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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Goals For 2020 Reviewed

It feels like I made these goals a lifetime ago. So much has changed since then; the world feels like (and, to an extent, is) an entirely different place now. I’m not sure it’s possible that anyone could’ve predicted how this year would play out – maybe certain elements but not the whole picture. I don’t know about you reading this but I really struggle to reconcile the person I was before the pandemic, with the hopes, issues, and perspectives I had then, with the person I am now with all of 2020 taking up so much space in my brain. It feels like 2020 was bigger than (or at least, as big as) my whole life up to this year; I know that’s the illusion of time but regardless, I’m finding it very difficult to make sense of everything I’ve experienced in the last year.

With the way the world was turned upside down this year, I have no idea how to think about 2021 but before I address that, I wanted to just take a brief moment to look at the goals I set at the beginning of this year, pre-pandemic, and see how I did, despite everything that’s happened.


GET BACK TO SWIMMING

I struggled with swimming at the beginning of the year, having essentially had no break between my first and second semester. I was exhausted before the second semester had even started. I found it very difficult to balance my uni work, my exhaustion, and swimming so going to the pool did fall by the wayside more often than not. And then, just as the semester was coming to a close with my empty semester (and plenty of opportunities to swim) in sight, the pandemic really hit the UK and we went into a national lockdown. That obviously meant that all of the gyms were closed, eliminating the opportunity to swim.

As the restrictions lifted, I did try going back to my normal pool but it just didn’t feel safe so my Mum and I spent a long time looking for a pool that were really careful and meticulous about their safety precautions. Eventually we found one and although we couldn’t go as much as I would’ve liked (due to the limited number of people they allowed in the pool at a time), it was wonderful to swim again. I just loved it.

When I was diagnosed with hypermobility, I was referred for hydrotherapy (we’re still waiting on that) but the specialist encouraged me to keep swimming as it’s the best exercise for hypermobile people and gave me some basic hydrotherapy exercises to start doing while we waited for the referral to go through. Unfortunately, I only got one more swim in before the UK went into a second lockdown and the gyms closed again. I am all for the lockdowns (not that that second one felt much like a lockdown) but I was upset to lose the swimming.

I got a little bit of swimming and hydrotherapy exercises in between the end of lockdown and everything closing for Christmas and now the Tier Four lockdown, which I was pleased with although I’m really missing the swimming. I have no idea how long it will be before the gyms open again and I can swim but I feel like I’m in a really good place with it so it won’t be hard to get going again.

START WEARING MY INVISIBLE BRACES AGAIN

I struggled to wear them while I was going to university. Sensory-wise, I find wearing them to be really overwhelming, to the point where I can’t concentrate because the pressure in my mouth takes up all the space in my brain. I usually wear them at night to avoid that but it often just gets too much and then, once I’m out of the habit of wearing them, it’s really hard to get back into it again.

Several months into lockdown, once I started to feel a bit more stable, I actually managed to wear it almost every night. I even made progress and moved onto the next one in the series. But again, when uni started, it started to feel like too much very quickly. It’s a lot of sensory stuff during the time when I’m supposed to get a break from everything. It’s really hard, but I’m not giving up.

COMPLETE YEAR 1 OF MY MASTERS DEGREE

This is a simple one, thank god. I completed the second semester of my Masters Degree a few weeks into the first UK lockdown and that was the first year completed. Most of my friends were full time and had to power through with their final project mid lockdown, which I am endlessly impressed by. I genuinely don’t think I could’ve done that. So I’m super proud of them, not only for the amazing work that they created but that they created it in such difficult circumstances.

So I managed this one and I’m proud of that, even though it was largely unaffected by the pandemic. The Masters has been a hugely challenging experience for me and so getting through the first year does feel like a big achievement. And what’s more, I actually did well on the essay for the second module, despite my anxieties. So I’m really proud of that too.

As of the end of 2020, I have completed three of the five modules of the Masters, although I don’t yet know how I’ve done in the third. But I’ve done it. I prepared for it, I worked hard throughout the twelve weeks, and put everything I had into the assessment (I always feel like I could’ve done more but I’m trying to get better at recognising what my limits are and I do think I did the best that I could). Now I just have to hope that it was all enough to get a good grade. I know that the skills I’ve learned are the important part but I still struggle to disconnect my self esteem from my grades. It’s a lot of unlearning to do after so many years in education.

