The Fifth Semester of My Masters

The time has come to sum up the final semester of my Masters. I am done. That’s sort of unbelievable. Given everything that’s happened since I started the course in September 2019, the end of the Masters always felt so far away and although I have lots of plans, I do feel a bit lost now that all of the work is done. Maybe it’s because I haven’t received my final grade or because I haven’t actually graduated yet; maybe once those things happen, the experience will feel a bit more… finished. It was always going to be weird – I’ve been going to this uni on and off for the last seven years – but knowing something and actually feeling it are so different.

So, here is my final semester review.


The final semester of my Masters course involves a largely independent project called the Major Repertoire Project and as long as you’re developing your songwriting skills and knowledge in some way, you can pretty much do whatever you want. People have done projects exploring identity, exploring their heritage, writing song cycles or musicals, digging deeper into their own songwriting and pursuing an artist project like an album, experimenting with newer applications of songwriting (such as in various therapies), and so on. It’s a fascinating module because everyone ends up doing something so different and so interesting. And after a spending a year or two focussing on their craft, the songwriting is so incredible; the final works that I’ve heard are amazing. It would probably take a month but I would happily listen through everyone’s projects.

For my project, I chose to explore my experiences as an autistic woman through songwriting, attempting to translate those experiences both through the lyrics and storytelling and the execution of the song, from the structure to the arrangement to the production and so on. I wanted to write songs that autistic individuals would hopefully relate to and that neurotypical individuals would hopefully gain some insight from. But while the overall goal was to create a body of work, a large part of the project involved researching our chosen area – Autism, in my case – responding to the research (sometimes that was through practice and sometimes it inspired specific songs), and reflecting on my songwriting process and how it was evolving during the project.

The module officially began in the second week of May but I’d already started working on it: I’ve been thinking about this project ever since I applied for the Masters so I was super excited to finally start doing it. But I’d barely begun when I started getting debilitating migraines that lasted for days at a time and resulted in several ambulance visits because the pain was so bad. We eventually traced the source back to one of my teeth: the emergency dentist thought the nerve was dying and diagnosed an abscess. I was top priority for an extraction and given antibiotics (which I had to have a second round of when it flared up again midway through the semester). Fortunately my university granted me an extension – giving me back the time that I’d lost – but it was a flexible extension in case I suddenly got pulled in to have the tooth taken out and needed some recovery time. Due to the long waiting list (and bear in mind that this was the waiting list for emergencies), I still haven’t had the tooth taken out and while the antibiotics and some good painkillers have prevented any more similar episodes, I’ve still been dealing with some tooth pain and migraines. So that hasn’t been ideal.

We only had four classes over the semester but since everyone was researching something different, they weren’t exactly classes. They were more group discussions where we’d talk about how our research and writing was going, whether we were struggling in a particular area, what we could do if we felt like we weren’t fulfilling one or more of the overall objectives, and so on. We had individual supervisors for the more specific guidance and problems whereas this was more general and we were able to share with each other what we’d found helpful, etc. These classes were online but we were finally able to come into the building. With most of the other courses finished for the summer, it was pretty empty and I felt safe there; you had to test negative just to get in the building and with no one around (pre-COVID, it could be a bit of a crush at times), my pandemic anxiety was a lot lower than it usually is when I’m out in the world. Being there after so much time and getting to see some of my friends again made me positively giddy! And there were some friends that I was actually meeting in person for the first time, which was just wonderful! I’m really going to miss it; I mean, I’ll pop in now and then for events and stuff but I’m really going to miss it being part of my day-to-day, week-to-week life.

Anyway. My supervisor was truly awesome. We had fortnightly and then weekly sessions and she was fantastic, not only with the academic stuff but with helping me to manage my anxiety, the things that tripped up my neurodivergent brain, and so on. And while we worked together well, we also had a lot of fun: we went on some epic tangents and there were multiple conversations that we had to mentally bookmark for later in order to actually get our work done. We got on really well and our sessions were always fun and thought-provoking, as well as helpful. I hope that this isn’t the last time we get to work together.

