From opera singing to puppetry, the South-east's colleges are a creative melting pot

Fed up with sitting around waiting to be discovered as Britain's latest star of music or screen? Then why not try the academic route and devote the next few years to learning the intricacies of performance at one of London's prestigious music and drama schools?

Competition is fierce at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music, and students have to be both talented and have good A-levels to get in. Once you do get in, you should expect to be playing your heart out.

The Royal Academy, founded in 1822, was the first conservatoire to introduce a four-year BMus degree. Situated next to Regents Park, it boasts a grand concert hall and opera theatre, as well as a museum of music. It's one of the top schools in Britain for those wanting to learn how to play or compose classical music and opera - although these days it offers media music as well.

On the BMus course, students are taught individually (with one hour a week personal tuition) and on a group basis. The academy also has academic courses on technique, performance practice and business. The latter covers career skills such as general administration and methods of producing and marketing a CD. In addition, there is a humanities curriculum which aims to get students involved in lively debate.

The academy has about 600 students and the entrance audition is tough. Those without A-level music may still be considered - as long as they can show "an appropriate level of musical knowledge and literacy". Its glittering alumni include Elton John, pianist Joanna MacGregor and violinist Christopher Warren-Green.

The Royal College is a little younger, founded in 1882 by the Prince of Wales of the day. It has about 550 students and again, applicants face a rigorous audition. The college is home to an exceptional collection of manuscripts, along with Europe's oldest keyboard instrument. It's headed by Dr Janet Ritterman, an expert on female musicians, and its alumni include composer Benjamin Britten and flautist James Galway.

Trinity College of Music has a slightly different approach, aiming for wider participation. It was originally founded in 1872, amid concern that church music was languishing. In 2001, the college relocated to Charles II's former palace, the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, a beautiful setting on the Thames. Trinity has a reputation for innovation and its 580 students play to audiences from day one.

While you need two A-levels and must excel at audition to get into Trinity, potential is rated more highly than grades. The college offers BMus and foundation courses, and its curriculum is delivered through core and elective modules. Its alumni include singer Katarina Karneus and jazz musicians Mark Nightingale and Martin Speake. The college is headed by trumpeter Gavin Henderson.

None of the institutions above recruits through Clearing, as they are not (as yet) in the UCAS scheme. But for those determined to study and perform music, there are 1,345 university music courses available nationwide.

Kingston University has a three-year BMus degree which is a modular course and allows students to specialise in one area - for example creative music technologies, or jazz and popular music. Students can also combine music with drama or film studies.

The University of Brighton, meanwhile, says it's not in the business of traditional music courses, but sees itself at the cutting edge of innovative and modern approaches. It offers BAs in digital music, music and visual art, and music production.

If drama is more your thing, then how about the Central School of Speech and Drama? Only a few years away from its 100th birthday, the school has about 600 students and offers BAs in acting, drama, applied theatre and education, performance arts, and theatre practice. It claims to have the widest range of courses in theatre arts, including England's first BA in puppetry, as well as a two-year circus degree which combines theory with "exciting placements".

The acting course is not easy to get onto - even the late Sir John Gielgud was turned down. But those who were admitted include the late Lord Olivier, Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave and, more recently, Rupert Everett, Zoë Wanamaker and James Nesbitt.

Rose Bruford College is a relatively modern drama school, founded in 1950. It aims to recreate the atmosphere of a working theatre with an emphasis on practical work. It has 600 students and offers the only opera studies degree course in Europe - but only by distance learning.

Its famous alumni include plenty of popular TV stars such as EastEnders' Pat (Pam St Clement) and Duffy in Casualty (Cathy Shipton). The college focuses on the acting craft rather than the glitz and glamour of show business and its new £9.5m redeveloped campus includes two theatres and a host of studios.

Its BA courses include acting, actor musicianship, directing, European theatre arts and American theatre arts (which includes a year's study in the States). On the technical side, they offer BAs in costume production, lighting design, music technology and stage management. They also run part-time evening courses in acting.

Applicants should have A-levels, but talent is seen as more important than grades and aspiring students are judged on their personal suitability and their potential to develop. Rose Bruford "welcomes anyone to come along if we have places left", says press officer Jackie Winmill. "Even at this stage, you could still get a place."

DIARY: THE ROYAL COLLEGE OF MUSIC

Laura Mitchell, 23, has just completed a Bachelor of Music degree at the Royal College of Music

9am I arrive and practise for an hour. My instrument is my voice, so it's important to warm it up before the day starts. I might do a bit of Alexander Technique as well, if necessary.

10am-10.30am I spend half an hour with my repertoire coach, John Blakely. We work on expanding my repertoire and also fine-tuning the songs I'm working on.

11.05am-12.35pm Movement class. To sing well, you have to limber up your body. We might do an hour's yoga and then some dancing - normally jazz or modern, but we have done the polka, waltz and flamenco.

12.35pm-1pm Lunch break. The Royal College is opposite Hyde Park, which is good for picnics.

1pm-2pm French song class. This class doesn't teach you how to speak French, but it does show you how to sing it convincingly.

2.45pm-3.30pm Singing lesson. I work on eight to 10 songs at any one time. They might be for gigs or just for practice. One piece I loved singing was Mozart's Mass in C Minor.

3.30pm-4.30pm Italian song class. This is much the same as the French song class, except that I'm much worse at Italian.

4.30pm-5pm Opera coaching. Every December and April, we perform a scene from an opera. We've done excerpts from Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. We work on the scenes with a director and a pianist.

5pm-6pm More practice.

6pm Unfortunately, you can't go out boozing if you're a singer. Smoking, drinking and taking drugs all take their toll on your voice. Alcohol dehydrates your vocal chords and they won't work properly the next day.

CLARE RUDEBECK

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