The Second Semester of My Masters

So, that’s it. I’ve finished the second semester of my Masters Degree. That’s a very weird thought. I kind of can’t believe I made it. But I did. And I wanted to write about it, like I wrote about the first semester because all of this is weird and wonderful and difficult and part of the journey.

This semester, the module I studied was called Musicology (“the scholarly analysis and research-based study of music”) and my classes were split into two different blocks. The first was a series of lectures, each based around a different artist/songwriter and a specific element of their career, like David Bowie and identity, Prince and authenticity, and Max Martin and his use of melodic math (not all of them were men – these are just the ones that are coming to mind as I write this). I’d expected it to be based more around elements affecting music and it’s creation and consumption, like the history of certain genres, feminism, the constant evolution of technology and social media, rather than specific artists but maybe that was a misinterpretation on my part or simply a different approach that could’ve been taken. I don’t know. It was interesting and I learned a lot but a lot of the reading was very academic which I struggled with, given that I’m having  some trouble with what you’d probably call my cognitive processing. Having said that, we had a great tutor who is really passionate about the module, which made it so much more enjoyable and engaging than a lecture heavy module could’ve been.

The group was larger than I was used to but there were a lot of familiar faces, including my two closest friends on the course. That was definitely a positive, both because I love them and because it helped me to adjust to all the changes. But it was also nice to meet some new people and get to know better the ones that I sort of knew and wanted to know better. So that was really nice, even if it took me a while to adjust to the new group dynamic. I’ve made some good friends from that class, even though it was cut short by the lockdown (I’ll get onto that in a bit).

The second block of classes were practical classes where we discussed in further depth the techniques we’d covered in the lecture class (the technical skills and application) and then we’d go away and write a song based on those techniques. Some of the briefs were really inspiring but on the whole, I found the whole exercise frustrating and a bit of a waste of time. We’d just spent a whole semester working on our creative process and tackling our blocks and weak areas and suddenly we had no time to work on them any further because we were focussing on and trying out other people’s techniques. I just feel like I was finally making progress, particularly in my musical ability (I’ve always struggled when it comes to experimenting with different chords and chord progressions), and suddenly that progress was being curbed dramatically, making it really hard to invest myself in the songs I was writing for this class.

The assessment for this module was a single four thousand word essay on anything related to songwriting. Most people choose a songwriter and then focussed on some aspect of their songwriting or the impact of their songwriting in a certain area, like feminism or the genre they were part of, for example. I really didn’t want to go through the overwhelming stress I went through at the end of the last semester due to lack of clarity around the assignments so I spoke to my Module Leader (who was also my tutor and a tutor I’ve known since my BA) really early in the semester so that I could be as prepared as possible and when I presented the potential subjects I had in mind, he gave me some really good advice: choose the one you’ll learn most from. So I decided to investigate Taylor Swift’s use of imagery and how that links to the authenticity in her songwriting, specifically in her song, ‘All Too Well.’ I thought that would benefit my songwriting the most, since those are elements that are important in my writing and therefore knowing more about them could only strengthen my use of them. So, alongside my classes, I slowly started to gather research about those topics.

I was still researching (I readily admit with the help of my Mum because I found myself struggling so much with the academic language and with my cognitive functioning) when the Coronavirus reached the UK. Classes continued but as a course (there aren’t a huge number of us and we have a group chat on WhatsApp where we’re in constant contact with each other) we discussed the situation and came to the collective conclusion  that we didn’t feel safe travelling to and from uni, as well as being in the busy setting of a university. Our representatives contacted the senior staff and not long after, our classes were moved online. I think it was a week or so after that that the lockdown was announced.

Initially, not much changed for me, apart from the fact that I was no longer commuting to London for my classes. I attended the online classes, did my work, and researched for my essay. Determined not to go through a last week of panic writing, I got to writing as soon as I had enough material and added as I learned more. My tutor was fantastic in recommending sources when I got really stuck (there’s not as much research on imagery and authenticity in song lyrics as you’d think) and giving me some excellent feedback when I finished my first draft, still with plenty of time before the deadline. He’s been amazing throughout the whole module and I’m really grateful. I, again with my Mum’s help, went through the feedback and did the best we could to improve and strengthen the essay before submitting it just under a week before the deadline. So no last minute panicking. I think I did the best I could under the circumstances. But it wasn’t a solo effort. They’re my ideas and my words but I would NOT have been able to do it without my Mum’s support, and gentle pushing on the days where it just felt too hard. I couldn’t have gotten through the researching, the writing, or the editing without her. It is a better piece of work because of her help and I’m so incredibly grateful, both for her help on this assignment and throughout this module but also for her in general, for the ways she has supported me otherwise: helped me manage and protect my mental health, organised my life for me when it took all I had just to stumble through the days, for making sure I ate, even and probably especially on days when I didn’t want to. I’m so lucky to have her and I’m aware of that every minute of every day.

