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Cameron Bray


RNCM Music Education Conference – 28 June 2019

4:19, 1st July 2019

As a Mancunian, I’m used to seeing my city through at least some amount of rain. Imagine my surprise then, when I travelled up for the Royal Northern College of Music’s (RNCM) conference on music education and found the city baking beneath a cloudless summer sky. It was quite a relief to enter the cool interior of the RNCM for a day of learning.

The conference started with a number of speeches, including: Linda Merrick, principal of the RNCM; John Habron, the RNCM’s head of music education; Carolyn Baxendale, the head of Bolton Music Service and Greater Manchester Music Hub; Jimmy Rotherham, the primary school teacher who used music to turn around a school in special measures; and Kate Campbell-Green, head of Tameside Music Service. Each speaker offered meaningful insight into the topic of the day – pathways to progression – and demonstrated that there was no single way to measure progression, that progress looks different for each individual person. We were also treated to a performance by the Déanach Trio, with its pianist Jay Carroll telling us about how he went from starting the piano at age 14 to studying at the RNCM thanks to the support of his high school music teacher.

Following this, we split off into different sessions, some practical and others theoretical but all looking at different ways of helping students with their progression. Unfortunately, as I have yet to master the ability to be in multiple places at once, I was only able to see three of the breakout sessions but if the standard that I saw was anything to go by, I’m sure that all the sessions were enjoyable and useful.

In the morning, I sat in on ‘Progressing to Popular Music in Higher Education (HE)’, which was delivered by Andy Stott, head of popular music at RNCM. Stott talked us through the current state of popular music within education, highlighting the possible routes into HE study available to students. From there, he told us about the history of the RNCM’s programme, which turns 10 this year and has grown to around 150 students across its 4-year BMus and Masters offerings. He made it very clear that the standard expected of popular music students is equivalent to their classical counterparts, with the audition focussing on theory, practical playing and the ability to demonstrate an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. One working musician in the room attested to the quality of the recent graduates of the programme, having seen them on the function scene and being impressed by their musicianship and professionalism. A key piece of advice was to get students to really engage with their audition piece, with Stott saying: ‘Don’t go for an examination piece – be creative with it. Find a song that you really love and learn it. Then learn the entire album and all the artists that inspired it.’ It was an insightful hour which saw us probing into the skills and experiences that secondary school teachers should be giving their students if they have ambitions to study popular music in HE.

After lunch, I went to a panel discussion that addressed the decline of GCSE and A Level music, which was chaired by Habron though the discussion was quickly opened to the floor. This allowed us to hear from colleagues working across the sector and I found it to be extremely informative. One of the most interesting aspects was when several HE providers said that they no longer required A Level Music from students wishing to study music at their university. While the universities have done this in response to falling A Level numbers, a few teachers raised concerns that this would only hasten the demise of the subject at A Level. While there was no consensus on the best way forward, several delegates exchanged contact details so that the conversations could be taken forward. It will be interesting to see if anything grows out of those discussions – this is a concerning issue and I believe that the answer will come from sharing our knowledge and experience in forums like this.

I rounded off the day with Sara Ascenso’s talk, ‘(The) Mind (in) the Gaps: Psychological Development and Mental Health in the Transitions to and from HE’. Ascenso is the recently appointed lecturer in musician’s health and wellbeing at the RNCM. Her focus is on looking at mental health in a positive way, which means improving wellbeing rather than simply reducing things like anxiety or stress. In the context of education, it means working with students to ensure that they feel empowered to meet all of their needs – it also creates an important feedback loop for educators, who may find their own mental wellbeing improved by feeling more connected to their students. We also heard from Nicola Smith, vice principal of Chetham’s School of Music, about the measures her school has implemented to ensure that its students flourish so that their transition to HE doesn’t impact on their wellbeing. For me, this was another hugely informative session and follow-up conversations that I had with colleagues made it clear that there was a lot of progress to be made in this area.

We finished up with some drinks in the bar area, chatting among ourselves as some of the RNCM’s talented students played for us. Indeed, I found the networking opportunities throughout the day to be immensely valuable and it was great to witness and participate in engaging conversations concerning the future of music education. Conferences like this are vital for anyone involved in music education and I would heartily recommend it to anyone working in the sector.

For more details about the event, please visit the RNCM website.

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