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My Univ: Giles Underwood

At the recording of Dayspring Bright, 2016

I’m the Director of Music here at Univ. This is a part-time post and allows me to pursue my other career strands. I’m Professor of Singing at the Royal Academy of Music, I teach singing to undergraduates at Oxford and I sing professionally around the world.

I arrived in 2013, taking over a post whose primary responsibility was running the Chapel Choir. It quickly became clear to me that the job required more in order for me to make a difference to the music in College. I was immediately struck by the atmosphere. I was an undergrad in another college a little way east of Univ, and even taking into account a lapse of 20 years or so, the feeling of community within the student body and the SCR at Univ was palpable. The choir was a close-knit bunch, and the musicians in the College were doing their bit. But as is often the case, the best musicians were drawn to university-wide groups, ensembles and orchestras.

Choir Tour to Florence, 2017

One evening after dinner, Sir Ivor Crewe sidled up to me, and asked what I would do to promote the profile of music within the College and across the University, if I had, say ten thousand pounds to spend. Hypothetically. And would I put my ideas down on paper? But only one side of A4, please, by Monday.

From this conversation grew the concept of my job as it now is. I was able to begin the programmes which turned into The Martlet Ensemble and Martlet Voices. These enable student musicians to work alongside professional players and singers in repertoire which is chosen to suit their skills. We were also able to start the buying of pianos for student rooms, to replace some of the very dilapidated instruments which were already in place, and to grow our provision of electric (and therefore more mobile) pianos. I was amazed to find out just how many pianists we had in College. When I asked if anyone would like a piano in their room, I received 40 positive replies. Since then, we have had to hold a ballot to decide. I was delighted that the new Master’s response on hearing this was entirely positive, and relieved to hear how much music mattered to her (especially jazz!).

univ choir reunion 2019

Univ Choir reunion 2019

Music is one of those activities which feed the soul, and we are surrounded by music of all forms. We hear it in shops, on our phones and screens, and most of us are plagued with ‘earworms’ at some time or other – snatches of tunes we cannot shift, or sometimes even place! As listeners to music, we are cherry-pickers and magpies (even the word earworm is borrowed from the German, Ohrwurm!). We know a great deal about music without realising. We know what we like, but we might not know why we like it. For young adults striving to get to grips with difficult concepts in their various degree courses, music can be a comfort and timeout from the stresses of their lives; now more than ever, post-pandemic. And this is why my role is so fulfilling. I see how people respond to the benefits of music, be it in the Chapel or the Bar, and the more we all participate actively in it, the better we can face whatever the world throws at us.

Univ is a place which feels like home, and where the family nature of what a College should be is truly evident.

And lastly, a shameless plug – come and sing in the Community Choir on Tuesday evenings at 7pm and become an active participator in music at Univ.

Find our more about music at Univ on our Music page or listen to podcasts of our Evensong services on our Online Chapel Services page.

Published: 20 October 2021

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