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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A Q&A with composer Becky McGlade

In this occasional series, we ask Oxford composers questions based around their musical likes and dislikes, influences, and challenges. We asked Becky McGlade to tell us a bit about preparing to begin writing a new pieces, how she spends her days, and which musical influences have inspired her.

How do you prepare yourself to begin a new piece?

Once I’ve chosen a text, I warm up my voice and sing a bit of an aria or something—usually by Bach!—which seems to help to get the creative juices flowing! Then I begin to explore ideas at the piano. Usually lots of snippets of melodies will emerge and I try to jot them down quickly before I forget them. Occasionally an entire melody will spring to mind—it’s nice when that happens but it doesn’t often!

Sometimes I try out various chords first, maybe just two or three, to create an idea of the mood of the piece. At this point I’m often totally unsure of which ideas to go for so I’ll go away and do something different for a while and come back later. Generally, when I return to the piano, one or two ideas will have “stuck” and I’ll go with those. I think one thing I’ve got better at over the years is making a decision to go with an idea. I used to procrastinate and hated dispensing with anything just in case it was “inspired”! Interestingly, it’s often the first idea that came to mind that I end up pursuing.

What does a typical day in your life look like?

I don’t really have a “typical” day—they’re nicely varied. I do some piano and cello teaching and quite a lot of cello playing so there are often things I’m practising for, or rehearsals to attend. Some things are routine however. My faith is important to me and I always begin the day with a devotional time. That’s nearly always followed by scrambled eggs on toast while grappling with the cryptic crossword! (I’m slightly addicted to puzzles and usually have several on the go!)

I’ll often go for a short run after that before going to the piano and spending time on whatever piece I’m working on. I’m definitely a “mornings” person and find inspiration flows much better in the early hours. Evenings are often busy, but on a free evening I love to cosy up with my husband and watch a film or an episode of the old 1980s “All creatures great and small”—probably my favourite series!

What do you do when you’re not composing?

I’m so blessed to live in a beautiful part of Cornwall and I love to relax by cycling or walking. On a day off, my husband and I often set off with a big picnic and flask and see where our legs or wheels take us! We’ve walked all 620 or so miles of the South West Coast Path over the last few years and are thinking of starting it again.

Do you treat your work as a 9-5 job, or compose when you feel inspired?

Because of other commitments, I don’t treat composing as a 9-5 job. However, I do try to spend some time every day working on music and certainly don’t wait to “feel” inspired. Often, I feel very uninspired when I sit at the piano, but as I force myself to get stuck into it, inspiration will usually begin to flow. If it doesn’t, I’ll get stuck into a pile of ironing or a piece of cheese on toast instead and come back later!

What or who has influenced you most in your life as a composer?

I was fortunate enough to rehearse daily with the Truro cathedral choristers from the age of 8 to 13 in the days before girl choristers. I can’t recall why I was allowed, but I think I always arrived early at school so the headmaster thought it would be a good idea! This fostered in me a love for choral music and for singing, which has continued throughout my life. The music I’ve sung in choirs has probably been the most influential to me as a composer, along with music I’ve played as a cellist or pianist, or just listened to time and again! Bach, Handel, Howells, Stanford, Parry, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, MacMillan, Dove, etc…the list is endless!

What would be your desert island playlist?

Rachmaninoff, Symphony No.2; Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 5; The Beatles, “Revolver”, to remind me of car journeys with my dad, everyone singing along; Genesis, “Trick of the Tail”, to remind me of car journeys with my husband, both of us singing along!

Featured image: St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall by Tim Hill

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