigger termly events. Normally, in Michaelmas term, we'll do a big thing at Christmas- this year we did a concert and we did some carol singing for Homelessness Oxfordshire. In Hilary term, we did a music festival, which was a week of events every day, including charity events, concerts, that kind of thing. Typically, every summer term, the piece de resistance of the society is the outdoor music, which unfortunately, thanks to lovely Covid-19, we did not actually get to do this year. It was a bit of a disappointment as president of the society, but definitely I'm guessing I'm a lot less stress than I would have otherwise been put through. Normally that's a really big event and I think it's the only outdoor musical in Oxford, so that's a pretty cool thing that we do as well. Yeah, I think that sort of sums it up!
Kyla: Thank you, that was a really great explanation! I feel like even I learned a bit there and I'm treasurer for the society, so I don't know if that's a good thing! So, all three of you sing in a formal college chapel choir, so what's been your experience of that? Rowan, can we start with you please?
Rowan: Thoroughly enjoyable- it's brilliant to have the opportunity to sing in such a high quality choir and so often. Yes, all three of us sing in Merton or Queen's (Rhiannon sings at Merton) and I myself find it just incredible! It's fun and engaging and it's a brilliant way of punctuating Oxford life.
Kyla: Yeah definitely, and I think it breaks up your week nicely. Rhiannon, how about you, how have you found it?
Rhiannon: I've found it great! I really enjoy being able to sing at another college, because it gets me out a bit and forces me to meet other people, which is always good. It's incredibly busy- I think that's possibly due to the nature of the choirs that we all sing in. We all do three services a week, so there's always a decent time commitment that has to go into that, but it's great. We travel all over the country singing in concerts, we get to come back up during the vacations to do stuff at Christmas and Easter. There's normally a choir tour every year, which is a great way to see a bit of the world and sing in some fantastic places!
Kyla: Fantastic! Rachel, how about you, what's been your experience?
Rachel: I've been a choral scholar at Queen's for the last two years, like Rowan, and it's definitely been probably the highlight of my time at Oxford, I just absolutely love it. I think there's a bit of a thing that, if you're part of the music scene, you're probably a choral scholar, but I'd definitely say the society, going back to EMS, is very broad. There is something super special about being in the choir, it's a real community and a strong social environment, which I definitely really benefited from. Also, in my opinion, we sing really cool music, which I'm sure a lot of people wouldn't agree with! But personally, I just think that there's nothing better than taking out a few hours of your week to just go and sing really great music, yeah, it's really cool!
Kyla: Great. Rhiannon, you mentioned about singing at the Merton chapel choir instead of the Queen's chapel choir, how did this come about and how did you find balancing singing in a different choir whilst being a music student at Queen's?
Rhiannon: Yeah, so this was an interesting one for me. So, I originally applied to Merton, so I did choral trials in the September, was awarded that at Merton, and then I applied for music there. When you do choral scholarship applications, you rank the colleges in order of preference for where you want to sing and you can choose to have an interview at your second choice college and for me, Queen's was my second choice. So I was interviewed there and after the admission process, I was offered a place to read music at Queen's. Now the only problem with that was that you then lose your choral scholarship. So you want to sing and you can't sing anywhere! So I was then invited by Owen, who runs the Queen's choir, to audition for him, which unfortunately was unsuccessful. However, he informed me that Ben, who runs Merton's choir, was still in need of some altos. So I emailed him, asked him if I could come and see him and, because he'd already heard me and decided that I was good enough for his choir, he let me back in to sing there, so that was great. So I then found myself with a choir and the college and it all worked out quite nicely! The balance is fine, I mean we have some interesting times when scheduling tutorials, because the other three people in my year at Queen's all sing in the Queen's choir and our Evensongs are on different days. So, frequently, we find ourselves emailing tutors saying 'no, you can't see any of us past five o'clock four days a week', which they don't always love. But we get around it and it's okay!
Kyla: Perfect! I think it's nice what you pointed out about having the experience to get out of Queen's and meet some different people as well- it will have its drawbacks, but it also clearly has some really lovely benefits! Rachel, would you mind taking us through how choral and organ scholarships work, given that we've discussed them quite a bit?
Rachel: Yeah of course! I hope it can remember it correctly, do jump in Rhiannon if I get something wrong, or Rowan. You apply for a choral scholarship, I can't actually remember the exact deadline.
Rhiannon: 1st of September.
