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  • Churen Li

From Conservatoire to Cambridge

My decision to pursue an academic degree in music at Cambridge certainly came as a shock to most of my friends and colleagues in the performing arts scene -- the divide between music-as-performance and music-as-academia is more pronounced than it might seem to people outside of either circle. I wrote this article to explain my reasons for doing so, and how it has benefitted my praxis as a performing musician.

My teenage life was organized around my daily practicing schedule. It was impossible to juggle piano practice and my academic. On the first day of 11thgrade, I handed in my withdrawal letter from Raffles Institution, and was admitted as an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore. During those years, I competed in as many piano competitions and music festivals as I could lay my hands on. I lived on campus instead of going back to my parents’ home every night, so that I could practice more on the school’s Steinways. I’d take the first shuttle bus from the dorms to the faculty, and the last bus back, after which I would study my scores into the night at my desk. The liberal arts component of the school’s component was relatively easy – the longest essay I had to write was for an external English literature module, and that was only 2500 words. Graduating from NUS as the youngest of my cohort at age 19, I packed my bags for Yale, where I spent two happy years in a liberal arts college environment and practicing my butt off, while moonlighting as a collaborative pianist for other instrumentalists. For most of my young adult years, nothing else was more important than chasing my pianist dreams. I was the last person one would expect to do a musicology degree.

Yet I always felt something was missing in the way I interacted with music: a lens of criticality. In music history class, we were taught to measure composers by their relationship with tradition – Brahms saw himself as the heir to Beethoven who saw himself as the heir to Mozart, but Schoenberg tried to break with tradition by establishing his own twelve-tone compositional system. A certain teacher told me repeatedly I had to play Austro-German composers “the Viennese way. Forget what you had been taught in Singapore and America. Now you are in Vienna!” It all seemed so prescribed, so pedantic. There was an ideal and there were rules; I had to be creative – but only within circumscribed circles. Nobody seemed to question these rules, even when some of them were obviously microaggressions. I needed to question my praxis, but years of conservatoire training did not sufficiently equip me with the intellectual tools or environment to do so.[1] I wanted out.

It is by a stroke of extreme blessing that I stumbled upon the idea of applying to Oxbridge. My rationale was: I had lived in America and Asia already, I wanted to stay in Europe and experience “classical music from the inside” (clearly I was still unaware of the problematic assumptions such thinking entailed) so the UK seemed like a plausible choice as a popular study destination. And where else to apply in the UK other than fabled Oxbridge? So I clicked around on the Cambridge’s music faculty website and noticed the term “Performance Studies” coming up quite a bit. “Ah interesting,” I thought to myself, “even Cambridge University offers a piano major”. At that point, I still had no idea Performance Studies meant something completely different in an academic context.

The second result on my Google search on “Performance Studies Music” was from a journal article written by musicologist Alejandro L. Madrid.

“While music scholarship (including performance practice) asks what music is and seeks to understand musical texts and musical performances in their own terms according to a social and cultural context, a performance studies approach to the study of music asks what music does or allows people to do; such an approach understands musics as processes within larger social and cultural practices and asks how these musics can help us understand these processes as opposed to how do these processes help us understand music.”[2]

I had stumbled upon a goldmine: I could have never known it when I first decided to Cambridge, but Performance Studies as a musicological discipline asked the questions that I was seeking answers for as a weary and jaded young pianist. Who is this music for? What is the context behind certain performance practices? Why do we play music? How do we interact with each other through music? These strands of thought and more offered the theoretical frameworks through which I could begin figuring out my own relationship with music as a performer.

Furthermore, my abilities as an actively performing musician enabled me insights to the “embodied knowledge” that a performer held. In other words, I knew things about performing that other people didn’t, and this gave me special insights as a budding musicologist of Performance Studies. I could see it both from the outside (as an academician) and from the inside (as a performer).

For some reason, there is a pronounced divide between academia and praxis, regardless of field or discipline. Think Michael Phelps becoming a sports scientist, or Oprah Winfrey doing a PhD in psychology – not unthinkable, but also implausible. I think there is something truly vocational about being a practitioner. You need to have a calling and an intuition for it – not that studying praxis critically doesn’t require calling and intuition, but it’s still possible to get by without calling and intuition if you are a non-practitioner.

Long story short, my interviewer took a fair bit of convincing that I could keep up with the academic workload – his doubts were completely justified, as I did struggle a lot with basic critical reading and writing skills when I began my MPhil degree. After weeks of nerve-wrecking silence from the admissions department, I finally received an offer to read music as an MPhil student at Wolfson College, which turned out to be one of the most periods of my past 24 years.


[1]Of course, institutions are changing – what I had described was from a decade ago, and I am sure the situation in tertiary music education now is different. [2]Madrid, Alejandro L. "Why Music and Performance Studies? Why Now?: An Introduction to the Special Issue." Trans. Revista Transcultural de Música 13 (2009): 1-8.

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