The Third Semester of My Masters

So that’s it. The third semester of my Masters is officially completed. As I write this, I have just submitted my assessment work and have a week before the next semester starts (online, due to the current number of COVID cases). I have some reading to do for the next module but before I dive into that, I just want to reflect on the last semester, the ups and downs, and all that I’ve learned.


It began with a great deal of stress, and long before the semester was due to start. At the beginning of the pandemic, I’d said I absolutely didn’t want to do my course online and would defer if that was going to be the case. But as the new semester drew closer, I got more and more anxious. I didn’t want to defer but I also didn’t feel safe commuting to and then through London for two hours of classes a week so, after many hours of talking with my family (and many tears), I decided that the best option was to attend as an online student. It was a sad decision to make because I’ve always loved the group dynamic of my university classes but it just didn’t feel safe or responsible to attend in the way I’d have to.

And then, in the week or so before classes started, there was a great deal of stress around getting the right timetable as an online student: conflicting information, the classes not showing up on my online timetable, and so on. When things were already so stressful (the anxiety about the pandemic aside, I was really nervous about whether or not I was mentally up to doing the module with my mental health so fragile), this just triggered a series of really terrible meltdowns. It was a horrible and exhausting way to start the semester, especially the one I’d always been most anxious about: Musical Language in Songwriting. Music theory has never been a strong area of mine so the idea of experimenting with these concepts was very daunting.

While this was very distressing, I don’t want to point fingers or place blame. These are hugely difficult times and no university – no institution – is perfect, even when the world is running according to what we consider to be normal. So it’s not fair to expect everything to run smoothly. And now that I’m on the other side of the semester, I can only sing the praises of my tutors: over and over, I’ve seen just how dedicated, hardworking, passionate, and supportive they are. There have been bumps in the road, of course, but even with the sheer amount of stress they’re under – and that’s just the stress I’m aware of as a student – I’ve been consistently met with warmth, thoughtfulness, and understanding. And I’m just so beyond grateful for that. I couldn’t have completed this semester without their support.

I wrote about my first week back (here) but to summarise, it was a challenge. My uni were using a blended model of teaching so the lecture was online and the workshop was onsite (but as an online student, I was looped in through the online learning platform). The lectures were straightforward since we were all online, and productive once we got into a rhythm and stopped accidentally interrupting each other. The workshop, however, was more complicated: between not physically being there and only being able to communicate through the tutor’s laptop, plus not being able to see or really hear my course mates, it was very difficult. But I spoke to my tutor after the class and the next workshop was better.

I’d thought we were making progress but then suddenly, between week two and week three, I was moved to a new workshop group, an online group made up of just the online students. That really threw me; the constant uncertainty was doing a real number on my mental health. I was really struggling during this time: my anxiety over the pandemic, the expectations of the course, and being able to do well in the module was incredibly high; I was hugely frustrated with the whole situation; I was feeling overwhelmed by my depression, my low energy levels and side effects of medication… I was constantly in tears, constantly having meltdowns.

But slowly, as things started to settle, my mental state started to settle too. I had a really positive meeting with one of my tutors where he went through the learning outcomes and grading criteria and generally what makes a good assessment portfolio. I’ve found that having a meeting like this early on in the semester both helps me to work on the assignments more effectively and avoids unnecessary anxiety. As I said, I felt really supported throughout this module and I’m so grateful for that, both in terms of the module itself and in terms of the broader picture.

The assignments were challenging and definitely interesting, including a reimagination of a cover, a reimagination of an original song, and a brief that still makes me shudder: a song in an uncommon mode, using both 5/4 and 7/4 time signatures, with extended chords and an example of chromaticism (I struggled particularly with this one). We also had to consider the arrangement of each songs and to an extent, the production. The briefs definitely stretched me and prompted some very interesting songs, many of which I absolutely wouldn’t have written if I’d not done the module. I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything with them but I definitely learned a lot from writing them. Having said that, I did spend a lot of time feeling very unsure of myself and the quality of my work, both in terms of whether they were actually good songs and whether they were fulfilling the grading criteria.

About halfway through the semester, my course mates from the year before (those who’d done the Masters full time and completed it in one year rather than two) graduated and I joined them for the online ceremony to celebrate them and their achievements. We were all disappointed not to be able to get together to celebrate properly but hopefully that plan is simply postponed rather than cancelled. They all deserve it and it would be so  lovely to see them again.

