First year experiences at music conservatoire

July 27, 2019
Royal Academy of Music

Four undergraduate students: Konya Kanneh-Mason, piano; Hayley Mitchell, clarinet; Samuel Stopford, voice, and Sophie Oliver, cello, from The Royal Academy of Music share their first year experiences at music conservatoire. Here’s what they had to say:

How have you found your first year at The Royal Academy of Music? Have you found it easy to settle in?

Konya: I have really enjoyed my first year – I’ve learnt so much in such a short space of time and have developed both as a musician and a person. I have also made so many great friends. Having studied at the Junior Royal Academy of Music, I settled in very quickly – I was already very familiar with the building and area which definitely helped. With three older siblings who live in London, I didn’t struggle with leaving home as half my home is here! I have always loved London and so was excited to have the opportunity to study here full time. London is the heart of music and creative arts and it’s great that The Royal Academy of Music is just around the corner from the Wigmore Hall.

Hayley: My first year at the Royal Academy of Music has been great, I have learnt a lot and found it to be an amazing experience. It was pretty easy to settle in as the majority of people are extremely friendly and so I haven’t had any problems making friends. I came to the Academy as an international student from Australia, so I found it a little hard to move away from home, as I didn’t really have any outside connections apart from people at RAM. However, the Academy offers a lot of support and definitely makes it easier.

Samuel: My first year at RAM has been riddled with both hurdles and successes. As a singer, I came to the Academy with limited music theory knowledge, so getting myself to a point at which I could understand the tasks that were set required great effort. Week-by-week, I found myself understanding more of the lectures and saw my sight-reading skills improve. Every week provided new challenges, but also brought with it its own mini-victories. What proved incredibly helpful from a morale standpoint was  that there was always someone in the same boat as you. Everyone found aspects of the course difficult and even students in the years above were willing to take the time to sit down with you. Settling in was mostly harmless, everyone is equally nervous when they first arrive. After a few weeks, you get to know people and you just find the ones you click with. It has been a terrific experience and it has all gone very quickly. 

What aspects of the course do you enjoy the most?

Konya: For me I enjoy the chamber aspects of the course. I have had the pleasure of working with two brilliant musicians this year and have formed a piano trio. We have played in a few concerts and have received coaching from very respectable musicians.

Hayley: I really enjoy the group practical projects, such as Repertoire orchestra and clarinet class.

Samuel: It was fantastic to be attending an institution where I was literally required to do the thing I love every single day. Yet, whilst I loved my lessons and the process of solidifying my technique, it was the exposure I received to the different aspects of the vocal repertoire that I found the most interesting. We received pronunciation help with German lieder, guidance on our interpretation of English song, and lessons in Italian which all required us to explore new rep from the respective languages. Having had a relatively sheltered life with regards to classical music, it was eye opening to find that songs I had never even heard of were so well known by some of the class, and that pushed me to go out and broaden my own horizons.

Sophie: I particularly enjoy my cello lessons and the repertoire I have covered this year. I have also really enjoyed all aspects of chamber music playing, from my quartet to the first year cello ensemble. Being surrounded by such a high calibre of musicianship really brings on your own playing and RAM is always a hive of activity with performances, masterclasses and workshops with world-class musicians.

Has the first year been what you expected- did you have expectations before you came?

Konya: Before I started my first year, I’d had information on the course from friends and family that study/studied there. This was useful because all of my expectations were based on fact and so there weren’t any surprises.

Hayley: My expectations were definitely met by the high level of all the teachers and staff that are at the Academy. I didn’t really have any expectations, just that I would be working with some of the best musicians of my age and being taught by some of the best musicians of our time, which has been true.

Samuel: I really did not know what to expect. I came to RAM with a lot of performing experience, I had been fortunate enough to have performed around the world and was somewhat expecting to be the only one to have done so. Yet, upon my arrival, I was given a slight wake up call and quickly learned that there were a lot of people with bucket-loads of talent and bundles of experience. There were also a large number of people with very little experience, and, sometimes, they had even more talent. It was interesting to find that I was not alone in this revelation: in reality, the majority of people attending institutions such as RAM have been the best musician at their school or in their area, but when they arrive they are one of many talented musicians and it takes a little period of adjustment to come to terms with this. In the end, everyone is there because they have earned the right to attend such a prestigious institution, and once you accept that, your time there becomes fantastic.

