London is killing music teaching everywhere else

London is killing music teaching everywhere else


norman lebrecht

January 21, 2020

Julian Lloyd Webber threatened this week to resign as head of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire if the Government won’t give him enough money to do a proper job. The facts are straightforward. London has four conservatoires – the Royal Academy, Royal College, Guildhall and Trinity – none of which is, or has ever been, a world beater. 

The rest of the country – Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff, Scotland – struggles on with leftovers. If Boris Johnson is as keen as he sounds on the regions, he should merge three London cons and spend the cash in Brum.

Christopher Morley, music editor of the Birmingham Post, surveys the miserable state of play for Slipped Disc:


Just before Christmas I had lunch with Julian Lloyd Webber at the excellent San Carlo restaurant at the top of Temple Street, and in a low voice beneath the acoustic bustle of excited, festive patrons, he confided to me his fears about the future of Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, of which he is Principal.

“We’re getting no funding, compared with the London institutions, as we are considered a component  within a university. And Birmingham City University can’t give us what we need for the upkeep of these state-of-the art facilities.

“I’m not prepared to preside over the decline of everything we’ve built up.”

I was shocked, saddened, but determined to preserve these confidences.

Now Julian has gone public, firstly on the Slipped Disc website checked throughout the world (and one which, incidentally, is incredibly supportive of the CBSO), and now in an interview with the Observer newspaper, so I feel free to share my own thoughts about this regrettable situation.

I have been intimately involved with the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in its previous incarnations since I came up as a music undergraduate in the University of Birmingham in 1966. The then Birmingham School of Music was housed in a semi-demolished building, previously home to the YMCA and the Midlands Electricity Board in Dale End, and I sensed an atmosphere of stoical depression about the place.

The move to brand-new premises in the heart of the city in Paradise Place, opposite the Town Hall, brought a much-needed boost to morale of staff and students, and as  the newly re-christened Birmingham Conservatoire, and now part of the University of Central England (previously the City of Birmingham Polytechnic), the institution began to thrive, attracting students from Europe and the Far East. I taught there for 22 years.

Redevelopment of Paradise Circus instigated the need for the Conservatoire to find a new home, and eventually Birmingham City University (previously UCE) found and funded a site on Eastside, the campus upon which BCU was assembling all its faculties, and invested an amazing amount of money (£57million) to create a state-of-the art building whose facilities would be the envy of conservatoires worldwide.

Just as all this was coming to pass, Julian Lloyd Webber was appointed Principal, an internationally-renowned performer bringing immense enthusiasm and charisma as figurehead to this vibrantly reborn centre of musical excellence. Thanks to the patronage of HRH Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, the once Birmingham School of Music was now granted the accolade of being renamed  Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in the autumn of 2017 (just in time for the presses of my history of the institution to be stopped so that its title could become “Royal Birmingham Conservatoire: Inspiring Musicians since 1886”).

A glittering array of international performers and composers was attracted to join the teaching staff. London colleges which had previously sneered at the provincial status of what they had perceived as a second-rate offering for students now became jealous of its international standing, and students were jostling to be accepted here ahead of their second choice of the great Juilliard School of Music in New York.

All of this is now in danger of crumbling, thanks to central funders concentrating on metropolitan institutions (and I suspect finding excuses to ignore those outside the London magic circle), and to Birmingham City University’s inability to provide the funds for the servicing and upkeep of the state-of-the-art facilities installed in the building it so expensively funded.

Are we to be left with a Marie Celeste of a Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, all the top-ranking crew and equally top-ranking students vanished? Are we going to lose the inspirational and attractive figurehead which is Julian Lloyd Webber (surely the most renowned Principal of all our conservatoires)?

At this turning-point in its history the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire needs a boost to its funding. What it brings to the city in terms of the student economy and general prestige is too valuable to be cast away. Julian Lloyd Webber came and committed himself to Birmingham. Birmingham must do the same to him.



  • Derek says:

    The teaching, specially designed rooms, acoustics and facilities in this new building are outstanding.

    The failure to provide necessary support to enable full use for the students would be unforgivable.

    It seems that the difference between what the politicians say and what they do is incredible. No wonder people despair!

    • Mike Schachter says:

      Sadly in the UK, more than in many European countries, local politicians know little about the arts and often care less. Laos true at the national level, maybe less so.

