English undergraduate and member of the School of the Arts Student Press Team, Fred Johnson, has been chatting to Dr Kenneth Smith from the Music Department about his wisdom, experience, and plans for the future:
What is your background?
“I’m a musician from the North-East of England. I’m like Billy Eliot without the ballet, the skills, or the success. I studied in King’s College London, and Durham, taking up a permanent lectureship in Liverpool in 2011. I’m a music theorist but I’m not a geek (no geek ever is). I broke a few moulds to get here, but I’m here.”
What attracted you to this position at the University of Liverpool?
“Lots of things: the city and its music; the diversity of the music programmes here; the Scouse accent. The music department is noted for its openness to new ideas, innovative teaching, and exciting research agendas. I recognised instantly that it was the kind of place I wanted to work in, and so I wore my smartest suit for the interview.”
What is your vision for the department and what are the biggest challenges and opportunities facing the department right now?
“I want the school to continue to expand its presence across the campus and the city. There are so many exciting projects going on in Liverpool that we are becoming part of. We have a forthcoming music and audio-visual conference here; our composers are making their mark on the Biennial Festival with their own festival – Open Circuit; the chamber orchestra is about to advertise its ‘Orchestra on the Run’ workshops in local schools; we are really building up our partnership with the RLPO; we are hoping to expand performance spaces in the future. I feel as if the pendulum is definitely swinging in music’s direction.
“Recruitment in a changing market has been on everyone’s mind right across the sector, particularly for arts subjects like music. It’s been going well, and we are still thriving because our courses are so unique; it’s a great time to think big, and that’s what we’re doing.”
What was the last book you read (or recommended?)
“Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. I read it last week. Read it by all means, but don’t get too excited. It’s about a woman working in a department store who becomes obsessed with a customer and stalks her after finding her address on a delivery receipt. [Spoiler alert…] They live happily after. Highsmith said she wanted to write a work of gay/ lesbian fiction that ended on a cheery note. Apparently that was a rare thing in 1952.”
What was your first job?
“Salesman. Hot dogs. York races.”
What lesson did you learn on that job that you keep with you today?
“Gambling is a mug’s game. The house (and the sausage industry) always wins.”
Who or what inspires you?
“I am currently in an ongoing struggle with our Head of Department, Michael Spitzer, about who can become the greatest pianist. We both have lessons from the same teacher. Michael is currently slightly superior to me (he says) but it won’t last. Great pianists of the past: I’m inspired by Władysław Szpilman – the subject of Polanski’s The Pianist. Composers always inspire me: I have a Beethoven portrait in my office, next to a rare Marilyn Monroe print. Make of that what you will.”
How do you manage stress?
“I’m a musician. We don’t get it.”
Besides work, what are your passions?
“It’s one of those jobs where you are doing what you love and love what you are doing. Music is at the centre of everything for me, but if you push me to think outside of that: knitting, kite-flying, collecting Harris tweed blazers, Salvation Army volunteering work, detective fiction, more detective fiction, failed love affairs, charity shopping, hula hooping, my baby niece, and did I mention music?”
What is the best advice you didn’t take?
“My uncle Cyril once advised me not to take his advice. I took it.”
What keeps you enthused about teaching?
“Enthusiastic students. As long as they want to learn, I’ll continue to teach.”
What is the number one skill or practice that has contributed to your method of teaching?
“I trained as a secondary school teacher, and taught in a young offender’s institution. I loved it. My PhD took me away, or I’d have been institutionalised. It means that I’m ready for anything that these well-behaved, congenial, convivial Russell group university students at Liverpool can throw at me. But, I learnt there that you really need to make students care about what you are teaching them. Why should Beethoven matter to a young offender? I learned to adapt the teaching situation to find whatever works to make students answer that question.”
Tell me an amusing story about your time at Liverpool.
“Difficult one. It’s always hilarious around here, so it’s impossible to single out an anecdote. Come to one of my lectures.”
What jobs have your students gone on to do?
“Everything from Japanese investment banking to lion-taming.”
“Pride is a deadly sin; I avoid it at all costs. When students graduate I reflect on how they’ve changed since they were timid freshers, and I feel a hollow sense of conceit when I think about the impact I might have had.”
Where do you see yourself in five years?
“Hawaii, married to Dame Helen Mirren.”
Interview by Fred Johnson