They'd like to teach the world to play

Conservatoires focus on more than performance skills. These days, their students must learn how to take music to the masses - and give something to the community
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The Independent Online

A dose of daylight is being let into the ivory-tower world of Britain's music conservatoires, where the country's top performers-to-be are trained. A growing proportion of students' time is now spent making music in local communities, prisons, hospitals and schools, and they're as likely to be playing jazz, rap and folk music as the traditional classical repertoire. Open days focusing on a particular instrument, such as the saxophone, or on "endangered species" instruments like the viola and bassoon, aim to convince people that music is not just for the affluent, white and middle-class.

A dose of daylight is being let into the ivory-tower world of Britain's music conservatoires, where the country's top performers-to-be are trained. A growing proportion of students' time is now spent making music in local communities, prisons, hospitals and schools, and they're as likely to be playing jazz, rap and folk music as the traditional classical repertoire. Open days focusing on a particular instrument, such as the saxophone, or on "endangered species" instruments like the viola and bassoon, aim to convince people that music is not just for the affluent, white and middle-class.

The beauty of it is that both sides benefit. Local communities and young aspiring musicians receive first-class teaching, while music students learn the leadership and teaching skills they will inevitably require during the course of what is likely to be a "portfolio" career (few make a living from performing alone). At some conservatoires, community music-making has become an integral part of the curriculum.

"We are exposing our musicians to the sort of society they will find themselves working in," says Gavin Henderson, the principal of Trinity College of Music, which recently moved from the West End of London to Greenwich with its wide ethnic mix.

In 2003, Trinity joined up with HSBC Bank to launch a venture called Isle of Dogs Music, bringing music to some of London's most disadvantaged communities. This year, the college has linked up with Greenwich and Lewisham music services to launch an outreach programme called Raising the Roof, which will send musicians to schools in the area, as well as providing music-making and performance opportunities. The programme kicked off last Saturday with the performance of an unaccompanied vocal re-interpretation of Handel's Water Music, created by pupils from schools in Lewisham. It combined popular music styles like gospel, soul and jazz.

"Music is a participatory activity," says Henderson. "Since the mid-20th century, the advent of recording has turned music into a commodity. Music has become a museum culture; it should be a living culture. Outreach sounds like do-gooding, but it's actually far more profound. People engage with each other through music."

Outreach work is vital in encouraging future performers, particularly in areas where parents cannot afford tuition and where there's not a culture of music. "If we want lots of good new applications, we have to support people to get here," says Andrea Spain, Trinity's professional skills programme leader. "The more diverse our applications are, the stronger we are."

Professor George Caird, the principal of Birmingham Conservatoire and himself a respected oboe player, agrees: "Reaching into the community, especially the world of education, is absolutely essential to ensure we get enough young people through the system learning music. It's a virtuous circle we're all working on. Outreach is really making a difference in terms of how many children are learning instruments. They need to start young. Learning an instrument requires long-term dedicated study from an early age, especially on strings. Students are playing by the age of 10 or 11, but some start as early as three or four."

Birmingham Conservatoire's BA Mus (Hons) course already has optional modules in community music and workshop leading, and the Conservatoire is thinking of making it compulsory. Community music is also an optional pathway at Masters level, with students each obliged to deliver an outreach project. Other conservatoires are equally active. The Royal Northern College of Music, in Manchester, for example, has just received a major shot in the arm with the award of £3.75m by the Higher Education Funding Council to found what will be known as the Centre for Excellence in Dynamic Career Building for Tomorrow's Musician. This will help to train specialist instrumental teachers, and fund music-making for small groups, as well as vocational work. The College's previous projects include initiatives undertaken with an educational charity sponsored by the Prince of Wales, Live Music Now!, and Lime (formerly Hospital Arts) to enable performers to give interactive performances with patients, staff and visitors in hospitals in Greater Manchester.

The college is also co-operating with Yamaha Music, in collaboration with Aimhigher, to bring music to schoolchildren via the rock band funded by Yamaha, Al¡ve. This project will culminate in a week-long music event in July, based around concerts given by Al¡ve, at which 2,000 pupils from schools in Greater Manchester will learn about careers in the music business.

The Royal Academy of Music, the oldest of Britain's eight conservatoires, has recently launched an initiative called Open Academy that runs educational projects with toddler groups, schools and community centres in London and via video-conferencing workshops internationally. All students take part in the Academy's Music in Community projects to gain expertise in animateurship (working with people of all ages on music-making schemes) and workshop leadership, a skill they will need when they graduate. The Academy is also developing an e-learning programme to inspire potential music enthusiasts worldwide, from Tower Hamlets, London to Harlem, New York.

Involvement in the community is vital as part of students' preparation, says Richard Shrewsbury, the education manager at Birmingham Conservatoire. "Musicians must have more than one string to their bow if they're going to be employable. One of the fastest growing areas for professional musicians is education and community music. We don't want to dilute the depth of any of our courses - we are still training first-rate performers and composers. But we want to make sure the breadth is there, too."

Gone are the days when the traditional career path after graduating was to apply for auditions with a symphony orchestra or, in the case of a singer, with an opera company. The world students will move into today is far more diverse, as is the type of music they'll be expected to play. "Today, the context in which students will deliver their skills is much more widely based," says Henderson. "They'll be taking part in arts festivals, education work, or working in the informal sector as leaders and animateurs with organisations such as Youth Music. Singers may join a music theatre group. It's a participatory culture, and the music is of our time, as well as period music."

Another important strand of the conservatoires' outreach work is to help to preserve endangered species of instruments. Top of the critical list are the viola, the bassoon, the trombone and the double bass. In some cases, it's a question of making people aware that these instruments exist and giving them a go. Which instrument students choose can also be important in determining how easy it will be for them to get work. The saying, "If you own a bassoon you can make a living; if you can play it you can make a fortune," still stands today. In contrast, if you play the violin or flute, competition is fierce.

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