      • Clift Christopher says:

        Mike this not a ‘local politicians’ issue (as I understand the problem) but one where as so often is the case London gets by far the best deals! In my experience Birmingham has always supported artistic endeavour, irrespective of the colour of the political party running the place. I lived there for well over 30 years and as evidence I can cite Symphony Hall as well as the new Library of Birmingham as examples of that support.

        • SVM says:

          “the new Library” — you mean the shiny new building erected at great expense to replace a perfectly functional brutalist library building, and which soon had its opening hours reduced significantly because the council no longer had enough money?

          Having said that, the Symphony Hall indeed has outstanding acoustics, and can be counted a genuine success. But I would be curious to know how much it costs to hire the place… no point in having a great hall if hardly any professional musicians/ensembles/orchestras can afford to use it (a point that seems to be lost on Simon Rattle and his idiotic campaign for a new hall in the City of London, despite an excellent new hall having already opened there in 2013).

          • Rugbyfiddler says:

            Regarding ‘hiring the place’ you only have to look at the Hall’s diary to realise that hardly a day goes by without something (of a high standard) taking place there. Apart from the CBSO’s concert season, many, many international soloists And ensembles (of all sorts of disciplines) regularly perform there, so it can’t be THAT expensive to hire.

            Probably the City Council manages to under-write engagements – I don’t know.

            Do I presume that the ‘excellent new hall’ which opened in London in 2013 is large enough to accommodate such forces as were in Symphony Hall this last weekend, for Mahler’s 8th Symphony, which played to a pretty much sold out audience at least on Saturday when I was there.

          • Allen says:

            “…in the City of London, despite an excellent new hall having already opened there in 2013”


          • SVM says:

            Milton Court, of course. It can take a full orchestra on stage (would probably require stage extensions for Mahler 8, but that is an extreme case), and has an audience capacity of just over 900.

  • fflambeau says:

    Ah, money for the arts. It’s a problem world-wide especially as most politicians don’t want to give artistic endeavors of any kind money (maybe because there is no “kickback”; maybe because it might stimulate creative thinking).

    If anyone thinks Boris Johnson will be different, he is living in his own little world. Look at his ‘master’,Trump (if you can stand it).

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Sigh…Boris Johnson, whatever his faults, is no philistine. For god’s sake, his public persona is to quote bits of Latin in a humorous way. He is no anti-intellectual in the way Trump is, and actually attends the opera in his own time.

  • christopher storey says:

    The third sentence is nonsense. Are you really suggesting that in particular the RAM and RCM have never been institutions of stature? I have no idea what they are like now, but in the past there is no doubting their reputation for excellence

  • Adrienne says:

    It seems to me, as a (most of the time) outside observer, that the UK spends relatively little on the arts compared with many other W European countries. The figures must be tiny by national standards (I understand that the annual cost of NHS clinical negligence litigation is measured in billions).

    It also seems to me that some individuals are unable to make the case for extra funding without the obligatory sneer at London.

    Doesn’t seem like a very constructive way of addressing the problem. I’m sure that increases for all must be affordable. And is Scotland’s arts funding under the control of London or Edinburgh?

    • Appleby says:

      It’s not an “obligatory sneer at London”. There’s a genuine, measurable double standard in play. Birmingham Conservatoire receives reduced funding because it’s part of a larger university, rather than an autonomous institution. Yet this rule is not applied to the Guildhall school in London, which is likewise a department of a larger organisation.

      It’s part of a wider picture: in 2015 state arts subsidy per head of population was some 13 times higher in London than in the rest of England and Wales. In the current ACE portfolio settlement, the organisation that runs Birmingham’s major concert venues, including Symphony Hall and the Grade One listed Town Hall, plus a vast range of regional projects and arts support services, received around 1/200th (that’s correct: 0.5%) of the taxpayer subsidy given to its closest London equivalent, the Southbank.

      These discrepancies have to be questioned; the indignation is understandable. The Arts Council is working towards a fairer settlement, and most sensible London organisations understand that in the long term this will help build a more politically sustainable case for public arts funding in all regions of the UK, London included.

      • Adrienne says:

        Presumably, ‘per head of population’ means that the subsidy is divided by the number of people within the city’s boundary. But what does that statistic reveal when the city serves a much larger area? Very little.

        The ‘per attendance’ figure, which some people are determined to ignore, is far more revealing.

