FEATURE: Strings at…the Royal College of Music

Richard Bratby goes behind the Royal College of Music’s imposing façade to see what makes its students and professors tick – and discovers it might be words like co-operation, encouragement and individuality, to say nothing of bass department curry nights… 


RCM (c) Saul Peckham

The Royal College of Music. Photo: Saul Peckham, courtesy of the Royal College of Music


It’s autumn in Kensington. Leaves blow down Exhibition Road, crocodiles of schoolchildren wear red anoraks, and the subway to the museums is gridlocked with students and tourists. This is a place for learning: a place where wonders are to be seen, and interesting things happen. And right at the centre of it all – directly in front of the Royal Albert Hall, and wedged in alongside Imperial College and the Royal School of Mines – is the Royal College of Music.

Founded in 1882, the RCM does an excellent job of looking exactly as grand as you’d expect from the alma mater of Holst, Vaughan Williams and Britten. It’s imposing: intimidating, even – the British musical Establishment writ large, in gold-embossed letters. But step past the huge marble statues in the entrance hall, and you’re swept into an orderly chaos of musical activity. Students laugh and chat, figures with violin cases bustle past and the sound of a tuba booms through a door. Buildings, of course, don’t make institutions: people do. That said…

‘Tradition is a real thing here,’ says Mark Messenger, the RCM’s Head of Strings. ‘It definitely helps that we have an amazing building like this, opposite the Royal Albert Hall. I never forget it, because it means such lot to the students as well – that sense of being part of something that’s been so important in the development of art in this country, and internationally.’


‘A great teacher opens a student’s mind’

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Head of strings Mark Messenger gives a lesson. Photo: Chris Christodoulou, courtesy of the Royal College of Music

The RCM’s strings department currently has 230 students, of whom around 150 are undergraduates, drawn from most of the 60 different nationalities represented at the college. And with alumni including Alina Ibragimova, Valeriy Sokolov and the Belcea and Sacconi Quartets, it’s done a fair bit to shape that tradition. Messenger’s focus, however, is on tomorrow’s musicians – and a philosophy of music education that’s both deeply-rooted and open-minded.

‘Most of the time a student will come to a conservatoire because of a professor, and I’m incredibly lucky with the professors I have here. The RCM has a strong tradition of teaching in the Russian school and I’ve preserved that – we have people like Felix Andrievsky, Natalia Boyarsky, Sasha Rozhdestvensky – but I’ve broadened it as well. My main consideration is that they’re all great teachers. Some institutions like to have big names on the books, but a great teacher opens a student’s mind so they don’t just learn from their lesson, but from everything – from their environment, from going to a concert or masterclass, from visiting an art gallery. We aim to make students curious, both as musicians and as artists.’

And there’s enough at the College to fire any musician’s curiosity. The RCM Museum houses examples of the earliest English violins (formerly part of Prince Albert’s personal collection), Gustav Holst’s battered-looking trombone and – familiar from a thousand CD sleeves – Hardy’s portrait of Haydn. Still greater treasures live in the college library: a manuscript score collection that includes Haydn’s Quartet Op.64 No.1 (complete with neatly crossed-out corrections) and Elgar’s Cello Concerto. They’re all available to any student who wants to consult them. ‘I’d probably stand over them,’ says the College’s Librarian, Peter Linnitt, ‘but if an undergraduate wants to look at these manuscripts, I’d say – definitely!’


Collaborative buzz

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An orchestral rehearsal at the RCM. Photo: Chris Christodoulou, courtesy of the Royal College of Music

That spirit of co-operation between staff and students – of doors being held open, and ambitions encouraged – is everywhere in the RCM. The college’s Piano Trio in Association, Trio Apaches, is giving a lunchtime recital in the art nouveau Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall. Three students play Beethoven’s single-movement WoO39, before Catherine Hare, a fourth-year undergraduate flautist, joins the Apaches for a headlong performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7, in Hummel’s transcription. Trio Apaches’ cellist, Thomas Carroll, relishes the collaboration.

‘There’s a real buzz here, and a focus on the right things. One of the great things about the College is that there’s a lot of variety; students are encouraged to call any teacher. So we’ve got people here like Daniel Rowland from the Brodsky Quartet. He’s an incredibly experienced chamber musician, and students can have as much time with him as they like. There’s unlimited chamber music coaching.’ There’s also a student-led concert series, Great Exhibitionists, in which students are encouraged to follow their own passions. ‘One of my students is talking about putting on the Friedrich Gulda Cello Concerto,’ says Carroll. ‘Have you heard it? It’s extraordinary! Of course they still have to know their Bach and Brahms, but this sort of thing is really good for them.’

Open-mindedness like that comes in useful when – like first-year undergraduate Thea Butterworth – you want to study both harp and bass. ‘It’s the only college in London where I’d even have the opportunity to do that,’ she says. ‘The professors are really supportive – we sit down together, go through my schedule and balance it all out.’ William Walker, from the USA, is a postgraduate cellist, but he’s found the RCM just as positive about his conducting ambitions. ‘The administration is very open to helping you achieve your goals. I’m conducting a concert here at the end of the month.’


A large faculty and a small community

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Basses of the RCM. Photo: Chris Christodoulou, courtesy of the Royal College of Music

The RCM’s Creative Career Centre, meanwhile, helps students take full advantage of the opportunities that come with musical life in London, as well as offering real-world advice on everything from personal finance to hearing protection. ‘The centre gets quite a lot of well-paid gigs for students,’ says postgraduate violinist Soh-Yon Kim. ‘There’s teaching work, and concerts in churches like St Martin’s, or the Royal Albert Hall. It’s a good place for people who want to do a lot of things.’ Butterworth recently found herself accompanying a yoga class – ‘they just asked me to sit there for an hour with my harp and improvise!’ – while second-year cellist Kristiana Ignatjeva still can’t quite believe that she got to see the Berlin Philharmonic at the Barbican for just £4.

And when the music stops… ‘It’s not hard to find somewhere to go on a Friday night,’ says Butterworth. ‘Imperial College bar is just across the way, and we have bass department curry nights.’ Almost all first-year students live in halls of residence, where, according to Walker – a warden – ‘students are students, and will be students!” But all four nod when Ignatjeva remarks that ‘students here are very positive’. ‘RCM students are very supportive of each other,’ agrees Butterworth.

All four seem to be flourishing under the RCM’s policy of tailoring high-level string training to students’ individual artistic personalities. Ignatjeva is currently playing a cello by Matteo Goffriller, part of a 100-strong RCM collection which includes instruments by Amati and Guadagnini – all available, in principle, to the right students. ‘It’s amazing,’ she says. ‘It has so much character and personality on its own that sometimes you just have to deal with it like an actual person!’

Which, at the RCM string department, is entirely fitting. ‘We’re a large faculty, but we’re still a small community,’ says Messenger. ‘As string players we have to have the collaborating gene. If you’re interested in playing the Brahms Violin Concerto but not Brahms’s Second Symphony, that’s not a concept I understand. We’re not just cellist or violinists: people here are interested in music and the subject of music, and we communicate that through the instruments we play. My view is that every potential artist who comes through the door here is an individual. They have their own perspective on life. And what we want to do is broaden that, to feed them and to nourish them, as well as build them up – to allow them the space to become themselves.’


Cremona Mondomusica - Sept 30th - Oct 1st 2016

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