Six (out of twelve) weeks in, I was exhausted all the time. I was also still struggling with the nerve pain in my hand – the pain that I’ve been experiencing since the middle of the first lockdown – which was only getting worse, making it even more difficult to play instruments. I was still waiting for my rheumatology referral – that didn’t come through until the last week of the semester and even now, they still don’t know what the problem is.

The latter half of the semester was much more focussed on the assessment, at least it was for me. I worked on the songs I’d already written during the module before taking them into class again for more feedback so that I could get them as good as possible for submission (although I did impulsively write a rap that ended up being part of my portfolio). I also worked on the other part of the assessment: a short essay, analysing one of the songs I’d written and how I’d employed different aspects of musical language. I worked as hard as I could, determined to have at least most of the work done by Christmas so that I could have a break of some kind before the next semester started, unlike last year when I had to work straight through the Christmas break.

Despite the meeting early in the semester, I found it very difficult to judge whether I was doing ‘well enough.’ The learning outcomes and grading criteria felt incredibly vague and therefore not at all Autism-friendly, causing me a lot of anxiety. I mean, it’s Masters level and they have to cover all of the different styles of songwriting on the course so I do understand it but as an autistic person, it’s been one of the hardest parts of the course (uncertainty being a common area of difficulty for autistic individuals). I had multiple conversations with my tutors about it and although they noted it, it’s not like they could change them in the middle of the semester. I guess we’ll see if anything changes over time. I did get useful feedback on my songs and essay during those conversations but I still have no idea what to expect grade-wise.

By the end of the semester, I was almost done: I was making final edits to the songs and trying to cut down the word count of my essay. But the last week was hectic to say the least. I had a really lovely last day of classes – both groups I was a part of were so positive and fun to be a part of – and then a final one-on-one session with my tutor for any last feedback before the deadline (the first day after the Christmas break). That was really useful, especially as I was so close to finishing everything. I also had a meeting with my tutor for the next semester, so that I could prepare for it or, at the very least, get my head around what the expectations of the module were. Again, another attempt at reducing unnecessary anxiety, plus it was really nice to see him again; he’s taught me on and off since my first day on the BA (he actually auditioned me for the BA!) and he’s such a great teacher. I feel like he gets me and my approach to songwriting and I’m really excited to have him as a tutor again. And the semester itself ended for me with a meeting on behalf of ICMP where a group of us (students from different courses) spoke about our experience with the university. That felt good; I only ever want to leave things better than I found them and that meeting felt like an opportunity to do that. It’s re-inspired me to keep trying, even if I didn’t really need to be re-inspired.

I had one last session with Richard, sorted out a couple of technical issues with the tracks, and then I spent every day working non-stop. On Christmas Eve, I managed to finish everything. I was done – or had done as much as I could do without endlessly obsessing over every tiny detail – and could have an actual break between semesters. I really needed that and I had a good Christmas, despite everything going on. I wish I could’ve been with more of my family but we all recognised how risky that was. So we had a truly bizarre and hilarious Christmas Quiz and Zoom call and then dinner within our bubbles; it wasn’t perfect but I think we truly made the most of it and I really enjoyed it, even if there were difficult moments.

After a pretty restful break, I logged onto the student gateway to upload all of my work on New Year’s Day, several days before the deadline. But, for some unknown reason, the pages weren’t set up in a way that allowed us to upload the work required for the assessment. I had multiple meltdowns over it and after a handful of emails to various tutors, I was given an alternate way to submit. I shouldn’t really be surprised: this has happened multiple times and with the deadlines always on the first day back, there’s usually no one to contact for help. I was lucky to have had a tutor respond. Fortunately, it did get fixed on the morning of the deadline and we were all able (and asked) to submit. They usually fix it in time but it’s very stressful every time.


As I’ve already said, I’d been dreading this module but I ended up enjoying it a lot than I’d expected. It was still stressful but the tutors were incredibly supportive and my course mates were engaged and encouraging. It felt safe to bring in whatever I’d written, even if I really wasn’t sure about it (the rap, for example). It is hard being part time though, just as much this year as it was last year: for me at least, I’ve always felt ‘other’ to a certain degree, excluded (unintentionally) from the main group, the full-timers. Rather than being part of two years worth of Masters students, I’ve just felt not quite a part of either. It’s hard to explain but I’ve just never felt truly part of the course, like I’m always missing out on something because I’m only there (or ‘there’) half of the time. Does that make sense? I’m not even sure. Being part time has definitely been better for my mental health but it has made things more complex socially.