I obviously know a lot about Autism already so, after finding sources for that information, I started writing songs about my experiences and researching Autism further. Having the foundation of knowledge that I did, I think allowed me to research both more deeply and down different avenues since I didn’t have to spend so much time on the basic knowledge. And some of that research, from academic papers to anecdotal stories to art made by autistic individuals, sparked some really interesting song ideas (for example, I ended up writing a love song after watching Love on the Spectrum, which I found both upsetting and deeply depressing as an autistic person).

I don’t want to give too much away about the songs because I hope to release them but, over the semester, I wrote eighteen songs with a handful more that still need finishing. For the most part, I wrote alone – first because it was more convenient and then because I felt like my experiences were conveyed with more clarity that way – but I did work with a few different people, when I was struggling with a concept for example. I wrote with a couple of my friends – Richard and Luce (known as LUCE) – but I also wrote with new people that I’ve met during my time on the Masters – Luke (known as leadmetoland), Phill Vidler, and Katherine Moynihan – which was fun and exciting. It was nice to do both: I love cowriting and the back and forth of ideas but doing so much writing by myself really restored my confidence; I’ve spent so much time cowriting over the last two years and really not that much solo writing so I was nervous when I started to write alone again but after a while, it started to feel really good and that was really exciting.

But while I didn’t manage to write with Richard as much as I’d originally hoped to, we had many production sessions, mostly over Zoom. While I’d never considered the production unimportant, the project evolved to a place where the production was just as key to the representation of my autistic experiences and the emotions attached to them as the lyrics conveying the story or message. So the two of us spent a lot of time working on every little detail. While I’ve always been involved in the production choices of my songs, I’ve also always been aware that Richard knows a hell of alot more than me so I was happy to defer to his judgement. But with this project, for the first time really, I was taking the lead on production decisions – on occasion, I had the whole arrangement and production planned out before the session. But I felt more like a producer than I ever have: I was coming up with ideas that actually worked from idea to execution; I was able to pick out specific instrument, arrangement, and effect details in a way I haven’t been able to do up to now; and so on. Along with the songs themselves, that’s something I’d really proud of. I really feel like I grew as a musician and as a producer.

I absolutely loved working on my project. To be researching and writing songs about something I’m so passionate about was just so creatively invigorating. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard though. There were, of course, periods of doubt, insecurity, and anxiety over the academic elements and whether I’d be able to do as good a job as I desperately wanted to. Plus, some of the experiences I was digging into were pretty raw and writing those songs did get difficult, especially since I was suddenly doing the project without the support of my therapist, something I’d put in place to help me manage that. But apart from one bad bout of depression, my mental health was – somehow – reasonably stable (apart from my day-to-day, ongoing anxiety). As I said in my previous post, I think it was the constant creating (and creating things that I’m really proud of) that did it, that kept everything on a reasonably even keel.

Having said that, my chronic pain was almost constant, worse than it’s ever been. There were periods where my knee, for example, was so painful that I could barely walk and my back so painful that I could barely move. My Mum (once a massage therapist) said that it felt like I was storing rocks in my muscles. It certainly felt like they were made of concrete. Maybe it was my anxiety around the project, I don’t know, but the pain was keeping me up at night. I also struggled on and off with my hands and wrists, presumably from all of the typing, piano, and guitar playing I was doing. God, my various health issues are like freaking buses sometimes. I’m still waiting for physiotherapy and hydrotherapy, have been for months. I’ve just started with the Pain Clinic but one appointment was never going to change anything before the Masters ended. So all I had were various painkillers that were only sporadically helpful.

But my biggest ongoing obstacle was my difficulty concentrating, which I’m assuming is due to my (still untreated) ADHD. Staying focussed on my work was very difficult; I exhausted all of my energy trying. It felt like my concentration was so delicate that the smallest distraction would shatter it and then there was no way to know when it would come back; I felt like I was clinging onto it by my fingertips. So I couldn’t stop (really not healthy, I know). I couldn’t waste a second of it. That was super stressful and I often ended up sitting at my computer for hours and hours; there were multiple fourteen hour days, some successful, some not. People kept telling me to at least take a day off now and then but I just couldn’t. I was too scared of losing my concentration when my hold on it felt so tenuous.