What performance opportunities have you had in your first year at The Academy?

Konya: The Royal Academy of Music is great in that it provides many concert opportunities for all its students. Speaking on behalf of pianists, every week we are granted the opportunity to play in a performance class in front of other pianists doing the same course. This is great as it allows one to develop confidence in performance as well as receiving useful feedback on how to improve from peers and tutors.

Hayley: I have been part of many clarinet masterclasses this year, as well as weekly performances in clarinet class. I was also involved in the musical theatre project halfway through the year.

Sophie: As a string player, there have been a variety of different performance opportunities. At the start of the academic year, you are assigned a chamber group (either a string quartet or a piano trio) which you are expected to stay in for the first term. After this, you can change – I was lucky to find a really good quartet and we have done performances at RAM, external concerts and had extensive coaching with different professors. Moreover, I have also taken part in orchestral projects. Students are required to take part in orchestral auditions and from the results of these you are assigned different projects. One of the highlights of my year was participating in an orchestra led by the Doric String Quartet – being directed by world-class musicians was inspiring and really brought on my orchestral playing.

Samuel: As a vocal student, there aren’t a plethora of opportunities to perform in your first year as it is generally thought that the first year should be spent creating or solidifying a stable technical foundation upon which one can build in the years that follow. However, we do have a performance class each week where four or five people perform. It is best described as a weekly masterclass with the Head of Vocal Studies, but students are also offered feedback by their peers. First year vocal students also form a choir and perform in a concert in aid of members of the local Parish Church suffering from dementia, and there is also a possibility for students to be selected to join the chorus of the various opera productions taking place at the Academy.

Did you go to a music specialist school?

Konya: I went to a state secondary school but was lucky to have a headteacher who really valued music. This meant that even though my school didn’t have the sufficient funding to provide top quality instruments, there were many musical ensembles and clubs that one could attend.

Hayley: I did not go to a music specialist school; therefore, the Academy was extremely different compared to my high school, especially as you are surrounded by only musicians. However, I did some time at the Sydney Conservatorium in Australia, before moving to Royal Academy, and my experience has been very different at the Academy as I have found it to be much more inclusive and offers a lot more opportunities to all of its students.

Does the course focus strongly on singing or do you feel you are also being educated about other aspects of the music profession?

Samuel: I feel students have two lives running parallel to each other: their academic life and their instrumental life. The academic life consists of lectures, seminars, and support classes in Analytical Skills (music theory), Aural Skills (ear training), and Performing in Context (music history). For a singer, their instrumental life is their private lessons, the various song and language classes, the performance class, choir sessions, movement classes, as well as having professional development lectures. The academic life gives you the musical skills and knowledge to be successful in a musical setting and enhances your prowess of music as a whole. The instrumental life continues this preparation to be a professional musician, but places a greater emphasis on the idea of being a performer. Students are given talks in professional development on the importance of good mental and physical wellbeing, how to market themselves on social media, and techniques to be successful during the audition process. It is the combination and application of the two lives that leads to a successful career .

Is there any advice you would give to people thinking of applying to music college?

Konya: My advice: apply! You won’t regret it. Oh, and also practise!

Hayley: You have to make sure that you love music and your instrument – music college is extremely challenging both physically and mentally, but if you love what you’re doing then it is definitely worth it.

Samuel: My advice to anyone giving thought to study any subject at higher education would be to give serious consideration as to whether it is something they could see themselves doing in the future. If it is not, you are not going to put the effort in to succeed and will not reap the full benefits of the education. I believe this is even more applicable to music. What I believe really separated people in first year was each person’s willingness to succeed; if someone worked hard it showed, they received the fruits of their labour and it was acknowledged by their teachers. I would also stress that it is possible to be accepted into conservatoires, even if you do not think you have the correct theoretical qualifications. In my opinion, the purpose of a music conservatoire is to prepare students for a life of performance. If you are at a high level of performance, it is possible to learn the theoretical information required to participate on the course. Do not allow your lack of music theory stop you from playing your instrument. Just go for it!

For a final comment, Sophie adds…

Before starting at RAM I thought my biggest challenge would be to not compare myself to others and put myself down. However, once I started, I quickly came to the realisation that this is my degree and my own musical journey – there is no point in comparing yourself to others.  I have taken the approach that I am determined to enjoy my degree and get as much out of it both musically and academically as I can.

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