Pembroke People: Emma Johnson

A portrait of Emma Johnson hangs in the main hall of Pembroke. Other than Marie de St Pol (who founded the college in 1347), Johnson is the only female face among the rows of paintings lining the walls. She was the first woman to be made an honorary fellow of the College, but when I ask how her portrait came to be there, she replies modestly: “I’m really not sure... no idea in fact.”

Johnson is a world-renowned clarinet soloist. She describes her work as varied, including performing concertos with orchestras, doing gigs with her jazz trio, leading education projects and writing music to commission. “…And even answering questionnaires!” she jokes.

Her musical success started young; at 15 she joined the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and at the age of 17, won BBC Young Musician of the Year. I ask how she’s learned to cope with the stresses of performing. “I’ve always got nervous… but have come to realise that this is an important part of the process rather than something to be avoided. It’s quite a complex topic but I have learnt to use the heightened awareness that nerves give you to produce a better performance.”

Emma Johnson matriculated in 1985, the year after Pembroke College began admitting women. I ask about her experience of being one of the first women to come here. “It was rather fun being in an exotic minority. I think there were around a quarter female students at Pembroke and we felt quite pioneering. We were certainly treated with respect. What has surprised me is how long it has taken the world of work outside university to embrace women as equals.”

Johnson began studying English at Cambridge but later switched to music. She says she enjoyed the English tripos, but after becoming increasingly busy as a professional musician, “studying music was simply an easier fit”.

In her first year at Pembroke, she lived on F or G staircase “overlooking the library”. Did the heating break a lot? “The heating didn’t break down but there could have been more of it. The trick was to wear four or five layers.” She says she loved her room. “We used to have notice boards on our doors for people to leave messages if you were out.”

“In my second year I shared a house with four students in Grantchester Meadows, which was undoubtedly picturesque, but on a practical level, none of us seemed to think it was our job to do the washing up, and consequently we were sharing the kitchen with many creatures further down the evolutionary chain.”

“On one occasion after grabbing a quick bite to eat there, I felt so queasy I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go on stage to perform that night. Feeling nauseous, I tentatively tried my clarinet and made the miraculous discovery that blowing into a clarinet is actually a cure for food poisoning; the breath control really alleviates the symptoms! This has stood me in good stead on a number of occasions when working abroad and coping with strange food.”

I ask if trough was still called trough when she was here in the 80s. It was. And brunch? “No, we didn’t have brunch. If you missed breakfast, that was it. In fact I think I only made it to breakfast once in my whole time at Pembroke. I tended to keep a carton of milk chilling outside my window. It was usually cold enough outside...”

How does she think Pembroke has influenced her musical career? “In the music tripos I learnt the rudiments of composition and orchestration which have turned out to be invaluable in my life as a performer. You have to be very creative and initiate projects yourself, which often involves composing and arranging new material. The training in English has also given me confidence when I have written scripts for music related programmes on BBC Radio 3 and 4.”

When I ask what she found most difficult about her time here at Pembroke, she says: “too much to do – always!” It seems that the hectic life of a Cambridge student is nothing new. “I only had time to step back and enjoy the beauty of Cambridge on returning in later years.”

And her favourite aspect of her time here? “What I cherish most is the friendships I made, many of which endure to this day.”