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Opening the conservatoire doors

There are many good reasons for music colleges to include adult learners, so why do they seem reluctant?

‘I love the idea of building ecosystems. We now have sounds resonating from people who wouldn’t have come to the Academy unless they were bringing in a student or visiting for a concert. Suddenly, they’re contributors, engaging with us’ – the words of Brendan Breslin, who runs Royal Irish Academy of Music’s new Adult Division. I went to visit in October, during its first term, and have written articles for Music Teacher (online) and BBC Music Magazine (February issue).

The beginner piano class at Royal Irish Academy of Music’s Adult Division

As a keen amateur violinist, I’ve been banging on about how music organisations should integrate adult learners for a while now (17 Reasons to Love Amateur Musicians), but as far as I have been able to discover, of conservatoires, only Juilliard has a dedicated adult faculty. So I was obviously incredibly excited to see RIAM taking up the gauntlet.

To me, it seems such a win-win-win. Conservatoires make money and reach new audiences and donors; young students learn to teach and engage with listeners and potential sponsors, and even to understand some of the deeper values of music; and adult learners derive the many benefits of learning an instrument and being part of a community.

In an increasingly apocalyptical-feeling era, with education and arts funding in dire straits, music careers stymied on every front, mental health crises in young and old, and a looming elderly care emergency, the idea of an ecosystem in which music learners of every stripe not only co-exist, but also support each other, seems only positive.

What are the obstacles? I concede there may be a practical one of the sheer physical resources of having more people and classes in buildings with limited spaces. I imagine there are ways round this, though, especially when profits are involved, and ways of working out peaks and troughs of demand.

I suspect a greater barrier is an attitude – a sense in conservatoires that adult learners and amateurs might somehow infect their star students with inexactitude, undermining their Olympian ideals. I asked Breslin about this and he was quite certain: ‘I don’t believe there’s any sense in which this opportunity is bad for the students who are performance focused. It gives them an opportunity to have different conversations, and collaborations that will empower them in terms of employability.’

There may also be a lack of understanding of the substantial diversity of the amateur market, ranging from the absolute beginner to players who (like me) have been through those very conservatoire walls but chosen other ways to make money. It’s the latter that possibly offer more of an existential threat. After all, if conservatoires are not producing great professional musicians, what are they doing?

Adult learners might not look as lithe and fashionable as young students in marketing brochures, or have as bright futures, but they have equally remarkable stories. I found it incredibly moving listening to classes in Dublin as the students conquered the tunes they were learning and told me how they had turned (or returned) to playing – as well as how much better it made them feel.

The two sets aren’t in competition, though – quite the opposite. When I interviewed Brett Yang of the phenomenally successful TwoSet Violin for BBC Music Magazine, he explained, ‘Everyone’s scrambling for what’s there but what we did, unintentionally at the beginning, was to increase that pie so that more people come into the world of classical music and there’s more for everyone.’ Conservatoires have the opportunity to grow the pie by creating inclusive, diverse communities, without necessarily losing their focus on quality.

Of course, I might be very wrong, and for now the Adult Division is in experimental mode. The range and number of courses are fairly limited and there is a lot of flexibility around supply and demand. Breslin is sanguine in his belief that it will take five years to understand the market fully and ten years to know if the division has been successful.

But in the meantime, even having an Adult Division section on the website makes these classes more than a few random calendar dates. It signifies a hope, an intention, an invitation. We exist and are seen. The ecosystem – and the pie – just got a bit bigger.


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