It’s been a weird semester. In a lot of ways it was smoother than the first, both because I was getting the hang of my routine as a Masters student but also because my mental health was more stable, if not necessarily better. I had some great, cherished times with my friends but then they were all suddenly ripped away without proper goodbyes by the lockdown (thank god for video calls). I got to do some really fun cowrites, which were then suddenly stalled for the same reason. They can be rearranged and done by FaceTime or Zoom but it’s not the same: I find it much harder to be creative WITH someone when we’re not actually in the same room (plus the lag time makes singing or playing together a real challenge). I’ll make it work because I love cowriting and I love the people I’m writing with but I do find it harder. I was also really enjoying the lectures and discussions we had in class and online classes just aren’t the same. So what was mostly a pretty positive semester was cut off in its prime and I do grieve the way things could’ve been.

I’m done now. The full-timers have another semester but I’m free until the end of September ish. I’ve completed the first year of my Masters Degree. That’s a very strange sentence to write out. There were many, many moments where I was sure I’d have to defer, despite the fact that the thought made me feel physically ill. But I made it. It was somewhat anti-climactic, given that we’re all in lockdown: I uploaded my assignment, clicked a button, and that was it. Year One done. I don’t think I could sum it – or the emotions I’ve experienced – up if I tried, not without writing a PhD length post. It’s been good and difficult and inspiring and more stressful than I could’ve possibly imagined. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve met some wonderful people. I guess I’ll leave it at that.

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The First Semester of my Masters Degree

Now that I’ve finished my assessments, I thought it might be an interesting idea to sit down and write about my experience of the first semester of my Masters Degree. Because I’m doing it part time (mainly to protect my mental health), I’m only doing one module rather than two, which is what the full-timers do. The module I did was called ‘Creative Process’ and it was four hours of uni time, a two hour seminar where we talked about different areas of the creative process and then a two hour workshop where we played the songs we’d written based on the ideas and concepts we’d talked about the week before. It was a really interesting module and I wish my mental health had been better so that I could’ve focussed and enjoyed it more.

I feel really lucky when it came to my group and my tutor.

My group was only about nine people (when the other groups were much larger as far as I know) and they were all absolutely lovely. We were all really different, both musically and life experience wise (but I guess that’s what happens when you get to Masters level), which was really interesting when it came to writing and socialising and… just everything. It was a completely new experience and one that I’m really grateful for. Up until now, I’ve mostly been surrounded by people my own age with similar experiences.

Everyone was so, so good, all in their own way. They all had their own style (some had particularly beautiful musical signatures, some wrote from interesting perspectives with thoughtful lyrics, and so on) and it was so interesting and exciting to see how they developed over the semester. We were and I know will continue to be so supportive of each other’s music and development as songwriters. It always felt safe to bring in something I felt unsure or insecure about and the feedback was always constructive and because the person wanted you to get better; I never once felt like someone was being mean or looking down on me. It was such a supportive atmosphere and I’m so grateful because I think that was a huge part of what helped me to grow so much as a writer.

I made two really good friends in particular, both of whom I’m still in the same group with to my absolute delight. They’re truly beautiful souls. One of them, Luce Barka, wrote this amazing song during the semester and has said she’s happy for me to share it with you guys. I really, really recommend it…

I also had a fantastic tutor, Isobel. She’s a really cool, independent singersongwriter, which I think made her an especially good teacher because she’s very immersed in the industry we’re all trying to get into, in her own, distinctive way. She’s also dealt with serious health problems (which she has talked about publicly so I’m not breaking her confidence or anything) so I felt like she was a really good tutor, especially for me. She understood, or had a kind of understanding, of what I deal with. She was a really, really great tutor, in discussions and when giving and guiding feedback. But for me personally – and this is my blog after all – she was incredible when it came to helping me manage the course against all of my issues. When my anxiety was overwhelming, she helped me adjust the tasks to make them easier while still allowing me to do the task and learn the skills. I am massively appreciative of how accommodating and generous and kind she was, even before  she received the Student Support Agreement (the document with all my information and recommendations).

Anyway, she was amazing. I learned so much, obviously from the course but also from the way she delivered it and the feedback she gave me. I feel like I’ve grown so much as a writer and I feel like she’s a really big part of that. Plus, I’ve never had a teacher who was so understanding, who helped without hesitation, with just my word to guide her. I can’t properly express how much I appreciate that. It’s never happened to me before and it felt so wonderful to be treated as if it was something you just do, rather than being made to feel like a burden or an obstacle to be manoeuvred. So, as much as I learned (and I learned a lot), that is what I’m most grateful for and one of the things that I will always remember about this semester.

