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  • Churen Li

Wolfson College Cambridge: Member of the Month

In February 2020, I was featured as Member of the Month at Wolfson College (Cambridge University), where I spent a year as a Master of Philosophy in Music student. That was one of the most generative and rewarding periods of my life, and I am very grateful to everyone who has been part of my journey there. This e-interview was originally posted at https://www.wolfson.cam.ac.uk/about/news/member-month-churen-li


1)  How did you come to study at Wolfson College?

Since my teens, I have been performing all over the world, joining music festivals and doing piano competitions. Before Cambridge, I had completed two performance degrees from Yale University and the National University of Singapore. My decision to apply to the MPhil in Music programme at Cambridge stemmed from a desire to be challenged to think about my musical practice in a critical way, using research and writing rather than music performance as a framework of inquiry.

While deciding on a College to apply to for the MPhil in Music programme, a friend suggested that Wolfson would be ideal as it is a mature college, close to the Sidgwick site, and owns a well-maintained Steinway B. Those were fantastic reasons, I thought – and that’s how I came to study at Wolfson College!

2) What is your current occupation and how did you get into this role?

As a musician, my career cuts across multiple roles. I give concerts – both solo and in ensembles – and will be embarking on a concert tour of the UK in February 2020. The first concert will be Rachmaninov’s well-loved Concerto no. 2, at the West Road Concert Hall with conductor Jac van Steen and the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra.

Since Jan 2020, I have been working as a part-time artist faculty member at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (National University of Singapore), where I did my Bachelor’s Degree. I help to run the first-year music theory and music history courses. My role at the university also involves curating and archiving artistic research for the university on its digital platforms.

Other than concertising and teaching, I also freelance as a collaborative pianist. 

3) What do you most enjoy about your job?

Other than the obvious perks, such as the privilege to be doing something I love, I also really enjoy interacting with my students! It is so rewarding to be teaching those fresh-out-of-high-school, 18-year-old first-year undergrads, who are still wide-eyed with wonder. In certain regards, teaching a class of 20-30 students is a bit like giving a performance onstage – I am always thinking about my audience and the best ways to engage them. Because of the relatively narrow age gap between my students and me, I feel more like a mentor rather than a teacher, but I think that’s also a good thing.

4) How have your studies at Wolfson helped you in your career?

My time at Wolfson was transformative and restorative. It gave me the space to reflect and define my goals, while being surrounded by a community of inquisitive and passionate people. Accompanying the Wolfson Choir as the Brian Moore Accompanist Scholar of 2018-2019 was such a joy – I was very inspired by the love of music that everybody had. I am grateful to my tutor, Marina Salorio-Corbetto, who has been so generous with her time, offering emotional support whenever I needed it; James Woodall, the Royal Literary Fellow, for meeting with me weekly in order to help me fine-tune my writing; Lyn Alcántara, the Director of Music, for supporting me in all of my musical endeavours and agreeing to crazy ideas such as, filming a drone video of my performance in the Wolfson gardens and experimenting with extended piano techniques on the college pianos; the administrative staff and porters for their boundless enthusiasm about my musical activities.

5) What is your fondest memory of your time at Wolfson?

Filming a video with friends of myself playing on the keyboard in the middle of Lammas Land, the park along Barton Road. The weather was beautiful in June, exams were done, birds were a-chirping – I felt like I was living in a movie. This project was a spur-of-the-moment idea that almost didn’t materialise when the College told us no drones were allowed in the Gardens, which was why we had to bring the electric keyboard all the way to Lammas Land to film our drone video. I fake-played the keyboard, which wasn’t even plugged into a power source, and later recorded the soundtrack over the video. In fact, this is such a fond memory for me that I have written a piano composition (mis)-titled “Llama’s Land”.

6) What is the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.

7) Which book has had the greatest impact on you?

The Bible!

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