CONSUME NEW MEDIA RATHER THAN JUST FAMILIAR MEDIA

I’d gotten into a bit of a rut, just rewatching old favourites, so I really wanted to branch out and try new things. I didn’t manage much during the uni semester since I was so busy; I was almost constantly working and background noise helps me work so familiar movies and TV shows worked quite well in that regard.

When we went into lockdown, my mental health was so bad and my anxiety around the pandemic was so high that I could barely get off the sofa. I rewatched a lot of my favourite things, needing the comfort and familiarity and nostalgia, but after a while, I tentatively started watching new things. They turned out to be a much needed form of escapism and I discovered so many awesome films and TV shows. It also kept my creative brain working even when I wasn’t able to use it; since it has started functioning again, I’ve written several songs based on stories or characters that I found myself emotionally invested in.

GET BACK TO THERAPY AND FOCUS ON MY MENTAL HEALTH

I was consistently going to therapy before the lockdown and felt like we were doing good work but since the pandemic began and my therapy sessions moved onto Zoom, they’ve been much harder and much less productive than I’d like them to be (and I definitely missed some because I just felt too overwhelmed by everything going on). But digging into the hard stuff is often painful and I’m not exactly keen to upset the fragile balance of my mental health that I’ve managed to maintain, for the most part, over the last few months. I’ve just found it so frustrating because the sessions always end up focussing on just getting through instead of moving forward, which is especially demoralising because I feel like the pandemic has been undoing some of the work we’ve done. So I’ve really tried but it has been beyond difficult. I have to hope that this year it will get easier at some point.

WORK ON NOT COMPARING MYSELF TO OTHERS IN MUSIC

This was something I really wanted to work on this year, in therapy but also in practice as I released my EP and played gigs. I’ve just always really struggled with insecurity and I guess what you could call comparison anxiety, always feeling insecure and anxious and bad about myself. At worst, it can make me feel really bitter about music. And I really, really don’t want that because music is the thing that makes me happiest.

Lockdown was oddly unifying because the music industry just shut down and pretty much everyone was forced to stop what they were working on. We were all stuck and frustrated. The comparison anxiety wasn’t really present, both because no one was really releasing anything and because the pandemic anxiety was so high that there wasn’t the space or energy to be anxious about anything else.

The only real exception to this was the releasing of Taylor Swift’s folklore but that was so different to what I’ve been working on that, rather than comparing myself, I found myself far more focussed on what I could learn from it. I also spent the summer learning the songs of my favourite writers and artists to improve my musical skills and that also had me focussing on learning and getting better rather than on how I wasn’t good enough and would never be good enough. So I felt like I was actually doing well, all thing considered, like I might actually be making progress in this area.

But then the industry started up again and people started releasing and promoting and so on again and I realised I hadn’t made as much progress as I’d thought. The pandemic anxiety compounded all of the anxiety I have normally around releasing music, leaving me at even more of a disadvantage and making it feel even harder to ‘keep up’ and work through my issues around it.

I always find it hard when everyone starts posting their Spotify Wrapped but I was actually looking forward to it this year, having released four tracks and the EP having reached over 30,000 streams on Spotify. But it turns out Spotify stops counting your streams on the 31st October, one day after my single, ‘Honest,’ was released, the single which brought in most of my streams. So my Spotify Wrapped wasn’t at all accurate and didn’t reflect the year at all; I didn’t end up posting it at all.

I’d really hoped to make some progress with this goal but without the work in therapy and the added anxiety of all that’s been going on this year, I don’t really feel like anything’s changed. And that’s hard. But I’m trying to focus on how proud I am of the EP and how proud I am of how far it’s gone, considering that it’s my debut EP that was pretty much made in various bedrooms with a handful of friends. Because I am really proud of that and grateful for everything that’s come out of this experience. Hopefully I will make some progress in this area this year because I don’t want to feel like this. I just don’t think I know how to get to that place on my own.


I feel like this has been the most helpful approach to a new year of those I’ve tried so far. I like the setting of goals (rather than a strict list to be checked off) because it gives me some structure and helps me to progress as a person without loads of pressure or the constant fear of failing or not trying hard enough. I feel like, for me, it falls nicely between being too much and too little.

As I said, the world was a very different place and I was a very different person when I set these goals so the fact that I made any progress at all in any of them feels like an achievement but I would like to manage more next year. I’m hopeful (because I have to be – it’s too easy for the depression to infiltrate otherwise) that this year will be better, at some point at least. Maybe then I can make some real improvement with some of the more difficult areas of my life and, until then, I’m gonna work on what I can. That’s probably all any of us can do right now.