        And you’ve still missed the point. I’m making a case for increasing spending on the arts – something which I believe is affordable compared with spending elsewhere – not taking it away from one place and spending it elsewhere. If spending is taken away from London, you can be pretty sure that a chunk of it will be siphoned off and squandered

        And lastly, I’m not an expert on this but I don’t think that the Guildhall is a member of the University of London, if that is what you are saying.

        • Appleby says:

          OK, agreed, ideal world scenario: more money for everyone would be great.

          Real world: massive inequality in allocation of available funds currently exists, and this needs to be addressed.

        • SVM says:

          The Guildhall School of Music & Drama (GSMD) is ultimately a department of the Corporation of the City of London. It is not, and has never been, part of the University of London (although it is true that its MPhil/PhD/DMus research degrees are validated by City University, which *is* part of the University of London).

          The Royal Academy of Music *is* part of the University of London.

          The Royal College of Music is *not* part of a larger institution.

          Trinity Laban is the product of a merger between Trinity College of Music and Laban (a specialist dance school), but it is *not* part of a larger institution (however, like GSMD, its research degrees are validated by City University).

        • Allen says:

          “But what does that statistic reveal when the city serves a much larger area? Very little.

          The ‘per attendance’ figure, which some people are determined to ignore, is far more revealing.”

          ….. Silence.

  • Tony Britten says:

    Norman, I am sorry, but …’none of which is, or has ever been a world beater’ simply won’t do. A casual glance at any of the numerous ‘league tables’ makes it clear that The Royal College of Music, The Royal Academy and the Guildhall are all regularly rated in the top twenty worldwide -with the RCM generally in the top five – and I say that not as an alumni of that great college, but in the interests of accurate journalism. Or are you actually trying to wind up the many graduates from these conservatoires who must read this blog?
    The problem with starting your piece in this inaccurate manner, is that the very real issue of how to fund out of London institutions becomes the secondary story.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Ask yourself a simple question. You have a child about to enter music college and you can choose anywhere in the world. In which discipline would a London college be your first choice? Or even second? Or third?

      • Tony Britten says:

        It might be more pertinent to ask the thousands of talented young musicians who flock to London from all over the world to study music. Could it be the opportunity to be taught by some of the finest players and singers in the world?

      • Mike Schachter says:

        Good question, which I certainly don’t have the knowledge to answer, but where would you send them?

      • SVM says:

        In conservatoire education, a lot depends on the principal-study teacher. This can be evaluated only through detailed research (which may include one or more consultation lessons).

        That said, it is worth taking note of particular specialisms or pockets of world-leading excellence which could be transformative to one’s development. And for that, I can give a London example: GSMD’s Centre for Classical Improvisation and Creative Performance, led by Prof. David Dolan, is probably unique in the rigorous grounding it offers in classical improvisation through small-group teaching. Although my MMus degree from GSMD is in “Composition”, I would say that my studies in classical improvisation were just as important in shaping me musically (and this is not in any way to demean the excellent composition teacher I had at GSMD, Laurence Crane).

        So, to return to Lebrecht’s “simple question”, the simple answer would be “classical improvisation”, although it should be added that unless the child is going to be under 18 at the time of entry, any decision as to where he/she studies is ultimately his/her own, surely. Thus, it is nonsense to talk of a *parent* having the capacity to “choose”.

  • Doug says:

    …I had lunch with Julian Lloyd Webber at the excellent San Carlo restaurant at the top of Temple Street…

    Enough pay to dine out at a posh restaurant? You can’t make this stuff up!

    • Appleby says:

      Yeah, you’re not from Birmingham are you?

      Either that, or you have a slightly idiosyncratic definition of “posh”.

  • Zwischenaktmusik says:

    The discussion of government funding for the arts always seems to start with the assumption that is is necessary.

    Look at some of the best music schools in the United States. Norman, would you not argue they are among the best in the world (among those you would consider sending your child or grandchild); I am not attempting to rank them (nor am I a graduate of any of them):

    Juilliard School of Music
    Manhattan School of Music
    Eastman School of Music (Univ of Rochester)
    Shepherd School of Music (Rice Univ)
    New England Conservatory of Music
    Curtis Institute of Music
    Northwestern University
    Peabody Institute (John Hopkins Univ)
    Cleveland Institute of Music

    What do they all have in common? They are all private institutions, not supported by government funding.* Jabs are often made at the United States for its lack of government funding of the arts. But it seems that in spite of the lack of such funding, superb music schools the US – and symphony orchestras – thrive. This is not an argument against government funding; it is simply an observation that such funding is not essential to ensure excellence in music teaching and performance.

