Lucy Pankhurst, MMus Composition, 2006
You studied performance as an undergraduate student, what made you decide to undertake an MMus in Composition?
I’d always had an interest in composition – even at GCSE level, I really enjoyed it. Because of this, I took as many composition/arranging electives as I could during my degree at the RNCM and I began writing pieces for myself and other students to play in recitals. As a tenor horn player, the original repertoire for the instrument is somewhat limited so I suppose I started writing pieces out of necessity too, just to have something original to put into an assessed performance.
After hearing the pieces I had written for my colleagues and the works from my assessments, Head of Composition, Adam Gorb suggested the idea of doing a masters in composition at the college. I never thought I would be accepted into the composition department but I was offered a place and stayed on at the RNCM to study part time.
Why did you decide to do this at the RNCM rather than somewhere else?
There were two main reasons I decided to stay at the RNCM– the first was that I wanted to study with Adam Gorb. After taking a composition elective for a semester, my writing improved dramatically with his guidance. Throughout my masters – and even now – Adam has an amazing talent in being able to get the best ideas from his students, whilst still allowing them to retain their individuality. He always has excellent advice and suggestions and makes you think about WHY you are writing, not just WHAT.
The RNCM was also the perfect place for me to balance performance and composition. I still wrote and performed pieces in assessments and was involved in writing pieces for events at the college (eg. For the RNCM Saxophone Day and the Double Reed Festival).
Was it difficult to make the switch from performer to composer?
Strangely not. It actually felt like a very natural progression, as I had been doing both in tandem for several years. Retrospectively, it’s quite interesting from a creative perspective – going from having to musically interpret an existing piece as a performer, to actually writing the music for others to play. It is a very different process, but I always try to imagine what it would be like to play the pieces I write, so I still do think from the perspective of a performer, even when I’m composing.
What would you say was the highlight of your MMus course?
There were actually many highlights for me. Having the opportunity to attend seminars and lessons with composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies and James Macmillan was truly eye-opening.
The 2006 Festival of Brass Young Composers Competition was also fantastic, as this was the biggest event I had been involved with and it opened a lot of doors for me. It was also where I met my lovely partner Paul McGhee, who was studying composition at the RWCMD at the time – he was one of the other winners!
What did you go on to do after you completed your MMus?
After my MMus, I continued to compose – writing whenever I could for as many different ensembles as possible. I stayed in touch with Adam Gorb and was also involved in a few RNCM projects, including a piece for Northern Rail (for two brass bands, diesel train, steam engine and cordless drill!)
I also relocated back to my hometown and started to work as a peripatetic brass teacher. My role has gradually grown over the years and I have developed our Whole Class Brass syllabus, in addition to teaching 1-1 lessons and leading ensembles. More recently, I have also begun delivering workshops (composition and performance/band training) for ensembles and schools.
I have always taken on as many different writing opportunities as possible, resulting in a number of recordings, including featured works on CDs by Mark Wilkinson and the Foden’s Band, the Cory Band, Owen Farr, Scherzo Brass and the Lunar Saxophone Quartet. In 2008 I composed a piece called ‘Wicked’ which featured a multiphonics/beatboxing euphonium solo for us to premiere at the US Open competition in Chicago. It actually received the Best New Composition Prize at the competition, which was wonderful. Early in 2011, I won the John Golland Award for an experimental brass band piece called ‘Alchemists’ Fire’. Later in 2011, I was presented with a British Composer Award for ‘In Pitch Black’. This was actually the first time a brass band piece had won the award and previously all the winning composers in the Wind Band and Brass Band category had been male. The piece was played on BBC Radio 3 as a result. It was around this time that I started speaking to Adam about possibly coming back to college to research for a PhD (focussing on contemporary works for brass).
What are you doing now, and how did your MMus help you in your career path?
I am teaching as lead tutor for Whole Class Brass provision three days a week, with the rest of my time for writing and research. It can be difficult to balance everything, as I tend to have to work on several pieces at once. For instance, I’m currently working on two big projects – one for the Brass; Durham International Festival (for three brass bands) and the other for the Macclesfield Youth Brass Bands, that brings together all of their ensembles. In addition to this, I am also in the process of writing a cornet solo, a set of electro acoustic euphonium pieces, two projects specifically for the RNCM, plus a new piece for beginner wind band and a set of KS3 educational songs.
A very practical skill I gained from my MMus was learning to juggle different projects at the same time and use my time effectively. It was very hard work balancing college with my part time job and playing in a brass band but now, with juggling external commissions, college writing, research, teaching, planning and quite a lot of travelling etc. I can now see just how well it prepared me.
I have since been shortlisted twice more for British Composer awards – for my contribution to ‘Diversions After Benjamin Britten’ (premiered at the 2012 RNCM Festival of Brass) with fellow composers Simon Dobson, Gavin Higgins and Paul McGhee and ‘Th’owfen Raconteurs – a PRSF funded electro acoustic work for brass band and folk singer.
Lucy is now completing her PhD in Composition at RNCM.
Read more about the School of Composition here.
Learn about RNCM Research here.