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NEWS > Alumnae Profiles > Getting People to Feel Something – That's Why I Do It

Getting People to Feel Something – That's Why I Do It

Joy Lisney, Class of 2011, is one of the most exciting young musicians to have emerged in recent years, with a glittering international career as a cellist, composer and conductor.

Music is in her very DNA - her father, James, is a professional concert pianist, her mother, Sally, is a violinist and violin teacher and her younger sister Emma, Class of 2013, is also a professional violinist. They often perform together.

“Growing up, there was music around the house all the time,” recalls Joy. “Dad was friends with all these amazing musicians. I remember playing toy soldiers with Dame Emma Kirby (one of the UK’s most foremost sopranos), which was a very special experience.”

She was five when she started to learn the cello, although by then she’d been pleading with her parents for a couple of years to have lessons.  They had initially encouraged her to play the violin, but she had been inspired by Jacqueline De Pre and was determined to take up the much larger instrument.

Joy took to the cello straight away. “In its range and sound, the cello is the most similar instrument to the human voice,” she explains. “And I’d done so much singing and grown up with music always in my ears.  I knew all the piano works of Schubert as my father played them at home all the time. So it seemed like the cello was just an extension of what was already there.”

Joy was awarded both music and academic scholarships for LEH. “But most teachers will remember me as one of the sporty kids because I was in the first team for tennis, athletics and lacrosse. Sport was the thing I absolutely adored, and I was in the PE department all the time. Music was also a passion, and in addition to playing in the orchestra and being in the Holles Singers, I continued to perform at concerts in the school holidays.” Joy went on to Cambridge University to study music at Clare College and is just about to finish her PhD in composition at King’s college, while also captaining the University cricket team.

She aims to divide her time between being a cellist, composer and conductor. “They are interconnected for me. Each one makes me better at the other. When I’m working hard, I don’t like to listen to too much music.  I find it too intense and distracting. Music is like a language and I’m much more expressive in music than anything else. I love the technical and intellectual element of music and the performing and physical element. I treat performing like a sport.  I prepare like an athlete, both in the physical sense and with the repetition needed to execute a skill under pressure, like a basketballer shooting lots of hoops. You have to have technical mastery in order to be free to express yourself in music.

“You have to keep wanting to improve.  It’s about self-discovery and self-improvement, and I enjoy that. Actually being on stage, performing and sensing the audience’s enjoyment and getting people to feel something – that’s why I do it. If a picture paints a thousand words, then music is the next level up. It says something different to everybody and tells a different story each time.”

Like all musicians and live performers, the pandemic has had a profound impact on Joy and her career. “I couldn’t imagine not performing and on the first day of the first lockdown I decided to record myself playing something every day. I quickly ran out of compositions for single cello, so I started arranging and performing pieces for cello ensemble.” Her lockdown videos went viral with a repertoire stretching from Bach, through classics such as Barber Adagio and Elgar’s Nimrod to the Beatles, Queen and the theme tune for BBC Test Match Special.

Joy has also taken part in a few live online streamed concerts and, when regulations permitted, carried out a couple of socially distanced performances. But she feels the sector has been badly let down. “Music has really suffered in this country more than elsewhere, because we don’t fund it properly.  We just don’t seem to value music and the arts even though they’re a massive part of our economy. A lot of orchestras are nearly bankrupt now and freelance musicians have had no work and no support. We’ll lose a generation of musicians and it’s very sad.”

To highlight their plight and raise the profile of #LetMusicLive, Joy conducted a moving musical protest in October 2020, when 400 freelance musicians gathered in Parliament Square to perform a fifth of Mars from Holst’s The Planets to represent the maximum 20 per cent that freelancers receive from government grants.

“There were just hundreds of musicians, spread out across the square, all dressed in black. I was wearing red so they could see me more easily. I’d never met any of them before and we hadn’t had a chance to rehearse at all. I just stood up, gave a downbeat, and off we went.  It was amazing. There were a couple of minutes of silence at the end, which was incredibly moving. I like to think the MPs who were inside debating that day could hear us and that it had an impact.”

In some ways Joy has appreciated the chance to step off the international concert merry-go-round. “I have been performing professionally since the age of 14 and it’s so easy to get burn-out.”  The break from her at times grueling travel schedule has allowed Joy to rejuvenate and focus on her composition.

She is feeling recharged and is currently hard at work composing a piece, with a working title of ‘Viriditas’, for a large orchestra and choir which will be their first performance after lockdown. Joy says: “Viriditas is difficult to translate but is integral to life itself.  It’s about nature, about re-birth, growth and our union with those things as people. It’s an optimistic and ultimately triumphant piece.  We could all do with some of that after the year we’ve been through.”

If you’d like to find out more about Joy, please visit her website and follow her on social media:

Instagram and Twitter: @joylisney

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