Byron by day, Beethoven by night

As a press officer, I write releases that often make it into the local paper. Recently I was asked to write this year’s graduation stories – one for each day about a student graduating that day with an interesting story to tell.

Will at his graduation

Will at his graduation this summer

One of these graduates is Will Sherwood.  An edited version of Will’s story made it into the local paper The News, and you can read the full story on UoP News.

Will, a creative writing graduate, balanced a passion for music and creative writing with his academic studies, and earlier this year achieved his dream of conducting the University of Portsmouth choir. I asked him where this dream came from, why he was set on being a fantasy writer, and how he manages to keep his different interests going.

Where did your goal to conduct the university choir/ensemble stem from?

“I’ve always been enthusiastic about music. My grandad made sure of it by playing Tchaikovsky or Beethoven whilst I played with my train track when I was little. I started learning the piano around the age of ten and soon began to expand into the history of music.

When I came to uni, I was rather lucky that the orchestra were in need of a percussionist, so before I knew it I was banging around on the timpani. At the same time a course mate dragged me along to the first University Choir and Chamber Choir rehearsals.

My interest in conducting began after watching the Proms for the first time. I particularly loved the interviews with the conductors. They would explain how they interpreted the music and shaped it so that it was their own unique performance.”

How did you go about achieving your goal?

“Well, I enquired about the possibility when I arrived at university but obviously they weren’t about to put a fresher in charge of an orchestra! When I started my third year however, the Chamber Choir wasn’t being run so I decided to put together my own ensemble for the Music Unplugged concert before Christmas.

George Burrows (Choir Director) and Colin Jagger (Head of Music) asked me if I wanted to conduct the University Choir. So I suppose I finally achieved my goal through my own stubborn determination to try new things, no matter how tough they are.

George and Colin were extremely supportive throughout the rehearsals. I met with George at regular intervals to discuss my progress and what I could do better in the next rehearsal and Colin helped in preparing the music, booking rehearsal slots and the venue itself.”

Will playing the timpani in the University orchestra

Will playing the timpani in the University orchestra

How have you balanced academic study and all your musical activities?

“Oh goodness, with great difficulty! Time management is not my forte and I get distracted extremely easily by anything artsy. Thankfully I only had my dissertation to focus on whilst I was conducting but it was a matter of pulling apart Byron’s poetry in the library by day, then picking at Mozart and Rachmaninov by night. It was an overwhelmingly demanding few weeks but it was also a thrill.”

With your passion for music, why did you choose to study creative writing rather than music?

“Ahh, the question that almost everyone I’ve met has asked me over the past three years! I was set on being a fantasy writer before I came to university and I wanted music to be something I could do in my spare time, that I could look forward to when the stress of reading Shakespeare or George Eliot got too much. I didn’t want it to feel like a chore or something I could become annoyed about.”

You said you were set on being a fantasy writer before you went to uni – why?

“It all starts with Tolkien. My parents bought me a recording of the Hobbit on cassette when I was very young and I strongly remember falling asleep whilst Bilbo gazed into his fire in Bag End with the dwarves singing their song. It was a magical moment and since then I’ve devoured all of his works, written a dissertation on the Lord of the Rings at college and organised a choral ensemble to sing Tolkien’s elvish languages in the orchestra film concert in May this year!

The great thing about fantasy is the myth building. I actually wrote the first draft of a big fantasy novel between my GCSEs and A Levels with the intention of polishing and publishing it at uni. It was the first of a five-book series with plans for another trilogy. It’s been four years and I haven’t really gone back to it. The freedom with fantasy is limitless and you can really let your imagination go wild.

I mainly read Tolkien and C.S. Lewis but also read other series such as the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. I read a range of classics but I was always attracted to fantasy. I’m currently planning an academic work on Tolkien as a Romantic writer, exploring his approach to nature and how he deals with the Romantic ideology, critiques and develops it. I’ll never not be into fantasy; it’s where I went every night, hoping to suddenly wake up in the Shire or Lothlorien.”

Do you think it can be difficult to balance two creative passions (writing and music) in your life?

“My remedy for making sure I don’t neglect my studies, writing or musical activities is by making sure that I’m connected to groups or people that I can either debate ideas with, sing or perform.”

Now you’ve graduated, you’re going to teach English at Canterbury College, and you want to go into academia. Why this route rather than the many other routes involving writing? Do you not find academic writing quite dry and restrictive in comparison to the creative work?

“Teaching is an area I’ve always loved. In 2011 I took part in the Student Associate Scheme programme where I worked in a primary school for three weeks. I enjoy helping people with their work and when it’s English or music I become extremely passionate about what they’re doing.

[Academic writing] demands a formal style and requires a kind of straight back attitude to your writing. However, I wouldn’t necessarily agree that it lacks creativity. Your job as a researcher is to develop new ideas and although the writing may be a bit dry and dense, the essence of the writing is bursting with creativity. As much as I might moan when writing an essay because I can’t exactly express my point, nothing quite thrills me as much as writing an essay on a topic that I’m interested in. I love writing about my own interpretations of texts and analysing poetry.”

How does music fit in with your future career in academia?

“Well, my aim is to be a Byron scholar and Byron had a phenomenal influence on the music scene both in Europe and outside of western culture. I’d like to write a monograph on the subject of Byron and music influence at some point.

Although I don’t want to devote myself completely to the connection between music and literature, I feel that I don’t need to because poetry and music evolved together and rhythm is the foundation of both. Whenever I look at a poem, I always see the musicality of it.”

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