Meet the star music student at Leeds Conservatoire proving it's never too late to follow your dreams

Emma Clarke has enjoyed a glittering career as a voiceover artist, winning awards all over the world and even featuring in a multi-million dollar Hollywood film.

By Abbey Maclure
Sunday, 15th May 2022, 4:30 pm

But the 52-year-old has finally taken the plunge to study a music degree at Leeds Conservatoire, pursuing a quietly-held dream she never thought she would realise.

Emma started playing classical guitar at the age of eight and by the time she was a teenager, she was practicing for up to six hours a day.

But after she broke several of her fingers, and then her wrist, she shelved her musical dreams and successfully auditioned to become a voiceover actress for the BBC.

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Emma Clarke, 52, is a composer and MA Music student at Leeds Conservatoire (Photo: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Emma told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “I always loved composing, but I never thought I could really do it.

"I had so much self-doubt and put so many limitations on myself.

"It wasn’t until my son had gone to the Royal Ballet School, and I was driving home from dropping him off on the M40 one day, that I thought, 'If I was to write music for Joe to dance to, what would it sound like?'

“It was like I had some sort of neurological event. I could hear all this music - but it was orchestral music, I could hear the strings.”

Emma has been composing music for less than three years, but has already collaborated with Opera North, The Royal Ballet School and Wavelength Percussion (Photo: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Emma was having guitar lessons at the time and mentioned her ideas to her teacher, who encouraged her to "go for it".

She started lessons in composing with her now tutor, Tom Harold, in September 2020 and was later accepted to study MA Music at Leeds Conservatoire.

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Formerly known as Leeds College of Music, the Conservatoire offers a broad range of degrees across music performance, composition, production and performing arts.

Emma commutes to Leeds from her home in Manchester and said the city has become her "spiritual home" (Photo: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

“Studying at the Conservatoire has been one of the best decisions I've made in my life," Emma said.

“It’s opened up so many opportunities for me. It's given me access to resources, networks and the expertise of all the brilliant lecturers and students who are there.

"It’s a phenomenal place, a brilliant institution and incredibly inspiring

"I'm still a rookie, but I’m working very hard and I'm keen to learn.”

Although she's been composing for less than three years, Emma's work has already been used by The Royal Ballet School and Opera North.

She writes music for orchestras, using a wide variety of ensembles and all kinds of instruments.

“I get ideas from everywhere," Emma said.

"I can hear something somebody has said, I might have a dream, or I might see a picture that inspires me.

“When I start to write, most times I can hear the complete piece in my head. I sit down at my computer and I score it out.

“I love the texture and the awe-inspiring sound that you can create with all those instruments.

"When you’re in a room with musicians playing, the power of it is phenomenal. I find it incredibly moving."

Emma commutes to Leeds from her home in Manchester and said the city has become her "spiritual home".

She added: “Leeds has a fantastic jazz scene and it’s an incredibly creative city.

"It’s accepting, it’s friendly and it’s open to creative risks and new ideas."

Emma hopes to compose music for film and choreography, as well as collaborating with artists and exploring the links between different creative arts.

The piece she has recently composed for Opera North is for a scene between a soprano and a tenor about a messy break-up.

“I hope my music makes people notice the world," Emma said.

"Some of the music I write isn’t necessarily beautiful, some of it is quite challenging. I want to push my creative boundaries as much as possible.

"With the piece for Opera North, it’s almost as if it’s coming from inside those two characters.

"I want people to identify with my music and think, 'oh my god, that’s how I felt."

"Music is how I cope with the world," she added.

"It pumps me up, it relaxes me, it makes me feel consoled.

"I go to music to take refuge, to escape the craziness. I go to music to exercise better, to feel more positive, more reflective, or for deep focus when I’m working.

"I can’t imagine a life without music.”

Emma grew up listening to an eclectic mix of music

Some of her first musical memories are of her mum playing Elvis Presley and Stevie Wonder, while her dad was a fan of Acker Bilk and her auntie listened to progressive rock.

Music was Emma's escape as a child and she later began to collect records of her own.

"I was into all sorts of stuff," Emma said.

"I was ashamed of some of my records - they were so weird that other kids would have looked at me in a funnier way than they already did.

“I’ve always had a very eclectic music taste. I listened to pop, rock, weird folk music, classical and film.

"I’ve always had a voracious appetite for music."

Emma got her first job in radio when she was 14, after writing to the BBC to ask if she could audition

“Amazingly, they said yes," she said.

"I went along to the old New Broadcasting House in Manchester, to the big radio drama studio, and they asked me to prepare six contrasting pieces.

“I was stood in the middle of the studio in front of the microphone - and just went for it.”

Emma was immediately booked for a radio drama and her voice can now be heard in advertisements, toys, games and even public transport systems across the world.

But when Emma told people she was plunging into a new career, while in her fifties, she was met with some doubt.

“I've had people say to me that doing a masters is a waste of time," Emma added.

"They have even asked me: 'What will the children do? What about the housework?'

"It was unbelievable."

But Emma has proved her critics wrong - becoming one of Leeds Conservatoire's star students.

She shared her advice for others with dreams of following a creative path.

“Put the doubt aside," she said.

"Don’t listen to it. If you think you’ve got something inside that’s creative and will give you a release, you’ve got to try it.

"You owe it to yourself to have no regrets and give it your best shot, no matter how old you are.

"What’s the worst that can happen?"