But ultimately, the module has been a good experience (although I’m sure my perspective on it will be affected to a certain degree by the grade I get). I think the biggest thing I’ve learned, or the skill that has developed the most, is how my decisions serve the song I’m writing; it’s made me much more conscious of my choices and it made me realise how much I already knew about the techniques we were using but just using them instinctively rather than deliberately. So that was surprising but it has opened up doors in my songwriting.

It was also exciting to start looking ahead to the next two modules: we had extracurricular sessions where students from last year presented their final projects to give us an idea of what that last module would be like. It was reassuring because it made the whole thing feel much more clear and less like a huge, intangible, overwhelming pile of work. Now it feels like an exciting challenge and I can’t wait to get started, regardless of the stress and anxiety involved.

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A Day In My Life (University With Autism Spectrum Disorder)

As opposed to my usual week-in-the-life posts, I thought I’d do something slightly different this time and zoom in on what it’s like to be an autistic student at university (one doing an MA in COVID-19 times anyway). This is obviously just my experience – as the saying goes, ‘if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person’ – but I thought it might be an interesting post to write. I feel like it’s so important to share our experiences as autistic people, especially when media is being created that can be harmful to us (i.e. everything that’s been going on with Sia’s new film – I feel like I should be writing about that but I still don’t know how to; it makes me so upset that I can’t really write anything that feels articulate enough to represent the significance of the issue). So I hope this is an interesting read.


THE NIGHT BEFORE

Monday was hugely busy, with a production session, two doctors appointments, and working on the essay of the module in the spaces between. I’ve been working on it somewhat steadily but since I have a feedback session coming up, I’ve been a bit more random in my approach to writing it – fitting writing time in wherever I can or just writing about certain things as they occur to me –  so that I can get as much out of that session as possible.

So it was one of those days where I barely had time to think.

On Monday evenings, the Masters course have a song sharing session between 7.30pm and 9.30pm. I’ve been a couple of times but I tend to find it too much. I’m most creative at night and so filling my head with new songs and song analysis right before I try to sleep really messes up my ability to sleep, which I have to try to do relatively early with my first class on a Tuesday at 9am. And if I don’t get enough sleep on a Monday night, I’m useless in every class on the one day I have classes. So, unless there’s a really good reason, I can’t really prioritise them.

I also find them quite hard socially: as much as doing the Masters course part time was the right thing for me, it has meant that for both years, I’ve never quite felt part of the group. There’s a handful of us in the same position and I can’t speak for them but it’s always left me feeling a bit ‘other,’ like I don’t really fit anywhere – not quite part of the group in the first year and even less part of the group in this second year. Everyone on the course is lovely but it does have a pretty big impact on the social side of the course. And when you struggle with feeling like you don’t fit in, it’s hard to feel it in yet another area of your life. So sometimes that factor just makes it too hard on my mental health. Maybe it will feel easier when one of my best friends rejoins the course in January.

So, instead, I used the time to do some more work on my essay before emailing everything required for the feedback session to my tutor (I wanted to make sure he had enough time to go through it all before we met on Wednesday afternoon). Then I tried to unwind a bit. Somehow I still ended up going to bed too late – not that 11pm is hugely late but for me, the night before a class, it’s on the border of being dangerously late.

I have a prescription for sleeping pills because my anti-depressants can cause problems with my sleep but I try to avoid them where I can. Having said that, knowing how exhausting a uni day can be, I usually take one the night before to make sure I’ve had enough sleep to give me the best chance of getting through said long uni day.


THE DAY ITSELF

I wouldn’t say I slept well and I struggled to get up but I’ve had worse nights so I just tried to push through the fatigue. I got dressed and made up and then collapsed on the sofa for a rest. Standing for the time it takes to shower, get dressed, and do my make up makes me feel weak, and lightheaded, and sick – something we’re still investigating with, unfortunately, very little progress – but getting up as early as I had meant that I did have enough time for some recovery time. It’s all down to planning. My life is dependent on planning. I also managed to eat some breakfast and take all of my pills. I’m taking quite a few at the moment – more than the ‘normal’ ones that help me maintain my mental health – because of a Vitamin D deficiency and horrible nerve pain down my left side (I’ve been waiting for a hospital appointment for the latter since about April or May, which may be my personal record for appointment waiting times).

