Joanna Stark

Joanna Stark describes her experiences as one of two cello students in the Edinburgh Napier music department.

I am from Newport-on Tay in Fife, but since University have been based in Edinburgh where I am currently establishing myself as a ‘Portfolio Musician’: as a teacher in instrumental and music appreciation classes; a freelancer in various musical, artistic and voluntary roles; and more recently as a composer/arranger. I’m a cellist primarily, although I have also been playing fiddle, piano and singing since I was young, all of which still form a good portion of my musical work and activity. I might have chosen to study any of these at uni, but I have always loved how versatile an instrument the cello is as I think it offers a host of potential as both a solo and accompanying instrument. I am currently applying for Postgraduate study in Performance at Conservatoires around the UK to build more connections and develop my career objectives.

As someone with a broad array of interests in various subject areas, I knew that I was more inclined towards a University degree than Conservatoire.

I liked that Edinburgh Napier offered a strong grounding in both performance/practical modules and music history/harmony from the first year to really prepare you for the exciting range of module options available at 3rd and 4th year, leaving you with a very diverse skill set. I knew that I wanted a balance of performance and academia, so it was great to be able to take a lot of research-based modules alongside solo and ensemble classes that in turn would enhance my musicianship.

As one of two cello students in the department, the opportunities to perform and collaborate in projects were endless, and I really value the breadth ofJoanna Stark playing cello experience I gained, as well as an openness to new concepts and ideas.

Many of these opportunities involved working with composers in projects centred around dance, architecture, film and/or theatre, where I was treated very much like a professional musician in the working world. Whilst all of this was very exciting and beneficial to me, it also taught me a lot about managing my time, especially since I'm quite a perfectionist when it comes to work, hence deadlines were not always my best friend... By third/fourth year, I really had to start saying ‘No’ to things, even if they sounded very appealing at the time. This was especially apt when I developed repetitive strain injury in my hand and had to reduce my playing hours radically for nearly a year so as to not overwork myself, which taught me a heck of a lot about musicians’ health and how to work and practise more efficiently. As musicians, we cannot really afford to slave away at one activity alone- it’s in fact quite a balancing act- so prioritisation and pragmatism are key when it comes to achieving your goals, whilst versatility is highly favourable.

My overall student experience was really wonderful, not least the amount of student discounts that were available for concerts, films, or having a meal out (and/or a ‘wee dram’..) every now and then.

Edinburgh is a really great place to be a musician, whether that’s gigging, attending events, or especially when you want an escape up a hill (or six..!) from the library/practice room. I particularly valued the immense level of support I received from staff and tutors throughout my degree, especially the ‘Personal Development’ meetings, where you were assigned a member of staff to meet once or twice a term to discuss your progress, receive academic advice and flag any queries that may have arisen throughout the term. Looking back, I couldn't possibly have walked away with the degree I have without the patience and encouragement from the staff at Napier, some of the busiest, conscientious, yet warming people I know. The whole music department also felt like one big ‘family’. You were always working and mixing with peers across both classical and popular music genres and across different year groups, whether as part of independent, module-based, or extra-curricular projects, not to mention the end-of-term orchestra and chamber choir concerts!

I am now very much a ‘portfolio’ musician.

Performance-wise, I am lucky to have a handful of established groups and ensembles which were all formed during my time at Uni, not to mention a number of musicians and composers with whom I regularly collaborate. For instance, I write, arrange, and perform music with my folk duo, ‘Shamblestone’, my Piano Trio ‘Forth Trio’, and a contemporary collective called ‘Mother Julian’, as well as more temporary freelance positions/engagements. I am soon to release an album with ‘Mother Julian’, featuring music written and recorded over lockdown, so I’m excited to see how that’s received.

Last year, I was also accepted into ‘Nevis Ensemble’ (often referred to as ‘Scotland’s Street Orchestra’), which takes music out of the concert hall and brings it to folk in almost any setting, like care homes and shopping malls. They also provide lots of useful work engagements for their musicians, which has been quite a lifeline throughout lockdown! For instance, I recently had my first solo Radio broadcast on BBC Scotland performing a new work for cello and voice as part of a commissioning project to partner players with composers and selected members of the public over lockdown.

Most of my income currently comes from teaching, which I gained some experience in whilst at Uni teaching peers/friends of friends, and taking the music education module. I work for a company called ‘Ritmico Music’ who self-employ tutors to deliver one-to-one instrumental lessons for young students in their homes, with a strong emphasis on fun and creative learning.

Working with others, no matter what context, is something I particularly relish, especially interdisciplinary work.

It is from people in other disciplines as well as our own that we can really draw valuable lessons applicable to our own practice as creatives to find something new to say through our instrument and/or musical voice.

I am grateful to Edinburgh Napier for encouraging me to pursue lots of activities, but also teaching me how to navigate a world full of obstacles and decisions.

I used to really loathe the idea of writing long essays before I came to Uni, but I almost immediately learned to look at it from a positive angle and immerse myself in learning more about a subject I love. I am also not the best at working with technology, so a big learning curve was often fairly routine things like word formatting, learning how to use composition software like Sibelius (VERY useful right now), as well as more vocational skills like working in studios, leading rehearsals, and then of course I am a lot better at playing my instrument! I think I am also more inquisitive and reflective than I used to be, which is very important from both a playing and teaching perspective. Organising a whole recital in fourth year taught me more about the entrepreneurial side of music, which has given me tools to develop my own creative ideas and think about applying for grants etc.

Honestly, studying music might seem like a fairly niche course to take, but it equips you with both specialist and transferable skills valuable in a host of workplaces, making us highly employable people!

My highlights from studying at Napier

• Winning the University Music Medal
• Soloing with the Chamber Orchestra
• Richard Alston Dance Workshops
• Performing Tree Burton’s site-specific compositions
• Making life-long friends/connections 
• ‘Shocks’ Music/Theatre performances
• Music Therapy classes and Dementia Day Care Placement
• Twentieth Century Music History classes
• ‘Choral Week’ singing Faure Requiem
• Trips to Germany with the Choir of St Andrew’s and St George’s West
• Final Recital

Something I was told at the beginning of first year: ‘The more you put in, the more you will get out of this course.’

Whilst this is a fairly universal rule, I think it’s especially important to remember in a field as competitive as music, where impressions really count! Even if you’re not necessarily the best at something, it matters that you do YOUR best to show that you’re committed to the subject, and to learn as much as you can from the wonderful staff members. Attendance is also crucial in that regard, because even in this booming online world, it’s much more fun and engaging (in my opinion anyway) to learn from someone in person, and engage in fruitful class discussion with your peers. So I would say, try to make the most of what’s offered to you, don’t be afraid to try new things, but also remember to put the brakes on where you need to- be patient and kind to yourself especially, as you will only learn through getting things wrong initially and finding ways to overcome your obstacles.