Rhinegold Photo credit: Simon Veit-Wilson/Northumbria University
From l-r: Professor David Smith, Kris Thomsett, Dr Katherine Butler and Dr Rachael Durkin, from Northumbria University’s new Music degree.

Eleanor Philpot

Q&A: Northumbria Music Degree

9:37, 4th October 2019

We spoke to professor David Smith about the new Music degree at Northumbria University that takes a holistic approach to studying, including preparing students for life as a working musician 

 What gives the Music course at Northumbria its unique identity?

I wanted to take the best aspects of a traditional music degree such as modules in Performance, Musicology and Music History, while also including those things that might have be useful when I was doing my own music degree, such as entrepreneurship and business skills.

These aspects are important as they recognise that most Music graduates end up in a portfolio career, where they might be teaching one day of the week and then performing the next. It’s essential to teach them skills that they would need to set up in business – whether as a teacher or a performer – such as managing finances, understanding tax, but also contracts, copyrights, all these things which almost all musicians need to know about.

Where I used to teach in Aberdeen there was a Music Education degree, which qualifies you to teach in Scottish schools and what was happening was a lot of applicants were coming up to me and saying, ‘I don’t actually want to be a classroom teacher, what I actually want to do is teach my instrument, so what should I do?’ There are a lot of people who have a strong vocation to teach their instrument, and then there are others who as part of a portfolio career will be doing some teaching – even for students who go on to have a glittering performance career with solo recitals and gigs, with that kind of success comes a whole lot of people who want to study with you. And yet in most degrees you’ll only find the occasional module in instrumental and vocal teaching thrown in, so what I wanted to do was embed it into the course.

Each year of the degree there is a going to be a Music Teaching module that builds up – we’re working very closely with our Education department on this, as well as music hubs, who have been very enthusiastic. So, when the students go out for placement, they will be working alongside the people doing the work inside schools. But It doesn’t have to be in schools, as there is private music teaching as well…but it’s just that combination of Music History, Teaching and Performance and those essential kills for the 21st century musician.

 Can you tell us more about the foundation course offering?

Although our emphasis is on what you might do as a musician with a musical career, I think it’s also important to flag up the value of the Music degree more generally. Our foundation year is important, as it not only acts as the first year of the offering but allows those who weren’t able to choose Music at A Level to study Music at a higher level. It is a standalone qualification so you can have students who just do the foundation year, or you can have students who do the foundation year and then decide that they want to go somewhere else – but if you pass the foundation course at Northumbria then you guaranteed a place on the rest of the course.

During the year there is an emphasis on Music History including a module called Music in the home – where they’ll be sections on music in the 17th century home, Tudor home,  the Schuman or American popular music in the 20th century,  the importance of broadcast or radio – as well as skills.

One of the things I thought really hard about was piano playing and keyboard skills. It’s about focusing on the skills that students need in the real world or when teaching an instrument. If you’re an instrumental teacher and you have to accompany a Grade 3 or Grade 4 flautist or whatever it happens to be, and you look at the accompaniment and think ‘I can’t play that’, it’s about adapting what’s in front so that you can support your students.

My colleagues and I thought if we have this emphasis on the real world of going out and teaching, then you need this basis of piano playing. The idea is that you can come in not having played a lot of piano and get to a reasonable level within a year.

The Music Profession module also introduces students to a whole range of musical careers. This allows them to see what careers are made available to them by studying a Music degree.

It sounds like a very rich and varied style of study.

Normally courses divide things up into different modules, but Northumbria take more of a holistic approach. In the case of music theory, it isn’t something boring that you just have to do, it links into everything else – unless you understand the music theory then you won’t understand what it is that you’re performing. Without being able to perform you can’t do the music theory or the harmonies. It’s trying to get students to think of themselves as musicians.

We also have a music project in the second year and the idea is you can get students researching subjects that they are interested in and are passionate about, and making the most of resources that we have on our doorstep in Newcastle, such as the Lit and Film library for example, which has a wonderful collection of early materials and various archives.

The idea is to not only provide a framework of music history but to get the students out of the classroom and learning about the history for themselves.

Is it a course that is suitable for Popular Music students, Classical or both?

In terms of instruments, you can play anything. I started off as a recorder player at a time when you had to argue for that to be taken seriously, so I understand how it’s a real knock back to be told, ‘you can’t study that!’ We have a team of instrumental and vocal tutors, so if someone comes in with a slightly unusual instrument them it’s down to us to see if we can find someone to teach them.

It just happens that the staff who have been appointed have an interest in classical music, but then in the humanities department we have researchers who are looking into American popular music, so there is a certain breadth there in terms of music history. It hasn’t been set up as degree in classical music or a degree in popular music. It’s not designed to be exclusive, it’s important that we have something that’s open to all kinds of musicians, who’ve come from a variety of backgrounds.

What are you looking for in applicants?

Potential. We’re looking for people who are good musicians but are also inquisitive and have an intellectual curiosity about what they’re doing, what they’re playing and how it works.

What do you hope students take from the course?

I would like them to think they’ve gone a journey. In general, it would be nice to see that what the students are interested in at the beginning of the course changes, whether in terms of musical repertoire, or perhaps they’re career aspirations. Overall, I’d want them to think that the experience had been transformative.

Anything you’d like to add?

The reason I was so excited about undertaking the role I now have is that we hear so often of music departments closing, and it just struck me that here was a university that was looking to take a plunge and make a significant investment in a new music degree, which is very brave.

Music is always very expensive, you need all the facilities and one to one tutors – it’s not like setting up a new English or History programme –  but there’s a real enthusiasm at Northumbria, there are various people in various departments, dotted around who happen to be musicians of quite a high calibre doing other roles, such as historians or finance people – the vice chancellor is even a musicologist. As whole, there is a real feeling of a commitment to music.

To find out more about the new Music degree at Northumbria University, visit: northumbria.ac.uk/study-at-northumbria/courses/ba-hons-music-uusmux1/

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