In an interview with Alina Khakoo, co-founder of Girl Talk, Stephanie Childress talks about her abandoned ice-skating career, being at one with her (bloody old) violin and working out her next move. Stephanie is a third-year music student at John’s and President of the St John’s Music Society. She plays the violin and has a passion for conducting. Having participated in countless concerts and competitions, including BBC’s Young Musician, she plays an active part in the Cambridge music scene. On Friday 27th October, she is conducting Beethoven 9 in St John’s College Chapel.
How old are you?
Are people funny about your age?
Yeah definitely, I think when they first speak to me they don’t really notice. When I first came here I thought no one was going to know, but then somehow people did, and it affects them in different ways. It comes up in conversation a lot, but I don’t have any issues with it. I jumped a class in primary school and then I dropped out of school when I was 15 to do my A-Levels in a year, so that meant that I’ve just ended up being a bit younger than everybody else. I was in a French system, and it’s quite normal to have people jump classes or redo a year there, certainly more common than in England. But ending up here after dropping out was probably what surprised people most.
And how was the process of applying here?
My mum was really supportive, she’s a very clever lady, she just got her OBE! She just supported me for my application. I didn’t have my AS results or anything, but Cambridge was very good and they saw past that.
Do you feel like you have grown up quite quickly, having made these kinds of decisions at 15?
It has always felt natural, I don’t like to deconstruct my psyche too much. It felt like the right decision at the time and it feels good now.
What does your mum do?
She’s a business consultant. She started a company in IT consultancy that went on to be very successful but she left work for quite a while to take care for me. Music is something that requires extra dedication, not just from the child but also from the parent, driving to lessons and things. Now she’s working full-time in Geneva, that’s a good thing about me being at university, she can just carry on with what she’s doing and know that I’m alright here.
Do you see elements of her in yourself?
We are very similar in different ways.
Bearing Girl Talk in mind, do you think that having networks of women and women who inspire you has helped you?
Even when I was in London, before coming to Cambridge, I was struggling to find that network. I naturally gravitated a lot to male conductors, just because I was working with them more and you build up a rapport and learn so much. But since coming to Cambridge, it has definitely opened up the possibility of actually creating a solid network of like-minded passionate young women and that has been one of the greatest things here.
What’s the music department like in terms of diversity?
Diversity in my year is great and we all get along. Obviously, there are people who are more competitive than others and who take it more seriously, but that’s just life. You can’t always let things like that wear you down.
That’s true, there’s a fine line between acknowledging the injustices and having these kind of conversations that make you realise that some throwaway comments that people make aren’t okay.
As long as you are strong in yourself and you have that belief, which is something that Cambridge really nurtures in young women, that self-belief that you are here to great things and when you leave you will keep on doing great things, there’s nothing holding anyone back.
That’s amazing. How did you come to the decision to come to Cambridge rather than going to a conservatoire?
It was a really last-minute decision. When I left school, it was in order to go to music college, but then towards January, I decided that actually I want to explore the cerebral aspect of music. Cambridge is a great place, I visited 16 different colleges before applying to John’s because I was so set of finding the right one and the right atmosphere. I think that, because I was going so young, I thought that I might as well take the time in finding somewhere comfortable and I think I’m more comfortable in a really big environment than in a small college. So that’s why I was naturally drawn to John’s. But yes, it was a last-minute decision. I didn’t have a back-up – other than conservatoire – so, thank God, I got in. It wasn’t that I was certain I would get in, but it was just the only place I wanted to go and I was dead set on reapplying the next year.
I’m so in awe.
But it’s just a series of events that happened to happen at a particular time and I think I haven’t really thought about it too much. Sometimes you just have to do what feels right, that sounds so cheesy, but you just have to.
How do you manage your time?
I think having that year at home, essentially doing my A Levels by myself was really helpful because, I got to university and I think I kind of know how to manage my time, though I certainly overestimated it. Time management is hard, but particularly as a musician you are inclined to manage your time efficiently, but sometimes there are days when you just need to do nothing or go for a walk. First year was quite hectic because I was going to London – and in Lent I was going 3 or 4 times a week for violin lessons because I had the BBC Young Musician competition and that was a big thing, so that was challenging, but I got through it.
