A visit to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

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.

Image: FBCStudios

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.

Professor John Thwaites who is Head of Keyboard Studies at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

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.

The spacious entrance hall at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

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.

A recording session taking place at Bradshaw Hall, the larger concert venue at the RBC.

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 Zhang winning BBC Young Musician 2018 (Image: BBC)

Lauren (pictured to the left) studies at the RBC Junior Department, and is a student of Dr. Robert Markham (for the list of all piano professorial staff, click here). 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.

The Lab. A studio designed for a variety of arts performances and experimental music.

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.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


A Year At A British Music Conservatoire by Lewis Kesterton

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 (in italics) he sums up his music first year spent at music college.

13055936_994341543935957_3362955391831653267_oChallenging. 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.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.