The first few weeks were really, really tough. After my massive meltdown in Victoria station, I was having meltdowns every day (as I wrote about here), which was having a big impact on my mental and emotional health, also leaving me physically exhausted. That significant meltdown was triggered by an email from the Disability Coordinator (who was also an Autism Specialist), suggesting a very last minute change of plan for our scheduled meeting which still leaves me bewildered. As an autistic person, sudden changes of plan are known to be highly problematic. That, plus my existing anxiety, caused a massive meltdown that took a very long time to recover from. And it left me feeling less than confident in her ability to support me even though we had had a positive first meeting and I had left feeling cautiously optimistic that this time it might be different. It then didn’t improve as actions promised at that meeting didn’t get done, leading to more meltdowns. So that was a real complication and painful part of the semester.

Having said all of that, I loved the classes. We learned about songcraft, collaborating, imposter syndrome, professional practice, perfectionism, and so much more. It was fascinating and fun and the briefs, while often stressful (with only a week to write the song), were interesting and challenging. I wrote some songs that I’m really proud of and I feel like my songwriting grew a lot because the briefs were challenging.

We watched this video in one of the classes and I thought it was really good so I thought I’d share it:

I loved it – loved getting better at songwriting – even the bits that pushed me and made me feel uncomfortable.

However, out of class was another matter. We were expected to do research that would later become the foundations of our assessment essay and presentation. Except whenever I asked, they wouldn’t tell me what the assessment entailed and just said it was ‘self directed learning’ so I didn’t know what I was actually researching, which caused me terrible anxiety. I created a reading list of books, articles, and interviews about creativity and songwriting but as hard as I tried to do the work, my OCD – my need to write everything down – battled against it. And usually won. So if I wasn’t writing, I was reading. I had no downtime. I was constantly anxious, like, end-of-the-world-anxious. And I felt like I was failing.

They explained the essay and presentation in the last couple of weeks but I still didn’t really understand. The language was complicated and vague and while I understood the general idea, the grading criteria was pretty ambiguous. I didn’t know what I had to do specifically to get good grades. I need clarity. It was incredibly stressful.

It took a couple of last minute meetings with my module leader to really understand what was expected of me but I was now facing a myriad of problems. The research I had been doing had little relevance to the subject I was writing about so I’d have to redo all of that, as well as actually write the essay and prepare the presentation. Plus we were in the final two weeks of the semester and the university would soon be closed for the Christmas holidays so I would have no way of contacting anyone for any support. I was wound so tight I felt like my spine might snap. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I’m really grateful for those meetings but I just wish the assessment had been clearer earlier in the module so the research I was doing could’ve been more focussed. With all the problems associated with Autism, like chronic fatigue and chronic pain, time is something I have to be incredibly thoughtful about.

I worked every day of the entire holiday (apart from Christmas Day, which I spent with my family – something I don’t often get to do) but the assessments were always in my head so I felt like I couldn’t take a break or have any time to rest and recharge. I still didn’t feel sure that I was doing it right but still, I worked hard on it and gave it everything I had. I finished both the essay and the presentation with time to spare, allowing myself time to redraft and prepare, giving myself the best chance of doing well. I submitted the essay, despite big technical problems with the system, and I did my presentation to the best of my ability, despite finding presentations incredibly difficult. Now I just have to wait for the marks.

Now, having run through the whole semester (and having reflected a lot on the difficulties), I just wanted to share a couple of specific, positive experiences:

  • For one of the early seminars, we had a guest tutor, who works primarily as an expert in Personal Transformation, come and talk to us. Because we were such a small group, he was able to really talk to each of us about our lives and our creative struggles. Considering how little we knew each other at the time, it was amazing how open everyone was and I think it’s part of the reason we became so close and supportive as a group. It was a real bonding experience to hear all of these personal stories and I personally felt really honoured to be part of it, to have been trusted with those stories.
  • One week I brought in a song that I was really proud of. It had a repeated line in it – “it’ll get easier” – and everyone picked it up really quickly, singing along and harmonising. It was beautiful and emotional and it was one of the most special moments of the semester for me.
  • During my research, I found a quote by Paul Gardner that I’m endlessly inspired and intrigued and excited by: “A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.” There are so many things that could mean. What do you think it means? Or what does it mean to you about a particular thing in your life?

Overall, it was a very mixed bag. The good moments were great and made me feel amazing. I got a lot out of it. But I spent a lot – A LOT – of the semester in crippling anxiety and I had a lot of meltdowns. It was fucking hard. And the marks haven’t even come back yet. I’m terrified that I’ve done horribly. But I’m trying not to think about it. I’m just trying to get through this new semester. Which may be even more stressful than the last.