During the semester, I also had a few other commitments; it was awkward timing but they were all great opportunities:

  • As I mentioned in my post about the previous semester, I was part of the judging panel for a songwriting competition. That ended up being a lot of work but fortunately I managed to get it all done in time for this module to start. The end was pretty stressful because our deadline was suddenly brought forward but it was a great experience and I learned a lot from it; there were so many amazing songs and so many talented songwriters and they’re all still pretty young. I hope they keep writing; some of them I’d love to see pursue songwriting as a career. The final winners weren’t the ones I personally would’ve have chosen but I guess that’s what happens when you’re judging by committee and there are so many good songs to chose from.
  • I also submitted work to a competition: three songs, two already written and one that I wrote as part of this project. I was supposed to find out whether I’d made it through the first round in August, I think, but, because they’re also an organisation and not just a competition, COVID has thrown a wrench in the plan and so the whole thing has been delayed until February. So I guess I won’t know anything for a while.
  • One of my tutors is doing a research project on the many reasons why we write songs and I volunteered to share my thoughts. In mid July, a handful of students came together for a Q&A panel about our personal songwriting intentions, processes, and experiences. It was really interesting with a pretty wide range of reviews and even a couple of debates. Hopefully some of what we said was useful for the research.
  • Also in July was the Taylor Swift focussed musicology conference I mentioned in my post about the previous semester and I presented my paper on some of Swift’s lyric writing techniques: her repeated use of certain imagery and the ongoing themes throughout her discography. I loved researching it (and hope to research it further in the future) and writing the paper – so much so that it ended up being over ten thousand words long and I had to do some major editing work. Presenting the paper – I ended up recording it and presenting it in video form because I was so nervous – was very nerve-wracking: everyone was lovely and very welcoming but I was just so aware of how inexperienced I was. But it went really well and I really enjoyed the whole conference; there were so many interesting papers. I hope it’s a conference that can happen again (not just because I have so many ideas that I’d love to research but because Taylor Swift is so fascinating on so many levels; there’s a lot that can be learned from her, not just around music but in business, in the development of pop culture, and so on). 

In the last month, my approach reached a new level of intensity. I was working constantly, quickly when my concentration was good and agonisingly slowly when it was bad. But I didn’t stop. I even worked while I ate. I know that’s not a healthy way of doing things but I was just so terrified of getting a grade I wasn’t happy with, that made me feel like I was letting everyone down, myself included. If I wasn’t working, I felt guilty so I just kept working.

Finally it came time to try and distill all my work down to the most important points for the final presentation. My god, that was hard. Months of research, almost twenty songs, and a lot of reflection on my creative process all into an hour… Or, as I said, the most important points. But figuring what those important points were was a real struggle. Throughout the whole Masters, I felt like the module objectives were designed to trip me up – not me specifically, of course, but anyone reading them. Reading them felt like trying to interpret another language that you barely understand so I felt like I was just waiting to discover that I had it all wrong. Maybe it was my autistic brain, I don’t know. My supervisor was great regarding this anxiety but two years of feeling that way made it a hard feeling to exorcise. So I just did what I know how to do and worked through it, hoping it would be enough. And on the 6th September, I had my final assessment. Two tutors watched my presentation and then, after a brief discussion, they asked me a couple of questions, both of which were pretty straightforward to answer. And that was it. The project and the semester was over.


According to the usual rules, the results will be released in twenty working days, although I don’t know if that will apply given that my assessment was so much later than everyone else’s and they all received their results the day after I presented. So I’m just waiting to hear. I’m trying not to stress about my grade but, as I said in my previous post, I’m finding it hard. I’ve been working relentlessly – with so many obstacles to navigate – and the idea that that still wasn’t enough to get the Distinction I want so badly does upset me. I mean, I’d get over it in time but, yeah, it would be distressing. I just really hate the idea of thinking, “I could’ve gotten a distinction if I wasn’t autistic or had ADHD, etc.” I know that that’s not a healthy way to think but the standards and expectations I have for myself are somewhat warped, something that I think is due to the late ASD diagnosis and the clash between twenty-ish years with neurotypical standards and then having to adjust those expectations in accordance with what I now know is a neurodivergent brain. It’s a mess basically. But I’m waiting for the results – they should be out on the 6th October – and hoping desperately that it went as well as I hope it did.

