Going solo

Emma Johnson MBE (1985) is an internationally-renowned clarinettist.

In 1984 she won the BBC Young Musician competition. The following year she arrived at Pembroke to read Music and English. Emma has gone on to establish a busy international career as a soloist. In 1999 she became the first woman to be awarded an honorary fellowship at Pembroke.

emmainsilverAt the age of nine I was offered the chance learn the clarinet free of charge at school. I remember coming home that day really excited. It changed the course of my life.

I almost didn’t come to Pembroke because I realised that music was taking over. I went to see Colin Wilcockson, who was Admission Tutor at the time, and had a big heart-to-heart. He said that if I didn’t go to Cambridge then, I never would and it would be such a missed opportunity. I always look back and think that it was definitely the right advice.

I hadn’t thought about the gender ratio when I applied to Pembroke. My sixth form had just started having women when I joined, so I suppose I assumed everywhere would go coed in the end.

I was in the second year of women at Pembroke, but I didn’t notice terribly. Everybody was very civil and I don’t recollect any feeling of being a second-class citizen. Maybe they could have done with a few more women’s loos, but otherwise I think they did it as smoothly as they could.

Everyone knew I wanted to be a musician from the day arrived and I found the College very supportive. I was already travelling abroad to perform so it was a very hectic time for me. I probably didn’t take as much part in social events as a normal student, but I played at May Balls in a jazz trio and took part in the Cambridge University Orchestra.

I did my Part One in English because it was my favourite subject at school. I really liked Chaucer – both the beauty of the language and the characters. However, it soon became clear that I needed to change to music because that was going to be much more relevant. What I learnt when studying English is still useful: analysing poetry is quite similar to working out how to perform a piece of music in a way that speaks to an audience.

When I came out of College in the late eighties, you had to play a lot of experimental contemporary music if you wanted people to take you seriously. The audiences used to hate it. Now composers think much more about what the audience wants, which makes the music much more rewarding for me as a performer.

Since I entered the music industry things have changed. When I started it was very dominated by older men and that gave it a certain feel. Gradually everything has shifted. Now it is all about appearance – you have to have looks as well as being able to play your instrument. My advice for anybody young wanting to join the industry would be to think very hard about how they present themselves.

Fewer people now learn about classical music at school, especially in state schools. It becomes reliant on enthusiastic individuals in local councils to ensure that money is spent on classical music. I now find myself campaigning to keep local music services open in the area where I grew up. It is a frightening trend and if we don’t do something about it, it will eventually decimate our culture.

I have become used to giving interviews and am always being photographed now. I’ve thought very carefully about how I present myself since I started. In the classical music world you don’t necessarily have to go for high glamour, as long as you have some sort of image. I’m yet to see whether it will cause me a problem when I’m 70 and hobbling around with a stick!

I felt very honoured to be granted the title of Honorary Fellow at Pembroke. It has been really nice because it has meant that I keep in touch more and every now and again I come up to events. I have also given a couple of concerts and masterclasses in aid of the College. I find I have much more time to appreciate the beauty of Pembroke now than I did when I was a student worrying about essay deadlines.

I’m also acting as Co-Chair for the 1985 30 Years On reunion. I’m rounding up those in our year for a drinks party in London as a prelude to a dinner in September. We’re also hoping to fund a means-tested student bursary and it feels great to be able to put something back.

I’m performing tonight. For every concert there is a new audience and you feel excited that they’ve bought a ticket. You want to do your best for them. The thrill of music making never goes away.

For details of Emma’s upcoming performances and recordings, see www.emmajohnson.co.uk.