    *One leaves aside the periodic government-sponsored grant that private institutions may receive for various projects – such as a new music festival, community outreach, commissioning music – and the fact that higher education students in both private and public institutions are eligible for government sponsored student loans. The point, above, is that these private institutions do not depend on the government for their fundamental existence.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      I would also nominate, in various disciplines, the Sibelius Academy (Helsinki), Berlin, Vienna, Rotterdam, The Hague, Zurich and Madrid, all of which are state funded.

    • V. Lind says:

      State sponsorship depends upon taxation. Americans do not support governments choosing what to do with “their” money. Hence they have some of the most sophisticated hospitals in the world, but deny millions of their own people the most basic health care.

      They are happy to pour money into the hospital that helped good old mum through her cancer but would not support a small grant for a homeless shelter. The same attitude applies in the arts. Plenty of money for the far-from suffering Juilliard and Curtis but heaven forbid that education funding be available to schools to provide basic music education.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      This list of top US schools for music leaves out Indiana University. Certainly a place that serious string instrument students would (and do) consider and rank highly, and likely those in other music disciplines would as well.

    • SVM says:

      Zwischenaktmusik has a point, but he/she overlooks the fact that, in general, students enrolling at élite American institutions have to come up with a lot of $$$ to cover the astronomical tuition fees (with some notable exceptions, such as Curtis).

      Private American institutions may do a sterling job of “keeping the beacon of knowledge/excellence alight”, and that is certainly a good thing. But many of them are significantly more *socio-economically* exclusive than institutions that receive substantial taxpayer subsidy (as *almost* all UK universities and conservatoires do). The UK system for funding Higher Education is not perfect, but it does at least ensure there are fewer barriers to those who are not from affluent families. In other words, a strong argument in favour of taxpayer subsidy is that it enables talented individuals without the financial means to pay tuition fees up front to enrol.

    • Kolb Slaw says:

      It all depends on who your major teacher is. I had the world’s best teacher, and she was at Manhattan, Mannes and Boston University, among others. Yet Juilliard had the name recognition, though not the teacher. In fact, she was hired at Juilliard, but it was withdrawn due to politics. This list omits Oberlin and other fine colleges with conservatories or fine music departments as well as many outstanding universities. Rowan University in New Jersey has a surprisingly fine faculty. Also Temple University, for the most part. And they have Andriss Nelsons.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Zwischenaktmusik: “they are all private institutions”

      They depend very much on government funding, despite your protestations. Their money comes from two sources:
      (a) Donations. The rich get to re-allocate their tax to fund their hobbies, and get nice rewards from the organisations they give their tax money to.
      (b) Student Fees. The government largely provides this money to students to hand over to these institutions.

      These organisations would not prosper in a genuinely commercial world.

  • Michael Turner says:

    I will take this opportunity to make a point that I have done in many circles but always with reference to funding of the arts and music in particular.

    What many people fail to realise is that the arts can, and do, provide more than the “elitist entertainment” that many associate with them.

    Looked at creatively, the arts have a very real place in the areas of health and wellbeing. Hence, I feel that there is a need to really push politicians to see that investment in the arts is not just the funding of some sort of frivolous icing on a cake but should be a central part of the cake itself!

    We are constantly bombarded with evidence that music helps encourage team working, improves the understanding of maths and physics (in particular), builds people’s confidence and can be a very positive trigger for the release of endorphins helping with a range of medical conditions, particularly in relation to mental health.

    Linked to this, what politicians fail to even consider is that, to help address the care needs of the nation, the arts can be brought into the fold to great effect. I’m not suggesting that listening to a Beethoven symphony will address all health evils. However, for a proportion of folk, connection with the arts would be a good alternative to the day care that has been removed, thus reducing the current situation where people now go from home to being a hospital crisis case, without any intervention in the middle.

    As a Brummie, I feel passionate about the RBC. Birmingham has as vibrant a cultural offer as many equivalent European cities. However, while local politicians have recognised this over many years now, nationally Brum’s strengths in this area are as undervalued as those anywhere else in the country.

