Conservatoire: Striking a new chord

The Royal Northern College of Music is busy shaking up the stuffy image of the conservatoire
Click to follow

In the centre of Manchester is a small area that feels like the Mecca of higher education. Here you'll find Manchester Business School, Manchester Metropolitan University, and the great Victorian Manchester University, each characterised by the dun-coloured bricks of the north. In among them sits the Royal Northern College of Music, and from the main entrance, though grey rather than red, it looks like any other of its neighbours. But stroll around the corner and you'll see a dramatic glass frontage that sets the Royal Northern apart.

This is the college's new Oxford Road wing, and it serves to remind you that the Royal Northern is not a university but a conservatoire.

Two years ago, it was the only conservatoire to become a Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL). This award was given to some 74 institutions across the UK, as part of a five year, £315m project announced by the Higher Education Funding Council. The college is to receive £4.5m as part of the project, and £2m of this was used to create the dramatic new building, which cost around £7m. The money has enabled the college to carry out its quiet revolution, and change what it means to be a conservatoire.

"People feared that we were going to move over to being somewhere that deals exclusively with employability and lose our core mission which is artistic professional training of the highest level," says Linda Merrick, director of the CETL and the college's vice-principal. "What we're saying is you still need to be a world class violin player, pianist, and so on, but you need the extra things – the business skills – that give you the edge in the marketplace.

"The CETL is about the extra, added value of things. You come out not just as a great performer, but you also know what to do with those skills. Too often in the past people have gone out not knowing how to get a job or find work and given up eventually. Today's world, in which most musicians are engaging in some kind of portfolio career, demands a different set of skills."

Spend any amount of time in a conservatoire these days, and the chances are you'll hear the phrase "portfolio career". This describes the kind of life you are going to lead as a musician. Few are able to become solo concert performers. Only the top five to 10 per cent of a conservatoire will make it, so to succeed as a violinist like Nigel Kennedy means you have to be the cream of the cream.

In the past conservatoires could be accused of ignoring this fact. They had the reputation of being stuffy, classical ivory towers, with little real connection with the professional world. But the Royal Northern is helping to change that.

"The music profession has changed a lot," says Professor Edward Gregson, the college's principal. "People no longer automatically go into orchestras or opera companies. They have a portfolio career – they earn their living from a number of different things. They are self-employed, I suppose you might say entrepreneurs. They're bringing skills of business acumen into how to make a living."

To foster this atmosphere of professionalism, the college has brought in a number of professional partners. Manchester Camerata, a private chamber orchestra, are now based in the CETL wing. The college also has a partnership with the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic, with whom Royal Northern students can go on placements. The placements are decided in the normal professional way by audition.

"For those who are lucky enough to get on a placement, it means they're not only good enough to be in an orchestra, but they also have a wonderful opportunity to understand what being a professional musician in an orchestra means," says Gregson.

Each and every student learns about the business end of music as part of the standard BMus degree programme. The course includes a strand known as supporting professional studies, which aims to impart business knowledge, communication skills, and a spirit of entrepreneurialism: all the aspects demanded of 21st-century professional musicians. This counts for around a quarter of the overall grade.

Gregson feels that this kind of innovation sets the college apart from its direct competitors, the three London conservatoires. "I think that we are able to be more innovative than some of our competitors because we're not caught up with this capital city thing of fighting against each other," he says.

The college's northern location brings other benefits. Today's Push survey (see Education & Careers cover story) places London's Royal Academy of Music at the top of the list of the most expensive universities in the UK – not surprising, given that it is on the Marylebone Road in the West End. Choosing to study music outside the capital could help to ensure graduates enter the tough professional world in a relatively solvent state. What's more, being outside the hubbub of London conservatoires lends a friendly atmosphere to the college.

"People say this is the friendliest place they've come to," says Gregson. "It's like a family. Being outside London we're outside that intense, cut-throat competitiveness. There's definitely something about this place which is more relaxed."

The new building helps with this. Gregson says that the architects wanted to foster a mood of openness and transparency, and the picture frame windows allow students to feed off their surrounds – all part of the conservatoire's engagement with the outside world.

The Oxford Road Wing, which houses the CETL, has dozens of new rooms for the college's 671 students. It has also freed up a number of rehearsal rooms in the old building that were being used as office space. This, on top of a raft of new equipment, provides a unique experience for the students.

"Having new rooms and lots of new pianos – Steinways and Yamahas – means you can actually get at least four hours of practice on a grand piano," says Alexandra Dariescu, a fourth year pianist. "I don't think you get that at any other institution."

The CETL has also brought the college into partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University to offer a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE). When the CETL programme was set in motion, one of the big concerns was a national shortage of instrumental teachers – unsurprising given the fact that was no specialist PGCE programme to train them. Now, students can be taught specialist instrumental teaching, while gaining the practical classroom teaching elements at Manchester Met.

On top of this, the CETL award has also allowed the Royal Northern to challenge the conservative stereotype of music schools. It has gone into partnership with Access to Music, a charity dedicated to widening access to musical training. And from September, the College will offer foundation degrees to 16- to 18-year-olds.

"Who'd have thought that a conservatoire, with all the tags you associate with that, would get into bed with an organisation (Access to Music) who are essentially there to take 16- to 18-year-olds off the street and give them the experience of being popular musicians?" says Gregson. "For a conservatoire, this is very new world stuff."