Rachel: 1st of September, perfect, thank you! This is from my experience, I should preface with that. So I think at the moment, auditions are taking quite a different route because of social distancing and I think currently, they're online. So if someone listening is hoping to do a choral scholarship audition, do make sure to go on website and check. I think it's under 'Choral Awards' on the Oxford University website, so do check what the current format is. In my experience, and I presume in the future that it will return to this, is that you spend a few days in Oxford in late September. You normally stay at the college of your first choice for an audition. On day one, you have a solo audition, where you perform a piece of your choice and one of the organ scholars will accompany you, so it's relatively relaxed and everyone's very supportive. Also, you get to spend time living in the college for a few days with other people who are also applying, so it's a little bit surreal, but I really enjoyed it actually. Because it is so early on in the application stage, it's sort of slightly less intimidating than the interviews, for example. So you have your solo audition and you sing your piece and then, it's possibly in the same audition, you have a short piece of sight reading to perform, which you will have had about 15 minutes in advance. So it's not too stressful, don't panic! At Queen's, we also do some oral tests, so range tests, picking notes out of a chord, that kind of thing. But he's very forgiving, I'm sure I didn't get them all right, in fact I still can't on many occasions, so it's not an intimidating process. Then you have a second audition on day two, which is when you sing within a group, which will be made up of current choral scholars in the choir. For me that was an alto, a tenor and a bass and I was the soprano in the group. We just sang through quite a short piece and then Owen would ask us to bring out a certain line or try different dynamics, so basically, he's trying to find out how well you respond to his tuition. So, again, it was really enjoyable, they were really friendly and you had time to prepare with the piece, so it wasn't that you've never seen it before. Yeah, I think that was pretty much the entire audition process. Then, you'll find out later in the month whether you get called for an academic interview and then you'd go up for that in December. I can't quite remember when I found out that I got the scholarship, but you definitely find out before you get your academic place at Oxford, which is different from at Cambridge, so it's worth checking. For organ scholarships, I'm not exactly the person to ask, because I obviously don't have an organ scholarship! But they happen in September and you're actually interviewed for your academic place at the same time, so you will stay in Oxford for I think several days. You'll do your organ scholarship, which I presume is a similar process- some piece of your choice, some sight reading, I think possibly you have to do some harmonisation or improvisation or something like that. Again, do check online, because I'm not the person to ask! Then you'll be interviewed for your academic place then and there as well, and I think you might even find out your result quite quickly, possibly just a few weeks after that. So it's a slightly different process for organ scholarships, but again, similar vibes. I hope that answered the question!
Kyla: Yeah, that was perfect thank you! Can you just clarify one thing for me? Do you need a choral scholarship in order to sing in the Queen's chapel choir?
Rachel: I don't believe that you actually need one from the get-go, say you don't apply for a choral scholarship before you apply for your academic place. We have had people who join the choir who are already members of Queen's or from other colleges who have written to Owen, if say he's said he needs another soprano, and said 'can I come and audition for you?' So there are other ways you can become a member of Queen's chapel choir and, just as Rhiannon is a choral scholar at Merton, we have choral scholars from other colleges, who are called choral exhibitionists. It's not quite so clear cut, but I think it is the more typical route into Queen's choir.
Kyla: Okay, fantastic, thank you for clarifying that. Rowan, you don't study music, but you're really involved in it. How do you find balancing music with the rest of your work?
Rowan: That's a great question. I think the important thing is that everyone at Oxford probably has something they do alongside their degree and I'm lucky that thing I'm interested in is music and it feeds into my degree so much. I use the music that I do outside of my degree within it. But, more important than that, it's a chance to take a break from work, which is such an important thing for everyone. We have the Evensongs three times a week and Rachel and I sing in an acapella group together with twelve other people and that's another great moment outside of my degree where I don't have to worry about work. It provides social stuff as well as just the music, so it's the perfect thing to do as well as a degree and I would recommend to anyone coming to Oxford to find something to allow them to take a break from the work. It's intense and everyone needs a moment!
Kyla: Brilliant , thank you, I think that's a really good point! So we've mentioned the fact that the chapel choirs sing Evensongs at different points during the week. Rhiannon, can you tell me a little bit about what Evensong is and what it's like as an experience to sing in?
Rhiannon: So I think the important thing to note with these chapel choirs is that you don't have to have any experience of singing Evensong to get into them. I know there's a number of people at Merton, and I'm sure there are some at Queen's, who've come in as good singers, but have just been part of their school choirs and have developed a love for this and want to do this more formal church music. The way it works is that we get dressed up in our robes every week, which I personally enjoy an awful lot! They look a bit daft if you never seen them before, but they're very useful for the winter when it's cold. So, if it's a Sunday, we'll sing an introit, which is a short piece of music at the start, we'll process in and then we'll go through various pieces of music- there's certain set texts that we have to sing at every service in order for it to be Evensong. But the nice thing is that plenty of composers have written settings for this, so we don't repeat music very much, which is great for the sight-reading and occasionally a little stressful depending on how much rehearsal time we've had! We get to sing lots of great anthems, which is around the midpoint of the service, these will be a lot of our core classics and we find a lot of our favourite music at this point of service. There's also a reflection period, where we have prayers from our pries. If it's a Sunday, we'll have a sermon, which lasts about 10 minutes, depending on whether or not a big service, like a feast day or something, so sometimes they can be a bit longer. They're quite nice times to just gather your thoughts if it's been a busy week or listen along. Then we finish our service and the best thing about singing in a chapel, in my opinion, is the food afterwards, because one of the perks is that every time you sing, you get fed, which does wonders for the weekly budget and it's a nice time to have some down-time with the choir as well. A lot of the time we spend together is in quite intense rehearsals and high-pressure performance situations, but the fact that we get to sit down and eat together three times a wee and discuss the service if it's been great or if there's something that's gone a little bit awry that maybe we need to think about- it's a really nice time just to chill and enjoy being at Oxford.