Have you known your teacher for a long time?
No, I’ve had a lot of violin teachers – nearly 7 or 8 – but I have been taught by this guy for over 2 years now, and he’s really chilled out, and I think the way we approach music is compatible – it’s definitely not the same – but it’s compatible. He understands my commitments at Cambridge and that my conducting is equally important to me as the violin.
And how long have you been learning the violin?
I started when I was 6. My first teacher actually told me that I was too old to start playing, I think some of my friends started when they were 3 or 4.
But you can’t walk then?!
You can’t read or walk! But it has just sort of set the tone for the pedagogical trajectory of the violin for me. It has been a bit of an uphill battle from then, but that keeps things fun and interesting.
And why the violin?
I saw a Nigel Kennedy concert of the Four Seasons, and apparently, I was sitting on my dad’s lap, completely mesmerised, and after the concert I just decided I was going to play the violin. Neither of my parents are musicians and they don’t really know anything about music, but my mum said that I should probably start with the piano, so I started the piano at 5, but by the time I was 6 I knew I just wanted to play the violin.
So, does it feel like a solo project? Is there a group aspect?
I have been involved with the group aspect since an early age. I think in England the youth conservatoire system puts a particular focus on orchestras and so I was always making music with other people and I think that has been the healthiest thing for me. When you’re young you think ‘I don’t like orchestra’, but the fact that they make you do it is such a beneficial social tool. There is no point doing music if you can’t share it, with people but also with other musicians. Certainly, being in lots of orchestras and working with different conductors introduced me to the idea of conducting, seeing them I thought ‘I can do that one day!’ Then I discovered opera as an art-form and I realised that I wanted to conduct that. It was only when I was 13 that I realised that I wanted to be a musician, up until then it had been more of a hobby. I did lots of sport, I did rugby and ice-skating for a long time, ice-skating was really important to me, but then there were too many broken bones and that’s not ideal for when you’re learning the violin. So, when I decided I wanted to be a musician, I had to stop and really focus on that.
There’s a real emphasis on this idea that a musician has been playing their instrument since they were three, but really, it’s a journey.
I always say that music is something I do and a part of me, but I don’t think that it’s a defining characteristic. I think that it’s nice that I didn’t want to do music for 13 years of my life, I did so much other stuff, and I’m still exploring all kinds of possibilities, which Cambridge is so great for. I live below a lawyer and a mathmo, and I learn so much from them, and I find it so interesting talking to art historian friends.
Can you show me your violin?
Yeah sure! It’s a Gobetti and it was made in 1710.
It’s very beautiful! Is it yours?
No, sadly not, it’s very expensive. I absolutely love it, it’s a gorgeous instrument. It’s a really weird thing falling in love with an instrument. Sometimes I can’t play for a few days and I just think ‘why did I leave it’. The instrument really develops, depending on your playing and the way that you play changes the way the wood resonates. It’s a relationship where the instrument is reacting to you as much as you are imposing yourself on the instrument.
If you wanted to get people into the Cambridge music scene, what would you tell them?
You have some of the greatest musical minds in Cambridge and I think that people underestimate the pure volume of things going on here, things you can go to or get involved with outside of your course, that is just as interesting. I think that if people want to come to Cambridge they should expect a lot of essays and reading – the typical spiel – but when you are applying such cerebral practices to something that is, for a long time, a hobby, it really becomes interesting.
What’s your dream?
My ultimate dream would be to run the Royal Opera House, as the artistic director or head conductor. But at this stage I just want to finish my degree and then maybe go to Germany to study conducting, I don’t have a definite plan at the moment, like any typical student I need to talk to people and work it out. It’s an ongoing process.
Beethoven 9 performed on Friday 27th October, 8pm in St John’s College Chapel. Free for all members of St John’s college and £4 (student) £10 (other) tickets to be purchased on the door or reserved through this google form: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1lozh5G_9uDzRhig13YzegTeC054JwjSrF4F9Kk1-4MU/viewform?ts=59e8a68f&edit_requested=true
Photos by Alina Khakoo and edited by Xanthe Fuller