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Pembroke Lieder Scheme

This week on the blog we are exploring some of the other musical opportunities on offer at Pembroke. Today – the Lieder Scheme.

In 2013 Pembroke’s Director of Music, Dr Sam Barrett, and the College Musician, Joseph Middleton, founded the Pembroke College Lieder Scheme.

Joseph says: ‘In the past Cambridge has offered choral scholarships, organ scholarships and instrumental awards, there has been absolutely nothing for singers and pianists.’

It hasn’t stopped the University from producing some of the world’s best singers: think Ian Bostridge, Gerald Finley and Simon Keenlyside. However, as Joseph explains,‘Most people who sing in Cambridge spend their time doing choral music. They need a chance to work out what it means to be a soloist, and to be up there by yourself rather than with a choir and a conductor. They need to learn to think in a completely different way, and in order for that to be possible they need to be given the tools.’

Through this unique scheme, four duos are selected from across the University and receive a year of coaching from Joseph. He also arranges a public masterclass, which this year was with Sarah Connelly. It is a chance to see a master in action.

‘It is a first taste of will be like if they decide to go on and study music at the Guildhall or Royal College or Music, as some did last year,’ Joseph explains. ‘We hope that by doing this we’ll encourage people with an interest in song to apply to Cambridge.’


Those who are selected for the scheme learn how to approach song music, and it all starts with the words and the notes on the page. Joseph says: ‘At the beginning I really try to encourage people to think about the basic building blocks: the language and the notes. Only once that is in place they can move on to the really interesting thing, which is all the stuff that’s not written down.’

He continues: ‘We spend a long time thinking about what the poet meant and why the composer choose a particular text. It is a really fascinating process. Music is such a flawed language in that we have manuscripts that we pass down over hundreds of years and they reveal so little about how the person who wrote it wants you to put it across.

People go to concerts to be told a story or to have something communicated to them. I don’t coach singers technically, but I help them learn to tell stories in the clearest way possible. It requires people to use their imagination. I often ask the singer to think about what has happened before the song begins. It doesn’t start with their first note but that it inhabits a whole mini world and we talk a lot about imagery, atmosphere and the psychological aspects of the story. Many of the songs are in foreign languages and if the singer doesn’t speak the language, I ask them to recite the poem in English over the piano part, so that rather than learning it parrot fashion they need to know what every single world means.’


What impact does all of this preparation have on the final performance? ‘If you go to a concert and find yourself completely hooked it is not by accident. It is because the musicians have engaged with the text. If they haven’t gone through that process you’ll know because you start thinking about what’s for tea.’

For Joseph, the four coaching sessions each term punctuate a busy schedule of travelling and performing in packed concert halls. Yet he sees it as a treat rather than a chore: ‘At the moment this is the only bit of teaching I do, and I absolutely love it. It’s a brilliant thing for students here – at the end of the year they do a showcase concert and I can see that since I first heard them perform they have undergone a truly epic shift of thought about how to be on stage.’

In a typically modest move, he points out that he learns from his students at the same time as teaching them: ‘I learn a lot myself from doing it. There are so many things that I must have learnt myself at some point but now I just take them for granted. It is very useful for me working out how to articulate them to the students. When I have been busy travelling and performing it is such a nice change to come in here and talk about what I love with superb brilliant minds who want to talk about this stuff. I always consider it a brilliant day spent!’

Also on the blog you can find more about Joseph Middleton and read an article on one of his other projects, the Bliss Song Series.

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