Kyla: Fantastic, thank you. So Christmas at Oxford, which we've already mentioned and is also known as Oxmas, wouldn't be the same without all the amazing music that happens throughout the colleges and the city. So, do you find that you like being involved in music especially at this time of the year. Rachel, could you do that one please?
Rachel: That's like a trick question! Oxmas is undoubtedly one of the best times of the year and I think it also becomes the best time of the year, because Michaelmas is a long term and fingers crossed people don't get ill in the term coming up, but everyone at some point gets a cold and we've all been through hell and forgotten how hard the work was- 5th week blues sort of hits 6th, 7th and 8th week (nah I'm kidding)! By the end of the term, you really want to celebrate just how far you've come since the beginning and I think Oxmas is just the best. So, singing in the choir, we always have a carol service or a carol concert, typically both actually, and quite often, we get to travel somewhere to do a concert. For example, this year just gone, we went to the Raymond Blanc restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, which was amazing. We got to sample some tasty goods as well and perform in this beautiful chapel and sing Christmas carols and it's hard to deny that Christmas carols are just the best of choral music. So that's something that we get to do on the side as the choir, but within college, there are loads of things going on around Oxmas. There's the big Christmas dinner that we have in college in the Hall- everyone gets dressed up and typically, the carol service runs just before, so a lot of the college go to the carol service. This is really nice, because, during term, we are quite lucky in that we do get a reasonable congregation, but it's typically made up of people from outside college, which is great, but it's really great to have some of your college friends who don't really know what you do three times a week when you disappear get to come and say 'wow, that was really, really good' and you say 'yeah I know!' That's always nice. We have dinner and quite a few drinks, I think the choir have a particularly strong social bond just from spending so much time together, so we often have our own little drinks party. We'll go into dinner and sing carols for everybody else at dinner as well and then it's the best tradition that we always sing '12 Days of Christmas' during dinner and stand on the table for '5 gold rings'- probably to the complete panic of all of the kitchen staff! But it's just a lot of fun and probably one of my favourite nights of the year, so I'd say it's pretty hard to beat Oxmas!
Kyla: Fantastic! That's been great and I think you guys have given a really good perspective on what it's like to participate in music at Queen's and more broadly in Oxford as well. Finally, I'd just like to ask you each, what is your favourite thing about college and why? Rowan, can you kick-start us there please?
Rowan: I mean I'd have to say the social aspect, for me, my degree is outside of college, so the social aspect that comes through and the people in college who I'm living with and through choir and through meals and especially at Oxmas and all of the other times of the year where there's basically big parties... Yes, I would say that's my favourite part of college!
Kyla: Brilliant, thank you. How about you, Rhiannon?
Rhiannon: Yeah, I think it's very cheesy and typical, but it has to be the people. We're blessed with a beautiful college, we have a beautiful chapel and the library is obviously phenomenal, but it would be nothing without the people that are in there. I think we have an amazing community and definitely come and see us and meet us, we'd love to meet everybody who wants to come and join Queen's!
Kyla: Yeah, we're very nice, we don't bite! Rachel, how about you?
Rachel: I mean I can't really argue with either of those two things, I have to agree. I think I'd possibly add, as a music student, Queen's is second to none in the music society and the choir. We also have an amazing auditorium, the Shulman Auditorium, which is a really great performing space. For me, it has everything I could possibly want and then the nicest people I've possibly ever met, so it all-round just a great place to be and I'm really looking forward to going back!
Kyla: Lovely, thank you. Well, thank you all so much, you've been really interesting and I'm sure anybody who listened has learned absolutely loads! Thank you so much for participating and I'll speak to you all soon!
Rachel: Thanks, Kyla!
Rhiannon: Thank you!
K: Thank you so much to Rachel, Rowan and Rhiannon for that amazing conversation and a massive thank you to all of you who listened. There are loads more access resources on the Queen's college website at www.queens.ox.ac.uk/access-outreach and you can find out more about the college in general through its website, Twitter and Instagram, including on the access Twitter, @QueensOutreach. That's all from me, have a lovely week and hopefully I'll see you again soon!