My seminar started at nine (if you’ve read my previous university posts, you’ll remember that I’m doing all of my classes online this semester). My normal tutor (who is legitimately one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met) started the class before handing us over to a guest tutor who gave us a two hour class on arranging strings and horns. He was incredibly knowledgeable and engaging and so it was really interesting. Plus, Tiger came and sat with me for most of it, which was very nice. University with cats is a definite advantage of online lectures.

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I was struggling to concentrate by the end of the class so I was relieved when we wrapped up. It was a lot of knowledge and sensory information to try to process and sort through and digest. I felt more than a bit dazed. Fortunately, the session was recorded so I can either go back and listen to it in shorter sections or go back and search for something specific.

My next class wasn’t until five so I had rather a lot of time to fill. Pre-pandemic, I’d hang out at uni and do cowrites, go to the favourite local coffee shop with friends, or work on whatever was on the list at the time but I’m finding it much harder to use this time effectively, whether that’s due to having my classes online or down to the pandemic just really screwing with my brain. Stuff that wasn’t hard before is now and the only thing I can put it down to is the pandemic, even if I don’t know precisely why. All I know is that it’s a weird time and so it shouldn’t be surprising that certain things aren’t the same as they were before. But it’s still frustrating to have such a big block of time that I could be using productively and not have my brain cooperate. Early in the semester, I ended up staring at my laptop screen, desperately trying to work on stuff and just not being able to. I got more and more frustrated and demoralised and eventually I just had to accept that this is not productive time. So I’ve been trying to come up with ways to fill it that aren’t too demanding but still feel like there’s a point to them; I don’t want to feel like I’ve wasted it by just staring at my phone or mindlessly jumping between the open windows on my laptop because that’s just not good for my general mental health. So I’ve been trying things like reading or watching new movies or TV shows – these have been good sources of inspiration in a time where I’ve struggled to find inspiration – or having a nap if I need one… Things that don’t require a lot of energy but still feel worthwhile (most of the time).

I did a quick scroll through my social medias to see if there was anything that needed replying to and then did some admin work: replying to emails, updating my bullet journal, and so on. Just as I was about to move onto something else, I got a load of notifications from social media, all Taylor Swift announcing her acoustic concert film going up on Disney+, folklore: the long pond studio sessions. That was so exciting that it temporarily scrambled my brain, in both a good and a bad way. As an autistic person, I’m really not a fan of surprise drops because I just get hit by a tidal wave of emotions and I feel so overwhelmed that I actually feel sick. I don’t want to sound ungrateful for the film because I am so, so grateful for all that Taylor has been putting out during the pandemic (her work really has been one of the things that’s helped me during this time) but the suddenness with which she’s been announcing things has been difficult because that doesn’t give me enough time to do the emotional processing that I need to do. So although I eventually settled into being really excited, I spent a lot of the day feeling painfully twisted up and anxious over the mess of emotion I was experiencing.

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That did leave me floundering quite a bit, I have to confess. So, to try and take my mind off of everything I was feeling, my Mum and I caught up with the latest episode of His Dark Materials. It did help a bit. It’s such a great show; the casting, the acting, the sets, the interwoven storylines, etc are all so beautifully done. I loved the first series and I’m really enjoying the second one. I love Dafne Keen as Lyra (I so related to Lyra’s reaction to popcorn – it was freaking hilarious) and Amir Wilson as Will but I think it was Ruth Wilson as Marissa Coulter and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby who really stole the show this week (pun actually not intended – if you know me, you’ll know I love a good pun). Their big scene together was just so powerful and how Ruth Wilson played the aftermath was particularly emotive.

I spent an hour or so working on a new blog post but after a while, I was just getting slower and slower and eventually I gave up and had a nap. I slept for about two hours before struggling up for my second class at five. I could’ve easily slept longer but I did my best to shake it off and concentrate on the workshop. This is where we (in this case, all of the 100% online students – the rest are blended and do the workshop in person onsite) share the songs we’ve been working on over the week and get feedback from the rest of the group. For most of the semester, we’ve had briefs each week but now we’re just working on whatever’s right for us. So, for example, I didn’t have a song to present because I’ve been working on the feedback for previous songs and the essay, rather than a new song (although I did recently write a rap, although I’m not sure whether I ever want anyone to hear it). Everyone else had songs to play though so I could still participate and give feedback, although I’m not sure how helpful I was because of how tired I was. But I tried. Some days I was just have less energy to work with than others.

