Music conservatoires. Opinions are rife as to whether they are an ideal way to study music; some find them inspiring, others wish they had studied elsewhere. My own experience at the Royal College of Music was amazing and a really steep learning curve; it was a privilege to study at such a great institution. I will forever be grateful for the day I walked in to the audition at the junior department as a 15-year-old school girl, with short hair, sensible shoes and no clue about the journey on which I was embarking.
My experience now seems a distant memory, so I thought it might be helpful and interesting for those inquisitive of conservatoire study, if a current piano student wrote about their musical journey thus far.
Lewis Kesterton (pictured below) is a second year student at the Birmingham Conservatoire on the B Mus course studying with Professors Mark Bebbington and Katharine Lam. In the following article, he sums up his music first year spent at music college.
Challenging. Rewarding. Inspiring. These are just three of the many words I could use to describe my first year at Birmingham Conservatoire. It’s quite hard to believe that I’ve already been here for over a year; it’s been a whirlwind of a time! I’ve been through the mill both pianistically and personally, but I’ve come out the other side ten times the musician I was before, and I’m so excited to now be continuing on my journey. Throughout the course of the year I’ve met so many amazing musicians who have become friends for life, observed masterclasses and concerts from world class performers, and been pushed far beyond what I thought I could achieve. All in all, I am certain that I made the right decision in coming to music college, and I would really encourage anyone who has a real love, talent and passion for music to do the same.
My year began in the same way as for thousands of other students across the country. Moving to a new city was always going to be a challenge, however familiar I may have been with it beforehand. Birmingham is often looked down upon as a city, the Conservatoire included, which is something I feel really needs to change. Having now spent a year living in the heart of the city, my eyes have been opened to how cultured, diverse, and developing Birmingham really is, which is why more than 6,000 people left London for England’s second city last year. Living away from home was something that I had always been very keen on doing, and I’m so very glad that I did! It was far from the most glamorous living conditions I could have wished for, but I would encourage anyone to do it if they have the opportunity, as it gave me a whole new level of independence, and bridged the gap between home living and self-sufficient living (which is where I am now) perfectly. Aside from that, living in such close proximity to other musicians from the Conservatoire helped me to build friendships that will last a lifetime, both personally and professionally.
Studying at a conservatoire is, without a shadow of doubt, an all-encompassing experience. Along the way I’ve been thrown into situations that I hadn’t exactly envisaged. Of course, the endless opportunities to try out new repertoire in performance classes, observe masterclasses, receive world class one-to-one tuition and the plethora of academic activities set conservatoire education apart from that of a normal music degree. However, one of the things I’ve really loved about my time at Birmingham so far is that you’re often pushed well out of your comfort zone. World music classes have been a fine example of this! Never during the open days where I toured music colleges in awe of their facilities and course offering, did I imagine that a year later I would find myself standing in a circle, hopelessly trying to play samba music on a drum. Nor did I imagine that I would end up sitting cross-legged (which I actually find surprisingly comfortable) on the floor attempting to play gamelan instruments. No, these haven’t exactly been the most exciting of my achievements in the past year, but they have helped to open my mind to the vast array of possibilities that music has to offer. Always expect the unexpected.
Having friends who study at different music colleges around the country has given me a valuable insight into how courses differ between institutions. Overall, I have found that Birmingham offers one of the most varied out there. A typical week in my first year included a variety of activities outside of my first study area, which have opened my eyes to the different possibilities music can offer. I’m not going to lie; Mondays were a slog! Early mornings began with ‘Performance Traditions’. This was interesting in itself, as the module split the year-group in half, swapping activities halfway through the year. I began with world music, which I mentioned previously, and after Christmas changed to lectures, teaching us about different aspects of performance and how they have changed over time. Following this, my late morning and early afternoon would be spent practising, or at least hunting for a room on one day everyone needed them! At 2.30pm, everyone would venture to the Birmingham Midland Institute for a History lecture, with the evening culminating in a Chorus rehearsal until 6pm. Tuesday’s schedule was far less intense. I would begin practising in the early morning, usually arriving in college for 8am. Later, I would return to halls to catch up on academic work, and continue practise in the evenings. Wednesday began with a history workshop, consolidating Monday’s lecture, followed by performance class, and accompaniment class in the evening. Thursday was another heavy practise day, with the whole morning being free. The afternoon was largely taken up with a 3 hour masterclass, a highlight of the week! Friday was another more academic day: harmony and aural classes in the morning, followed by Alexander technique sessions. Despite the often-hectic schedule, I usually averaged between 3 and 5 hours of practice per day last year, plus frequent chamber music and vocal accompaniment rehearsals. One of the things I was a little disappointed about when I came to Birmingham was the number of hours allocated to first study piano lessons. Having 30 hours a year, split 50/50 between my two teachers, worked out at roughly one per week. However, I feel that the variety of activities on offer at Birmingham make it reflective of the life of a modern musician, something I think is very important.
