This month, the Royal Northern College of Music, in Manchester, began a new foundation degree called "popular music practice (session musician)". Yes, a conservatoire teaching a job-specific foundation degree. And yes, a conservatoire doing pop.
The course is the first of its kind to be offered at a conservatoire, and will give pop musicians the kind of vocational training that has, up to now, only been available to classical musicians at the Royal Northern.
The conservatoire is running the course in collaboration with Access to Music, the contemporary-music education providers who specialise in teaching both musical skills and business nous. The course provides training for top musicians who intend to work as freelance session musicians in the pop industry, and students need to demonstrate their instrumental abilities in either guitar, bass, drum kit, vocals or keyboard, and their knowledge of theory.
"Something was missing: a course for those musicians who are high-level performers interested in playing other people's music, as session musicians," says course director Andy Stott. "We wanted to produce a course that would give conservatoire-standard training to pop and rock musicians. Having pop and rock in the fairly traditional setting of a conservatoire shows that we're in a bright new future for music."
The course will be taught by a team of industry professionals who will give instrumental tuition. There will also be a team of lecturers who will cover the business and conceptual side. Teaching will be supplemented by guest lecturers, including Snake Davis, the musician, bandleader and educator probably most famous for being saxophonist for the Nineties pop outfit M-People. Guests will share their experiences with students on the course. "Once contacts like that grow," says Stott, "we'll be plugging into all sorts of industry experts to supplement the programme."
The plan is that the experts will help to illustrate the main themes of the course: networking, self-promotion, business management; but they can also put the music industry into a socio-cultural context: how it works and why. "It's perfect for someone like Snake, who's been abroad, to bring those stories and tell the students what to do – and what not to do," says Stott.
Davis has been associated with the Manchester music scene for a long time, and has done a number of concerts at the Royal Northern – even giving a few masterclasses at the conservatoire. As someone whose sax and flute expertise has graced performances and recordings with the likes of James Brown, Paul McCartney, Take That and Amy Winehouse, he admits that he's an example of what the students might aspire to become. "I can offer them a vision of the reality of being out there, forging a career in the music business, combining a mixture of skills. I can show them what it takes to make a living," he says.
For professional musicians, making a living can involve anything from forming your own company to registering a record label: basically, says Davis, a lot of musicians must become their own managers. He studied at Leeds College of Music himself, and says he would have found some business guidance very useful. "It's a course that is needed and will be useful to a lot of people. I cover a lot of this stuff in workshops; now I'm able to tell them that this course exists."
The foundation degree aims to give students a platform from which to launch the kind of varied career Snake has enjoyed, and which most conservatoire students realise will be their lot. But the course also has links with Leeds College of Music. After the two-year foundation at the Royal Northern, students can apply through Ucas to enter the Leeds conservatoire on the final year of its BA course in popular music – another unique course among UK conservatoires – as a top-up qualification.
Leeds and the Royal Northern are considered by many to be "progressive" music colleges. As Dr Darren Sproston, head of classical music at Leeds, says: "The college hasn't been afraid to launch non-traditional programmes, and has reaped the rewards."