I had an hour break before the evening session, which runs from seven to nine; they’re technically extra-curricular but I try to attend them when I can, especially now that they’re online and therefore more accessible. I don’t want to miss out on anything I don’t have to.

During my break, I had a quick dinner and catch up with my parents. The Grammy nominations had also been announced so I went through those. I’m super pleased for Taylor Swift: folklore is such a great album. Six nominations – Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Pop Solo Performance, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Song Written For Visual Media – is incredible and I’m really excited for her. Personally, I think she deserves at least several of those, especially considering the other nominees. I’m absolutely psyched for Ingrid Andress and her three nominations: Best New Artist, Best Country Song, and Best Country Album. I’ve been following her for years, having met her in Nashville at least a couple of years before her album was released. She’s an amazing writer and it would be just so awesome for her to win even one Grammy award this early in her career. But I’m concerned about her chances; she has some serious competition in all of those categories. The Best Country Song category, for example, is incredible, full of so many amazing songwriters that I love so much: Natalie Hemby (‘Bluebird’ by Miranda Lambert and ‘Crowded Table’ by The Highwomen, a group of which she’s a member), Maren Morris (‘The Bones’), and then Ingrid, of course. I want them all to win it. I was disappointed that Halsey still hasn’t been nominated. Manic is such an incredible album, as is Badlands (Live from Webster Hall), and it’s so frustrating that she doesn’t get the industry recognition she deserves. Especially given how popular ‘Without Me’ was, I’m really shocked that she’s never been nominated.

I just made it in time for the late session, which involved two of last years graduates presenting their final projects, one about using songwriting to explore different aspects of personality and the other about the experience of their gender transitioning and how sharing that story has the potential to increase understanding and empathy and break down barriers. They were both really cool projects but it was also massively helpful to see their processes, how they’d developed their ideas and researched them and how that research had lead them to writing the songs they wrote. It was fascinating and I definitely feel more prepared for my own project. I’ve got several ideas I’ve been turning over and the presentations have been helpful in my decision making process too. So I got a lot out of it, even if I was completely exhausted by the time the session finished.

It was about half nine and I probably could’ve gone straight to bed but I went and spent some time with my Mum, watching some TV together as we both wound down from the day. But it wasn’t long before we  were both falling asleep so we put the cats to bed (they sleep in the kitchen so that we’re not woken up at five – the time they start demanding breakfast) and headed to bed ourselves.


THE NEXT MORNING

I’m not one of sleeping in so I always set an alarm. Then I can get up and start doing things (I have a real problem with needing to be productive) but usually, the day after a uni day, I sleep through the alarms I set. It doesn’t seem to change anything though. I keep setting alarms and sleeping through them. But that morning was special. I dragged myself out of bed at eight to watch folklore: the long pond studio sessions, as soon as it was available. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable to get up when I was so exhausted but it was absolutely worth it. The film was amazing, so amazing that I still haven’t figured out how to put all my feelings into words yet.

Since this post is just about my day at uni, I won’t write much more but just as I wrote about the Monday night, I thought I’d write about the Wednesday morning. Usually there isn’t a brand new Taylor Swift film to watch so I try to rest and recover my energy – physical, mental, and emotional – from the day before. As I said, I’m struggling with this need to be productive all of the time so with that in mind, I try to schedule undemanding tasks for Wednesdays. That particular day, I had a couple of half hour tutorials with tutors, so I spent the morning making sure I was ready for those. I’d already made notes of what I want to ask and discuss so I spent the rest of the morning going through those to make sure I felt as prepared as possible.


So, as you can probably tell, it takes a lot of planning and prioritising and rationing of energy to make it possible for me to go (or at the moment, ‘go’) to university, to make it possible to live my life in the most positive and productive (to a healthy extent) way. This isn’t an unusual day for me. While stuff like big Taylor Swift announcements and the Grammy nominations don’t happen every day, there’s often something that can cause emotional reactions like the ones described and I deal with fatigue and anxiety everyday. It’s one big juggling act. Every day. One enormous, exhausting juggling act every day.