While the ‘project-for-assessment’ is over, I definitely want to keep working on the songs, write some more on various elements of my autistic experience that I just didn’t manage in the timeframe, and then, hopefully, release it in some form. That’s the dream. I’m so proud of so many of these songs and I really, really want people to hear them and hopefully find strength or comfort in them. We’ll have to see because these projects are just so expensive to put together, from the production work to making music videos to all of the marketing.

And while this is a topic for another post, it should be acknowledged that the semester ended on a very sad note. I found out the morning after my presentation that my Granny had died. Between that news and an intense semester’s worth of work and my brain is just at overload. I can’t tell if I’m not feeling anything or feeling everything. I don’t really want to get too deeply into all of this, partly because I’m not ready and partly because, if only on my blog, I want to keep this semester and this project separate. I really just wanted to mention it in the context of all the emotions I’m dealing (or maybe not dealing) with right now.

So that was the final semester. But there’s still a couple more chapters in this story, so to speak. Graduation will hopefully go ahead as planned – in person – in November and then who knows? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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My apologies if this post is a bit all over the place: everything’s really hitting me and I’m just exhausted but I wanted to get this out while it’s still fresh.

I’m Grateful

A while back, my social media feeds were flooded with posts about being grateful and appreciative and thankful. Yes, it was Thanksgiving. I live in the UK and I find it a bit of a weird experience seeing so much celebration and festivity in my online world and have none of that reflected in the world around me. But I do think it’s important to take the time to feel grateful for what I have and I always feel especially grateful at Christmas so I thought I’d write a short post about some of the things I’m grateful for, some big, some small, and some strange.

My family, my friends, my people – This year has been a particularly difficult year but if it’s taught me anything it’s how incredible the people in my life are. Time and time again, they’ve come through for me, supported me, and encouraged me and I couldn’t be more grateful. A few years ago, my relationships felt a bit all over the place (especially my friendships: old ones were separated by university and new ones were still tentative) but this year, I feel like I’ve fallen in love again with all the lovely people in my life, from the people I talk to online to my friends (both from university and from before) to my closest family. And I’m trying my best to make sure they know it.

My therapist – My god, I’m so grateful for my therapist. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about how lucky I am to have her. I can’t even put it into words. Having someone I can trust with anything and everything is incredible (although it’s very scary for me to feel so reliant on a person). I’ve told her things I never thought I’d tell anyone and she’s helped me through things I never thought I’d get through. I can’t thank her enough for all she does.

My animals – I’ve already written about my animals so I won’t ramble on too much but they deserve a mention here. They bring me such joy and help me so much with my depression and anxiety. I’m so, so grateful to have them in my life.

My final year at university – My first two years of uni were really, really hard. They were a real struggle. I learnt a lot and I met some great people but the bad stuff going on often overwhelmed the good stuff. But third year was a blast. I loved it. I had a great group, some great tutors, and I wrote some great songs. I also built some great friendships. I think the best way to describe it was that I was finally feeling in sync, with everyone else but also with myself. I was working on all the things I wanted to work on, I was working with some awesome people, and I was getting some really good responses. It felt so right. Leaving was really hard but having such a great last year means I look back on the whole experience positively even though there were some really hard times.

My health – My health is a struggle and it’s something I wrestle with daily but I am so grateful that it’s not worse. I don’t think it’s helpful to compare your health situation to others’ because someone else’s experience doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to feel and struggle with your own. I also think it’s unhealthy to focus solely on the positive and repress your feelings about the negatives. But I do think that it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. I’m grateful for all the things in my body that do work. I’m grateful that I do have days where I can walk the dog, go out with my friends, and stay out late. I’m grateful that my mental functioning seems to be getting better. I’m grateful for how resilient my body is. I need to learn from that.

