During the summer of 2020 we launched a series of conversations with alumni to hear their memories of Trinity and catch up on what they’ve done since leaving. Rachel from ARDO spoke with Mike Waldron (2006) and you can read his story below. You can find more stories here.
Why did you want to study Music at Trinity?
It was a bit of an accident to be perfectly honest. At school, I was convinced that I wanted to become a lawyer. Then my organ teacher suggested I should think about applying for an organ scholarship – which I hadn’t considered, but started to look into it. I thought Trinity looked amazing – when I saw what the Choir did I decided I wanted to apply, even if it seemed a bit out of reach!
As I started expressing an interest in Cambridge, and specifically Trinity, the advice that everybody kept coming back to was that if you’re going to go somewhere where you have to work hard, you’ve got to read a subject that you love, that you’re passionate about, and that you could see yourself dedicating round the clock hours to. With a music scholarship on top of that, you’ve got to be prepared to work pretty hard! I kept coming back to this idea of reading a subject that you love and obviously I love music, I’ve been doing music my whole life – but I’d kept it separate from the idea of doing it as a career. It kind of happened organically, but when it came to doing the application it was really a no-brainer that I wanted to read Music.
When you’re interviewing at somewhere like Cambridge, you’ve got to be able to show your passion for your subject. While I loved the law, it was nothing like the passion I have for music. Then, once I was at University and at Trinity and reading Music, there was absolutely no way I could have possibly conceived of reading anything else.
My decision to stay on for another year largely came from the fact that the opportunity presented itself to stay in the Choir for another year, and then it was very helpful that there was a one year BMus course available at the time. Many of my friends were also doing a fourth year so it was also nice to have that continuity socially as well.
Where did you live whilst at Trinity?
Trinity was pretty unique when I started in that there weren’t fixed rooms for Organ Scholars, which was brilliant because in my first year I was in Wolfson with all the other first years, and it was newly renovated as well. Then I was in New Court for second and third year, and had two lovely rooms there. At the end of my third year College decided to designate a permanent Organ Scholar room, but I petitioned that there shouldn’t be a permanent Junior Organ Scholar room. I don’t know what the system is now, but I hope they kept that.
In my fourth year. I was in K Great Court, which is the staircase with the turret near the Buttery, and I think to this day that’s still the Senior Organ Scholar room, and that was a lovely big set. They were all great rooms for different reasons, and I have very happy memories from all of them.
What’s your favourite part of Trinity?
You can’t not be just blown over by Great Court every time you go in; that postcard image of the College. My fourth year room looked out towards the Clock and the Chapel, which is so full of very strong memories and emotions that I think that is the pinnacle of views of Trinity.
However, I had so much fun in New Court in my second and third years that, from a more ‘personal development’ perspective, I will always look back at New Court and smile. There are a lot of very happy memories and a lot of fun times.
What is your favourite part of Cambridge outside of College?
The Backs on Queens Road, with that sweeping view of the Wren Library and the back of Trinity, and then you get the back of Clare and that opening through where you see King’s across the river – I think I would never go back to visit Cambridge and not at least try to get a peek of that view.
What is your favourite memory while at Cambridge?
My favourite memory is actually going to Chapel and doing Evensong – I know I must have done that hundreds or maybe thousands of times over the four years, and it’s not necessarily one particular Evensong. At the end of an exhausting day of lectures and supervisions it’s that point at about five o’clock where you go over to Chapel for Evensong and it was just amazing for so many reasons. You knew you were going to go and make great music, you knew you were stepping into these unbelievably historic, monumental buildings to do something that you love, and also it was a very kind of cathartic experience. It was very good for the mind and the soul – you can walk away from your degree and any other troubles you might have and get a bit of escapism for a couple of hours.
What societies or sports were you involved in outside your studies?
For my first three years I did modern pentathlon, and competed in Varsity in my second year – that was great. I loved that. It was the five disciplines: running, swimming, shooting, riding, and fencing – we didn’t do much riding during term time as you can imagine in the middle of Cambridge, but we did lots of running and swimming with very early starts!
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before you arrived at Trinity?
You’ll never be able to do everything brilliantly; you’ll never be able to research that particular essay in as much depth as you like; you’ll never be able to do all the wider reading that was mentioned in the lecture, you know, you are battling against not enough time to do everything.
