Orchestral manoeuvres

Conservatoires are managing to maintain higher standards while opening their doors to students from a range of backgrounds. Amy McLellan looks at a changing world
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The Independent Online

It's not the best of times for Britain's music conservatoires, but nor is it the worst. The dark days of Thatcherite cuts are gone, if not forgotten, and today the specialist conservatoires enjoy premium-funded status. Cash is still tight, however. The cost of training professional musicians and singers is up there with brain surgeons: it's the one-to-one tuition with inspirational teachers, often world-class performers in their own right, that bumps up the price tag. Professional musicians also train for far longer: how many would-be brain surgeons start practising three or four hours a day from the age of five?

It's not the best of times for Britain's music conservatoires, but nor is it the worst. The dark days of Thatcherite cuts are gone, if not forgotten, and today the specialist conservatoires enjoy premium-funded status. Cash is still tight, however. The cost of training professional musicians and singers is up there with brain surgeons: it's the one-to-one tuition with inspirational teachers, often world-class performers in their own right, that bumps up the price tag. Professional musicians also train for far longer: how many would-be brain surgeons start practising three or four hours a day from the age of five?

"Even with our special funding, it costs us £1,000 per student more than we receive in fees to train them," says Derek Aviss, the director-designate of Trinity College of Music in Greenwich, south-east London. "We have to find that money through private sources and our own fund-raising."

Many of the musical gurus who teach in the conservatoire sector do so at discounted rates, but the teaching bill is still a major issue. Should premium funding be put at risk, then there are fears for the very high standards currently maintained by our conservatoires. And these standards, argue the conservatoires, produce an output that far exceeds what gets put in.

"Music is one of the highest dollar-earners for this country," Aviss says. "We have world-class orchestras, and our classically-trained musicians also serve the pop industry as composers, arrangers, instrumentalists and recording engineers. We make a really positive benefit to this country's balance of payments."

Yet the sector is constantly on the defensive against charges of elitism. All the conservatoires engage in extensive outreach and education programmes and are keen to widen access, yet there is no doubt that a certain "middle-classness" prevails.

After all, to be this good at music, natural talent needs to be honed by years of dedicated and consistent practice - and that drive to send little Johnny to piano lessons does tend to be a preoccupation of more affluent families. As Colin Beeson, the vice-principal of the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, points out, widening access requires spending at school-level because the next generation of conservatoire students needs to start practising now.

Professor George Caird of the Birmingham Conservatoire, part of the University of Central England, agrees. "To widen participation at conservatoire level, you have to go back 10 years and get them at school," he says. "We have a social duty to get young people coming forward from all backgrounds, but it's going to be a long-term project."

One initiative designed to help is Cukas (Conservatoires UK Admissions Service), which goes live in May this year. Seven institutions have joined forces with Ucas to offer a centralised applications process which they hope will widen access by putting the conservatoire sector firmly on the mainstream higher education map.

However, the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama are not part of the Cukas initiative. "We've worked very hard to develop and perfect our own admissions system, and we are 11 times over-subscribed for places," says Professor Curtis Price, the principal of the Royal Academy. "We simply do not see any reason to join Ucas, some of whose rules would be a barrier to our own recruitment policies. We need to have the flexibility to negotiate with the very best students about scholarships."

There's no indication that the impetus to widen access is affecting standards. In fact, it seems that standards are higher than ever. Derek Aviss, who has taught the cello at Trinity for 26 years, says the newest talents have intimidating levels of ability.

This view is backed up by employers. "Standards are probably higher than they have ever been," says Clive Gillinson, the managing director of the London Symphony Orchestra. "The best people are at the highest level any of us can remember."

Yet, while the very brightest and best may earn good livings as international soloists, the majority of the highly talented and highly trained graduates will need to develop a "portfolio career" in order to earn a living. Most will work as freelancers, engaging in some orchestral work, some West End and session work, and some teaching.

"We are training more people in conservatoires than we can ever gainfully employ in orchestras," says Stephen Maddock, the chief executive of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. "But there is a great deal of work out there in pop, television, advertising and education."

He adds, however, that to tap into this work a student requires a rounded skill-base. "It's a given that you have to be a wonderful player, but now you also have to be comfortable playing in a wide range of styles, have improvisation skills, be comfortable working in schools and community settings, and be able to handle your own finances and read maps as you dash about all over the place."

According to Professor Price, more than 90 per cent of Royal Academy graduates are fully employed as professional musicians. Its alumni are extremely busy and their schedules are full, even if their bank accounts may not be. "They're extremely busy but earning very little money," he says. "It's an art, and it's the love of the art that drives them." These artists are trained in the more prosaic skills that will enable them to function as self-employed musicians. Professional skills training is now a standard part of a conservatoire education.

Looking ahead, the shadow of top-up fees - the £3,000 maximum is expected to be the norm - looms over the sector. While the initial increase in funding is being welcomed, there is concern about how an increased debt-load in an already uncertain profession will affect student numbers. After all, the best students can pick from an international cadre of conservatoires ranging from the well-endowed institutions in the US to prestige schools in Europe, while Australian conservatoires are picking up more students from the Pacific Rim.

And there's a fear that, with the advent of market forces, the sector's vital special funding could be threatened further down the road. "There's a feel-good factor in the sector at the moment," says George Caird, "but there's also concern about what it will feel like in five years' time."

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