The benefits I receive – I want to write a more in depth post about benefits and the process of getting them because it really can’t be explained sufficiently within this post but I really wanted to include this because I am so very grateful to get the benefits I do. It’s something that just removes one layer of anxiety and that’s such a big deal. I’m also really grateful for the Christmas bonus. I haven’t had a Christmas where I’ve been on benefits so far and the extra £10 with the recent payment just made me so happy.

Clear skin – My Mum laughed when I told her that I was putting this on the list but I am so, so grateful that, for the majority of the time, I have clear skin. It was something I was so insecure about as a teenager. Looking back at the photos, it doesn’t look too bad but I remember so vividly how upset I’d get over it so I’m grateful for every day I look in the mirror and see clear skin. I don’t take it for granted.

Redbull – Redbull should sponsor me. Seriously. I’m actually drinking Redbull as I write this. I only discovered it recently (I’d had to avoid caffeine while taking my previous medication) and it’s been a very exciting find, especially while I’m struggling so much with low energy levels. It gives me such a boost; it makes me feel like a normal, functional human being, not like one who has to constantly assess her energy levels and emotional state. It’s like the fog of fatigue rolls back and I can actually feel all the other emotions, like excitement and joyfulness. I’m aware that I shouldn’t drink it too often but while I’m following every other avenue to improve my energy, it’s a really good back up plan for when there’s something I need to do.

Agents of Shield – Another one that isn’t life changing but oh my god, I look forward to every new episode. I love it. It’s definitely my favourite TV show. For a long time, I avoided everything superhero-related because it just made me miss my Dad but almost ten years on, it’s something that feels really special. I can imagine the conversations we’d have, the debates over how the storylines played out. I can almost hear his voice down the phone, talking me out of a panic attack by saying, “Think of Daisy. What would Daisy Johnson do?” It used to hurt but now that world makes me feel close to him. On a different note, I love it because I find watching it makes me feel empowered. It reminds me that, superpowers or not, doing good – being a hero – is about the choices you make. It’s a weekly reminder to try to do better and to be better. Plus Chloe Bennet (who plays Daisy) is just freaking awesome. The whole cast is.

Taylor Swift – Yes, I am grateful for Taylor Swift. People have made fun of me for liking Taylor Swift for as long as I’ve been a fan but I honestly do not care. She is a fantastic songwriter and I love her music. I’m grateful to have a new album this year but the thing I’m really, really grateful for is who she is as a person. Since announcing the new album, she’s met literally hundreds of people who’ve always wanted to meet her; she’s made hundreds of people’s dreams come true, not for financial gain, not for the publicity, but because her fans matter to her as much as she matters to her fans. How lovely is that? I think that’s amazing. I’m also grateful to her for using her platform to spread awareness about sexual assault, as I am grateful to every person who has done the same. We are not obligated to share our traumas; our only obligation is to ourselves and our healing. Sharing difficult experiences and opening yourself up to the opinions of others is so brave and should never be undervalued. Her level of fame makes any potential fall out worse but it also means she made a huge impact: the RAINN hotline saw a 35% increase in the number of calls they received after she won her trial. She has so much power to affect people’s lives and she strives for that impact to be a positive one. So yeah, I’m grateful for Taylor Swift.

I could keep going – there’s a lot I’m thankful for – but I’ll stop there. I’m wishing you all a safe, happy, and healthy Christmas and I’ll see you on the other side.

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The End of an Era

I did it. I graduated.

The last three years have been a whirlwind. As I said in my Instagram post on Thursday, “my degree was an endless mix of inspiring, exhausting, frustrating, ridiculous, exciting, stressful, and joyful.” That’s the short version. The long version is very long. I dealt with a lot of grief and disappointment. I struggled with my mental health, discovered I was Autistic, and started to untangle all the threads that come from that. And that’s outside of university. At uni, I wrote hundreds of songs, met some amazing people, got the opportunity to go to Nashville, and ultimately, became a better songwriter. There were classes I loved and classes I hated. It was a constant battle to keep the lid on my anxiety and sometimes I failed. But I wouldn’t change it. My experience is coloured massively by how good my third and last year was. There were moments where I hated it, where it made me incredibly anxious, where I had meltdowns so bad I thought I’d never recover. There were moments I thought I’d never get through, that I couldn’t do what I was being asked to do. But somehow I did. Somehow I’m here, with a first and two graduation ceremonies under my belt.