I don’t believe that anybody can have a fulfilled and rounded time at Cambridge and do every last inch of reading and studying that their degree suggests. It would have been good for somebody to say ‘you will never have enough time’ thank ‘you will always feel like you’re trying to herd cats getting everything done’ and, for a time that ‘you will feel like you’re not doing well’.
You’ll think you’re not doing as much as you should but then over time you realise everybody’s in the same boat. It’s just about managing, doing the best with what you can and with the time and resources available – and still ultimately getting lots out of the system.
What do you do now?
I’m a conductor and musician – no two musicians will ever have the same career. I’m following a path which is a combination of design, accident, and luck – and it’s probably totally different to anybody doing a similar thing!
I left Cambridge with good keyboard skills because I played the organ and the piano so much, and I had also started doing a lot of conducting. People come to conducting from all sorts of different routes, such as playing the piano or an orchestral instrument, or being a singer… For me the route was leaving Cambridge, doing a lot of organ and piano playing and also doing some conducting from the minute that I left. I started doing about 90% playing and 10% conducting when I first left, and now I do 80-90% conducting, and 10-20% playing.
I’m freelance but I have groups that I work with where I am their permanent music director, but the nature of the job is such that there’s a lot of guest work as well, lots of one-off projects. It’s a rich tapestry of work where every day is different, every group is different, and every concert is different and I love that. I find it very stimulating and very energising so it suits my personality and my disposition as well.
Have you had any role models or people who have inspired you in your field?
There have been a few people along the way and at different stages of my life and music making. My piano teacher throughout up until I went to University is an amazing woman and I learned so much about making music from her. I didn’t just learn about playing the piano I learned about being a musician and thinking about music.
Probably the greatest influence on my career so far, though, is Stephen Layton, Director of Music at Trinity. He and I started at the same time in 2006 and it was a time of great change – Richard Marlow had been Director for 30-40 years. Suddenly there was a new Director of Music, a new Organ Scholar, a new Dean, and two new Chaplains – monumental change! I saw Stephen taking the Choir as it was then and totally making it his own and moving in a different direction and a different style to how it had been done before. I’m not saying that one route was better than the other it was just that he made it his own, it was absolutely fascinating to see him take the raw product and mould it into what he wanted. I take those three or four years that I worked with him as an amazing experience and lesson – he’s an amazing musician and his style, the interpretation, the technical ability, you know, I just lapped up every minute working with him.
Working as a conductor, I am hugely inspired by conductors whose work I can learn from via recordings. Sir John Eliot Gardiner is a wonderful musician and one of the great conductors of our age, but I’m also increasingly finding inspiration in those from previous generations, such as the great Carlos Kleiber. Different people have inspired me at different stages and for different reasons, but they have all fed into a central part.
Is there an achievement which you’re most proud of?
In my conducting career so far, which will hopefully be a long and happy one, I had a debut conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra this season which was definitely a career highlight for me. That’s one I can easily single out as a very proud achievement, but with that being said, there are other bits of work that perhaps haven’t been as high profile, but I’ve been proud of from a more personal and career perspective. I do a lot of work with a slightly off-the-wall opera company called Opera Della Luna that specialises in comic opera, and I did a project with them which was two one-act comic operas by Offenbach – Croquefer and The Isle of Tulipatan. It ended up being a 12 month tour and we traveled the country and you know, it was such a fulfilling and rewarding time with great colleagues – such a fun project to work on and also musically, very fulfilling.
If you could give one piece of advice to a current student at Trinity, what would it be?
Say yes to everything.
You’ll make life exhausting and a bit stressful at times, but Cambridge is unbelievable for having so much on offer and Trinity specifically – you could pack every minute of every day doing something amazing. Whether that’s a sport, music, chess, frisbee, you name it! If you think you might be interested in it, even if you then ditch it, just do it. Try it, say yes to everything – dinners, events, societies, drinks parties – just make the most of it because it moves at a million miles an hour. Even with the best will in the world, you’ll never feel completely grounded but that’s part of the beauty of Cambridge. Embrace it, go with it, and just have a blast because it’s an amazing place.
Recorded in August 2020
If you want to get involved and share your story, please get in touch with Matt and Rachel at [email protected]