    The RBC needs more investment, undoubtedly, but it needs to be part of a much more joined-up acknowledgement that the arts are central and not peripheral to life.

  • Sean Reid Hallow says:

    Why don’t you get your brother to donate a few billion instead of asking tax payers to fund something they will never go to?

    All that money he has got and doesn’t need, could create 1,000 new orchestras with 1,000 new concert halls!

    • Rugbyfiddler says:

      Sean, your ‘simplistic’ solution to Birmingham’s issue barely merits a response, however, given the millions which Lord Lloyd-Webber has already spent in the West End of London, on theatres, singers, dancers, musicians, I feel it is the responsibility of others to fill the gaps left by government (state) underfunding of so many cultural establishments.

  • Edgar says:

    Leave it to conservatives, not only in the UK, to through out music and any and all cultural education out of the window (because it’s the economy stupid!).

    No wonder the future looks barbaric.

  • Edgar says:

    To throw, not through. My absentmindedness (I have a Schnittke Symphony playing as I write. Fascinating stuff!)

  • Kolb Slaw says:

    I wonder what he means by “state of the art.” It would seem to me that all a music school needs is concert halls with good acoustics, lots of practice rooms and teaching studios, and instruments. Certainly not computers and fancy gadgets. It is classical music, after all. The description of the London schools is curious, and might explain a lot. They offer very low pay to teachers, for one.

  • Zwischenaktmusik says:

    It is unfortunate that anytime a discussion of “government funding for the arts” comes up on this blog (and, frankly, on just about any blog or public discussion forum), it usually devolves to political finger pointing. My original point, above (if one reads my words carefully), was not to argue against government funding. I simply pointed out that in the United States, many excellent music schools are privately funded institutions. And, yes, of course, there are many publicly funded music schools in the United States that are excellent, including (to name just a few among many) Indiana University, University of Michigan, University of Texas (Austin), University of North Texas, College-Conservatory of Music (Univ of Cincinnati), and Arizona State University. Fine music schools can be found in both the private and public sector. And one should not make the assumption that it is only the “big name/famous” music schools that offer excellent musical education.

    However, my point was—and is—that public funding is not essential for fine music schools to exist. Some argue, however, that those privately funded music schools are only available to those who have a lot of money. The classist argument is easy to make but it not easily supported. For instance, there are a number of excellent, privately funded music schools that offer students free tuition, including the Shepherd School of Music (Rice Univ)—which gives FREE tuition to students whose families earn under $130,000 annually. The Curtis Institute famously does not charge tuition fees of its students. Others give huge amounts of scholarship aid to applicants. Too, symphony orchestras around the world are populated with members who graduated from smaller colleges, universities, and conservatories—some privately funded, some publicly funded—including many “state schools” which offer relatively low tuition to in-state residents (see IU, UM, UT, UNT, CCM, and ASU, referenced above).

    The music schools in the UK that were referenced by Norman at the beginning of this article are fine schools, deserving of support, either by the government or the private sector. But it would be nice if this kind of discussion could exist on a high enough plane where the political jabs and a priori assumptions don’t derail it.

    In sum: If a government wishes to commit itself to fund institutions of learning, that’s a great thing. If private individuals wish to commit themselves to funding institutions of learning, it’s a great thing. Students can be well educated at both publicly and privately funded schools. High tuition does not always equal the “best” education. Low tuition does not always equal “lesser” education. There are many excellent privately funded music schools in the United States (some with very high tuition cost, some with modest tuition costs, and some with no tuition cost), and also there are many publicly funded music schools in the United States (all with relatively modest tuition cost). And for people whose families do not have great financial resources, most educational institutions in the United States have scholarships, grants, and other forms of aid to gifted students. Coming from a family that has a low annual income does not price students out of many of the “elite” schools. On the contrary, schools are increasingly desirous of such students who provide needed diversity to the student body. “Diversity” is often interpreted to exist only on the racial plane but in fact, socio/economic diversity is important for schools these days as well.

    How to “save” the four big London conservatories? I don’t live there so don’t have the power of the ballot box in my hands to influence that situation. But those who do have the opportunity to both vote in elections (supporting candidates who wish for the public purse to be opened more widely to support such schools), or contribute their own resources to support institutions of learning that they value, would, one hopes, be working diligently to argue for worthy support within any political system.