Conservatoire students are taking their music into the community

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The Independent Online

The contrast could not be more pronounced. On one bank of the Thames, the Isle of Dogs: the face of modern Britain, with multiple ethnic groups and its share of inner-city problems. On the opposite bank, Trinity College of Music, divinely housed in old-world imperial splendour at the Old Naval College in Greenwich.

It's not surprising that conservatoires are often seen as elitist by the communities that surround them. But Trinity is just one example of a British musical institution that is engaging with local people and changing the idea of what it means to be a conservatoire.

Trinity runs such projects as Isle of Dogs Music, the college's flagship community programme, which uses workshops to get local residents making music. The programme was founded to address the lack of music-making opportunities available in the London E14 postcode area of Tower Hamlets.

The local community is over 60 per cent Bengali, with smatterings of Vietnamese, Somali and white working-class residents. This represents a fantastic opportunity for the Trinity students to run classes with local people and children and tap into unique musical resources. "There's a lot of sharing of different musical cultures," says Andrea Spain, head of professional skills at Trinity. "That's important for our students."

She tells of two Chinese residents who used to be in the Beijing Opera, but who had no outlet for their singing until the Trinity students discovered them.

All of Trinity's students must take part in some sort of outreach work during their time at the college. But this is not just for the benefit of the locals. It's an acknowledgement that, for most students at conservatoires, their BMus should not simply be a classical education for a performance career; it should be preparation for a portfolio career, in which students can find themselves performing, teaching, or running workshops like these. "It gives students real experience of having to work in the modern musical economy," says Spain.

She says that to have a portfolio career, you need more than just musical skills: you need confidence, networking skills and business sense. That's why elements called "supporting professional studies" and "professional skills training" are now permanent fixtures in conservatoires. "You need a whole repertoire, which may not be the repertoire you expected to get when you came to Trinity," says Spain.

All of the UK's nine conservatoires operate outreach projects. Most do so through youth programmes, such as RCM Sparks at the Royal College of Music, the Junior Strings Project at the Royal Northern College of Music, and Guildhall Connect, which works with around 35,000 young people each year.

The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama has a particularly well-developed tuition scheme called Youthworks. The conservatoire works directly with local authorities to provide one-to-one instrumental tuition to seven- to 16-year-olds. Eighty per cent of participating children receive this tuition free, on a full bursary. The remaining 20 per cent pay around £2 an hour, ensuring that the scheme is fully open to all.

Undergraduates on the Royal Scottish BMus degree do a compulsory unit which covers teaching techniques. Many get the taste for it, and around half of the tutors on the tuition scheme are students from the conservatoire. "A lot of them get interested in the teaching module and realise how important this is to their futures," says Christopher Gray, head of the Royal Scottish Youthworks programme.

Gray also sees that for the Royal Scottish, with its geographical location – north of the border and in economically diverse Glasgow – outreach is vital. "For us, as the only conservatoire in Scotland, there is a duty to share our expertise and to work with local authorities to fill the gaps in tuition."

This sense of duty is to be found in most of the conservatoires. Ruth Byrchmore, of the Royal Academy of Music, says that outreach programmes represent a two-way relationship.

On one level, it's important to serve the local communities. "We're just trying to be responsible," she says. "The education is very expensive for our students, and they're extremely talented. But they can't live in micro-bubbles anymore – it's pay-back time."

But, in addition, Byrchmore says that the first duty of the Academy is to its students; and the Open Academy programme is simply an extension of its core mission: "To train people at the highest possible level." As most students will be entering some sort of portfolio career, the training that outreach programmes can offer is vital to that.

"On a very basic level the students learn how to present themselves in a way that's going to be equally as interesting to an 80-year-old as to a three-year-old. Plus organisation skills, marketing: all the things you need to have a life after you've graduated."

Like those at Trinity, all students at the Royal Academy must do outreach work at some point in their degree. This is largely through the Open Academy scheme. "This is about taking our high standards out into the community and turning their heads."

This engagement could also have relevance for the future of music in general – what with the onward march towards the downloaded and the digital. "It's making students advocates and ambassadors for live performance music," says Spain. If our students are out there getting kids excited, I think that's going to be important for us as a music industry in the next 20 years."

But the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, the national conservatoire of Wales, is using the changing world of technology to reach out to the next generation of digital music-makers. The college runs a roadshow, during which a group of student volunteers goes into secondary schools across Wales and spends a day making a song with GCSE music students.

Ceri Roberts went along last year as part of her MMus in creative music technology. She says secondary school music departments lack the high-spec computers required for digital music-making, so the Royal Welsh take their own equipment with them. They then get the children involved, in ways such as using an electronic drum machine to sample sounds from around the school.

"Music technology means that the students don't have to read traditional music to make music," says Roberts. "A lot of kids can't progress because they don't have theory skills or don't play an instrument well enough. But with creative music technology, they just open the software and can really start to express themselves."

And it works for the Royal Welsh students too. Roberts says that the course helped her confidence no end. She says schemes like this generally create professional, organised ambassadors for music. Perhaps best of all, it gives students a way to visualise their futures.

"It opens your eyes to this world of work that you can tap into, to supplement your income," says Roberts, who now works as a professional musician, as well as spending two days a week running workshops and one day a week teaching and lecturing.

"It's a mixture of performing and teaching. If I hadn't had that experience as an undergraduate, I wouldn't have realised that this avenue was open to me."