The time at which I joined Birmingham has really made for a unique experience. There’s been so much excitement this year following the appointment of Julian Lloyd Webber as Principal, the Conservatoire gaining its first Royal patron, and seeing the new building develop. That being said, this year hasn’t come without disruption. Our home effectively becoming a building site has made my studies here very interesting. Wading through thick crowds of photographers, journalists and enthusiasts in the first stages of the demolition of the old library, and trying to block out the noise of builders prising the metal frame of our concert hall apart during practise sessions hasn’t exactly made life easy. Despite the continuing disturbance though, these things have all contributed to making my time here special, and if nothing else, memorable! I am so excited to be moving to our new state of the art home next year, but I also feel honoured to have seen the Conservatoire’s history, and be a part of its transition.
Of course, as a pianist, the chance to listen to others perform and work with some of the world’s finest pedagogues has been truly inspiring. Over the course of the year, I’ve had the chance to observe masterclasses lead by the likes of Peter Donohoe, Pascal Nemirovski, and Hamish Milne, just to name a few. Much of what I have heard is far beyond my own current capabilities, but I cannot begin to explain how much I am still able to take from the classes. It amazes me to see what a difference sometimes the simplest of techniques and gestures can make to someone’s playing, and often these are relatable to my own repertoire. What I really find inspiring about the masterclasses here though, is the ability of these world-famous performers to draw out the very best in the students here. So no, our facilities here may not currently be the most impressive, but the incredible music making that goes on inside definitely is.
Before I came to Birmingham, I’d only ever had one other piano teacher, so to be commencing my studies here with two new teachers, Mark Bebbington and Katharine Lam, was really quite daunting, even though I’d started having lessons with them a few months before. From the outset, I knew that the style of teaching I would receive here would be very different from that I was used to, though of course, as I stated in my first post, I will be forever grateful for my first piano teacher, and how she inspired me to become the musician I am today. I’m so glad, and indeed lucky, to have found two teachers who cater for my needs so well. Having been late in deciding that music college was the best path for me to take, my technique was quite behind where I would have liked it to have been when I arrived. However, both of my teachers have focused on different aspects of technique with me, and even though I have a very long way to go before being anywhere near happy with it, I am now in an abundantly better place than I was this time last year. For anyone who might be apprehensive about one to one lessons at a music college, make no mistake, if you make the most of them, they are incredible. Every week I leave the room amazed at the way in which my teachers are able to guide me through my repertoire. I often think of my lessons as if they’re a visit to the doctors’ surgery. I go in with my pieces carrying a vast array of symptoms, and in need of some direction, and then leave with a prescribed set of instructions and ideas that, as long as I stick to a regular dosage of practise, will lead my playing to a new level.
I could go on writing for hours about my endless challenges and fantastic experiences I’ve had here in my first year at Birmingham. Believe me, I really could! From my first experiences of chamber music to singing in a radio 3 broadcast of Verdi’s monumental Requiem, I really have done it all! However, all you need to know, aside from what I’ve already told you, is that if you have a real love for music, whether you aspire to be a performer, teacher, music therapist or indeed anything else in the music industry, then music college is the perfect place for you to be. Yes, it’s very intense, and you will be faced with situations that will really push you as a person and a musician, but the time you’ll spend there are sure to be some of the best years of your life.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.