My experience of Music College in the late nineties was coloured by the fact that the heads of my department had, for whatever reason, given up their performing careers to dedicate their time to roles within the college. The fact that the senior members of staff were no longer involved in the performing side of music created a sense of division between the institution and the profession. The performing world often seemed to be ‘out there’ somewhere, away from the cushioning cocoon of student life.
When I graduated and began looking for work as a professional musician, I was left feeling that whilst the skills I had developed as an instrumentalist were invaluable, I had been totally unprepared for life in the real world. I began to suspect that the senior staff in charge of my training had themselves lost touch with the reality of an increasingly competitive music profession.
In recent years efforts have been made to redress this balance. There are more orchestral mentorship schemes, students now have the benefit of community music and business skills training, and a healthy musician programme is being pioneered at the Royal College of Music.
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama has been working towards its own solution. Well known for its training in music therapy and continuing professional development, Guildhall is distinct for its practical approach.
A new series of recitals in the college’s Music Hall profiles members of the senior staff who are performers as well as teachers. The Faculty Artist Series clearly illustrates the Guildhall’s commitment to integrate into its faculties at the very highest level musicians who combine their teaching roles with performing careers.
The first concerts of the series were given by Ronan O’Hora, Head of Keyboard Studies and Jacqueline Ross, Head of Strings. I spoke to them both to ask why the Guildhall’s emphasis on performance is so important to tutors and students.
‘The series grew out of the idea that there are a large number of active performers on the faculties here,’ says Ronan. ‘It goes without saying that there are many wonderful teachers who are not active performers, but you do have to have that element within an institution.’
Ronan has been Head of Keyboard Studies at the Guildhall since 1999. He was already teaching at the Royal Northern College of Music when he was offered the position at Guildhall, but performing was central to his career. His initial reaction when the Guildhall approached him was that, whilst he was honoured to be considered for the post, he did not think it would be compatible with his life as a performer. He was reassured that his performing would be a valued part of what he had to offer as a musician. ‘In the period when I was a student at the Royal Northern, it was very unusual for someone to be doing what I do, which is to head a department and to be active outside as a performer,’ says Ronan. ‘There was quite a sense, at times, of segregation between the conservatoire world and the outside performing world.’
Jacqueline agrees that the importance placed on performance at Guildhall attracted her to the institution. ‘There’s support for my performing, recording and performance-based research. There’s a feeling that fits with my own view that I don’t want to separate the two things. I don’t want to stop playing and just teach or just manage. It’s possible to combine.’
There are clear advantages in using members of staff to expose students to performance. Each music college has a sense of being almost a world within itself. For the professors, the experience of performing in their own institution has its own challenges, and the students whose focus is mainly on their own practice are more likely to attend events within the college. ‘I went to school at Juilliard in New York,’ says Jacqueline. ‘I think I heard Heifetz twice. I should’ve heard him a hundred times. One of the times I saw him was because he came to my college. It’s a student thing.’
Creating a formal series around faculty heads also benefits relationships between staff and students. On a fundamental level, the Guildhall is attracting an audience whose ticket money goes to the scholarship fund, but deeper in the student consciousness the series draws attention to the fact that the people running the departments are themselves performers.
‘I think there is a danger that when you’re in a job like this, you’re seen as somebody who is really now just teaching and who’s performing career is over,’ Jacqueline explains. ‘The thing is, for me, it’s very exciting to be in the performing world, and I think it’s important for my students to see that I’m actually putting myself out there, working on the same things we talk about in lessons.’
The fact that the Guildhall is employing performers in senior roles creates a significant integration between the college and the profession. Tutors have a wealth of experience to bring to their departments. Jacqueline explains that her major teachers were all performers, and that was something she aspired to emulate.
‘For me teaching and performing are absolutely intertwined. It’s never been a sense of dryly working on becoming a better violinist. From the very beginning the excitement is always about being able to interpret and communicate the music, therefore the actual performance of the music is there as a goal all the time.’
Experience of regular performing is important to Ronan’s teaching too. ‘We can’t lose sight of the fact that you can’t teach what you don’t know,’ he says. ‘There are many aspects of performing which are psychological, particularly for the pianist, who is alone so much of the time on the stage. Once you walk out onto the platform, professor, student, head of department, anything else becomes irrelevant, and that’s obviously why that feeling for a teacher of what it’s like to perform is important. One of the important things is not to forget what it feels like.’
In performing to their students, the tutors are also able to convey the element of communication, and the way in which technique, though crucial, is a tool by which the music is brought to life. On a deeper level, though, for a student to see their tutor perform can have a profound effect on the relationship. Seeing someone perform gives a remarkably explicit sense of who they are.
‘I don’t think of myself as whether I’m a player or a teacher; I’m a musician.’ says Ronan. ‘I think from that point of view, we all need reminding about each other, that there’s more to all of us than meets the eye.’
The Guildhall is not claiming that the Faculty Artist Series is innovative. It is an idea much more common in the States, in universities as well as conservatoires. What is significant is that it is an unusual step for a British conservatoire to take. The series does more than spotlight the talent of the tutorial staff; it encapsulates the college’s ongoing commitment to find a balance between the needs of the institution and those of the students. What is important to the students is to have a staff who are excited about teaching and who can guide them towards fulfilling professional lives.
‘The fact that I perform is important somehow for me to be convincing about it,’ Jacqueline explains, ‘but also it’s what drives me; otherwise I wouldn’t be excited about teaching.’
Crucially, the students I spoke to agree. I asked Ashley Fripp, a second year piano student, what makes the series special for him.
‘I think it shows the students across the board at Guildhall that their teachers are doing what they really love doing,’ he says. ‘And that they’re doing it at Guildhall where we study; there’s something really nice about that.’
For Ronan, the Guildhall’s ethos goes a long way towards eliminating barriers between education and the profession.
‘I feel very strongly that whether or not you perform you have to be very involved; to genuinely know what’s happening in the music profession,’ he says. ‘The challenge for institutions is to make sure that they don’t cling comfortably to things that suit the institution, rather than taking risks that will benefit the student, the profession or indeed the music.’
© Johanna McWeeney