I recently had the pleasure of spending an afternoon at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. It was my first visit to the splendid new building situated on Jennens Road, about a 15 minute walk from New Street station. The RBC inhabited this new premises in September 2017.
Established in 1886 as the Birmingham School of Music, the RBC has an illustrious list of alumni, many of whom are active within the profession. During the move it merged with the Birmingham School of Acting, and was granted its Royal title on September 24th 2017 by Her Majesty, The Queen, (and before this, the RBC announced its first Royal Patron Prince Edward the Earl of Wessex).
The conservatoire now boasts 250 visiting specialist tutors and around 80 full-time staff; these include active professional musicians, internationally renowned performers, composers, conductors, scholars and educators. ‘Cellist Julian Lloyd Webber has been principal since 2015, and has done much to raise the RBC’s profile.
My visit was primarily to explore the keyboard department and it was wonderful to meet and chat to Head of Keyboard Studies Professor John Thwaites (you can read our recent interview here). We met in the light and airy foyer; the building, which was designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (see image above), is stunning and gives a real sense of space and tranquility. As I had arrived on a particularly balmy, sunny day, we sat outside for our interview in a stylish seating area near the large cafeteria.
Professor Thwaites has been head of the keyboard department for ten years. During this time standards have been continually raised and the department has doubled in size. Many of the current students are already performing professionally.
The RBC welcomes talented young players from around the world, with special links to the Far East and Hungary. Other important connections have been made with Bulgaria, Georgia, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, Israel, the U.S.A., Japan and Korea. This international emphasis continues to spread the word about the RBC’s impressive expansion and development.
Recent competition successes include Luigi Carroccia, who was a Quarter-Finalist at the 15th Van Cliburn Competition (held in 2017); Roman Kosyakov, who won the Hastings International Piano Competition, the Sheepdrove Intercollegiate Prize, and has just become a Kirckman Concert Society Young Artist; Daniel Lebhardt, who is a member of the Young Concert Artists Trust (YCAT) and now has representation by Askonas Holt; and Angus Webster who won the 7th International Jorma Panula Conducting Competition in Finland. And who could forget the brilliant young pianist Lauren Zhang, who, at 16, became 2018 BBC Young Musician. Whilst competition successes aren’t always seen as a positive endorsement, they are an objective test of a department’s credibility.
Lauren (pictured to the left) studies at the RBC Junior Department, and is a student of Dr. Robert Markham. Mindful of the importance of pedagogy, Professor Thwaites is currently pursuing a forward-thinking new initiative: the Birmingham Piano Academy. On Sundays local people would be given the opportunity to study with some of the RBC students and teachers. I love this idea. And it would be a very positive development, especially at a time when music in schools has sadly all but disappeared, and there are few quality establishments offering music education for everyone.
The keyboard department is spacious and benefits from copious practice facilities: it’s not difficult to see why students are thriving at this institute. Postgraduate pianists study with two professors simultaneously and there are weekly performance classes for all students conducted by different professors, allowing maximum input from a wide cohort of teachers.
Renowned pianists who have recently given master classes include Peter Donohoe, Imogen Cooper, Andrei Gavrilov, Louis Lortie, Stephen Hough, Paul Badura-Skoda, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, to name a few.
Like many music conservatoires, there are regular internal competitions and beneficial performing opportunities, as well as piano festivals highlighting a large selection of composers.
Chamber music forms a vital component for students, and piano trios are currently under the spotlight. A new chamber music festival was inaugurated last year; Birmingham International Piano Chamber Music Festival. The artistic director of this new venture, Daniel Tong, is also Head of Piano Chamber Music Studies at the RBC. The festival consists of concerts, master classes and a chamber music competition, and it takes place in November. Performances were live streamed, and the grand final concert was featured on Classic FM.
I toured the building admiring the concert and recital halls, the lab, the organ department, and I also enjoyed exploring some of the early instruments, such as this beautiful Wieck piano, which was made by one of Clara Schumann’s cousins:
A music college must seek to constantly evolve. And it must also offer students a special experience, so they feel drawn to travel from far and wide knowing that they will emerge equipped to enter this demanding profession, not just as excellent performers, but with a deeper musical understanding and a sense of musical responsibility within the community. The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire can clearly offer such an experience in spades.
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.