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How to make a classical superstar – Britain’s conservatoires and their graduates

9th June 2015

If you asked someone to list the things that have made Britain admired round the world, it’s a fair bet our musical conservatoires wouldn’t even get a mention. Most people have never even heard of them. Yet they are truly one of Britain’s success stories. There are nine of them, spread round the country from London to Glasgow. Their job is to attract raw young musical talents from the UK and all over the world, and turn them into creative, technically accomplished, adaptable musicians of all kinds; orchestral players, soloists, opera singers, chamber music players, composers, arrangers, teachers.

There are many ways to measure the success of these institutions. One is the fact that they just keep growing (student numbers have risen by 25 per cent at the Royal College of Music in 10 years, which is not untypical).

Another is the high proportion of students who come to Britain’s conservatoires from abroad, approaching 50 per cent of the students in some. And a third is the ability of conservatoires to produce a constant stream of star talent, of the kind that wins international competitions and is seized on eagerly by opera companies and concert agents round the world.

Just keeping up with the neverending stream of new talent is quite a challenge. Amongst the singers who have graduated from the Royal Academy of Music recently are Mary Bevan, who has become a favourite at English National Opera, and Lucy Crowe, who sang Adina in the opera L’Elisir d’Amore at Covent Garden last year, only weeks after giving birth to her son (professionalism and sheer toughness are among the qualities nurtured by the conservatoires). Mary’s sister, Sophie, who studied at the Royal College of Music (RCM), is also a highly acclaimed soprano.

Tenor Ben Johnson, who recently impressed Royal Opera House audiences in La Traviata, and Pumeza Matshikiza, who has made the tremendous journey from a South African township to Stuttgart Opera, are both alumni of the RCM, as is the outstanding soprano Elizabeth Watts.

Less visible than the opera singers, but no less vital for our musical culture, are the composers. Charlotte Bray, a graduate of Birmingham Conservatoire, recently had her chamber opera Out of the Ruins performed at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio. Gavin Higgins, who studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, composed the opening piece for the 2014 Proms season (he also trained as a horn player; many of these bright young talents have more than one string to their bow).

Then there are the numerous prizewinning instrumentalists and conductors. They include Royal Welsh College graduate Helen Stone, now harpist to the Prince of Wales, guitarist Sean Shibe, who studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, who studied at the RCM, and the conductor Ben Gernon, a graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

And it’s not only classical music talent that’s nurtured in conservatoires. Jazz trumpeter Laura Jurd studied at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, and the members of the Roller jazz trio emerged from the Leeds College of Music.

These mysterious, almost invisible institutions have a surprising origin. The clue lies in the word conservatoire. For most people that’s a place for nurturing delicate seedlings, which is actually not a bad way to describe the original purpose of the first “conservatorios”. In 16th-century Italy they were charitable institutions, often attached to monasteries or churches, where orphans and foundlings were looked after. The boys and girls they housed had to be schooled and socialised, and – surprise, surprise – music was found to be the best sort of all-round training, and also conducive to piety. Pretty soon that training was so good that the “conservatorios” started to take in fee-paying pupils. The original charitable impetus dropped away, the church lost its grip, and the conservatoires became what they are today: purely secular training grounds for the brightest musical talents, which more and more came under the wing of government.

Thomas Burney, the English musical writer, was so impressed by the Italian example he tried to create something similar in England in the 1780s. It failed, but only a few decades later came the founding of Britain’s Royal Academy of Music, in 1822. Later the Victorian zeal for education and public works brought a whole string of new conservatoires to Britain. By the century’s end the Royal Scottish Academy, Trinity College of Music, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the Royal College of Music and the Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music) were all up and running. The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama followed 50 years later, and the Leeds College of Music in 1965.

Walk down the corridors of these institutions (as I often do at the RCM, where I teach), and you become aware of just how strong the traditions of classical music are. You might hear a wind ensemble being tutored in the right phrasing of a Mozart serenade, or witness a scene from a Verdi opera in rehearsal. Scenes like this tell you why conservatoires haven’t suffered the crises of confidence that have beset university humanities departments. There’s something reassuringly objective and solid about what goes on in them. Spinning arcane theoretical abstractions or pursuing political agendas won’t do. You have to be able to cut the mustard.

The violinist Nicola Benedetti is one of only a few stars who didn’t attend a conservatoire.

So what’s the secret of the conservatoire method? One vital component is the one-to-one tuition that forms the backbone of any conservatoire course. “It’s absolutely central to what we all do,” says Colin Lawson, director of the RCM. “The training to become a singer or instrumentalist is a very technical and intimate thing, which has to be adjusted to the capacities of each student. It needs a master apprentice approach. This is balanced in conservatoires by a more rounded education.

“University music departments have been moving away from pure academic studies and incorporating performance into their music courses. But the facilities you get at a conservatoire are of a different order. You won’t find a full-blown opera school with its own theatre in a university.”

Although they are steeped in history and tradition, conservatoires are far from complacent. They know they have to prove the relevance of the methods they espouse, by bringing their accumulated wisdom together with new ways of thinking and doing. Which is why, if you walk a little further down those corridors, you’ll encounter scenes you wouldn’t have found in the 19th century, or even the 20th. You might find composers working in electronic studios, professors and students collaborating on a research project across continents via the internet, or a group of musicians working on improvisatory skills, of the sort found in the more left-field forms of jazz

Read more on the Telegraph website