The first graduation was for UEL, The University of East London. My school, The Institute of Contemporary Musical Performance, is a specialist music college and while it operates independently, it’s officially part of UEL. So we were invited to one of their graduation ceremonies. My Mum and my Granny came to this one. It was very formal – it was caps and gowns. That was something I was looking forward to and something I was very let down by. I’d thought it would be fun but it became a very stressful experience. Maybe it didn’t fit properly, maybe that’s just how it is but my cape kept sliding back and strangling me and my cap kept falling off my head. It took seven bobby pins to keep it on my head. As someone who struggles with sensory stuff, which includes the way clothes feel, that was really hard and really ratcheted up my anxiety. Fortunately, spending time with my friends, messing around and laughing, helped to keep it at a bearable level.

The ceremony itself was a bit strange. Because I only went to UEL once, it kind of felt like I was intruding, like I didn’t belong there. All the talk of the ‘UEL community’ made me feel a bit disconnected from the whole thing but the speakers were very good. I’d like to share something Geoff Thompson, the chair of the governors, said in his speech: “You are strong. Don’t ever, ever forget that you are strong… Never, never, never, never, never, NEVER give up on your dreams. It is not an option. It is not a choice.” You know, that was just what I needed to hear, just as I’m leaving university and heading out into an uncertain world. It was inspiring. It was empowering.

And all of a sudden, we were lining up to walk across the stage to shake the chancellor’s hand. It was weird: I had tunnel vision. No one could have applauded me as I walked across the stage and I wouldn’t have noticed. I was completely focussed on walking towards the chancellor, shaking his hand, and walking down the steps. It’s funny how something that you usually don’t have to think about – like walking – suddenly seems to take a lot of effort. But I did it, I got back to my seat, and I cheered for my friends. We threw our caps and then it was over. Graduation one was done. I’d thought I’d stay for a drink with my coursemates but after all the anxiety, I was completely exhausted. So I (eagerly) returned my gown and headed home.

The second graduation was a couple of days later and much more fun. This was just our school so it felt a lot more personal. Even though I don’t have many friends outside my course, I recognised a lot of faces from the other courses and we’d all shared the same space. We’re all connected by that. We didn’t have to wear gowns but it was still formal. Everybody looked gorgeous; it was really fun to see everyone dressed up. All four of my parents came to this one, which was amazing. I’ve never had all of them at a school thing before so that made me very happy. I was positively giddy.

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I really enjoyed the ceremony. The head of each course made a speech and then presented each of their students with the scroll. My favourite speech came from my programme leader, Jonathan. It was thoughtful and warm and inspiring. He even gave this blog a shout out, along with two other projects my friends have worked on. It was a very special moment. Another special moment was watching one of my best friends receive her scroll while her own song played. That was awesome.

And suddenly, it was my turn and I was walking across the stage, giving Jonathan a hug, and accepting my scroll. We posed for the photo and then I was moving again. I was a bit more aware of what was going on this time. The UEL one was a good rehearsal in that regard. There wasn’t an opportunity to thank my parents so I made the best of what I had. I located them in the crowd and did this:

It was important to me to do that.

Everyone received their scrolls and then we gathered for the reception. It was lovely to celebrate with everyone, to catch up, to introduce my parents to all these people who have played such an important part of my life in the last three years.

And that was graduation. The only other thing to add is that, to celebrate, we headed out for drinks. It was my first experience being in a club and my first experience drinking cocktails, neither of which I would say I enjoyed but it felt very empowering to try those new things and not feel trapped by my anxiety. Major thanks to my friends for looking after me and making it such a positive experience.

I will write more about my experience at university at some point but it’s a pretty big task. I need to go through my diaries and pull together some stuff before I can write an accurate account of that time but I will manage it at some point. It was a crucial time in my life. It’s a big part of who I am.

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