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Starting at conservatoire: Making the most of your time

Becky Mercer (she/her) and Abigail Fraser (she/her), SU President and Vice-President Music at Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD) share their tips and advice, as well as a few things they wish they had known when starting at conservatoire.

You’ve picked your institution, you’ve auditioned, been offered a place (you superstar!), and now you’re there! So now what?

'you are not alone'

First things first, it’s important to know that it is okay if you feel overwhelmed, it’s an overwhelming time! During your first week it’s likely that you’re going to be participating in induction sessions, taking in a lot of information, meeting tons of new people, and on top of that, you may have moved away from home for the first time.

Some people may thrive in this environment, but others may not. You may have a lot of anxiety about starting this new chapter in your life, and we want you to know that you are not alone – a lot of people will struggle in their first term, even if they don’t show it.

If you feel like you aren’t coping, or just want to talk to someone, then that’s what your Students’ Union and Student Services departments are here for.

Your SU Team have your best interests and your welfare at the heart of everything they do, so get to know them and chat to them. Your Student Services team will offer more dedicated support for any hardship you may be experiencing, including financial difficulties, mental health worries, and struggles with learning.

Don’t worry if you don’t know who to speak to, it’s better to just speak to someone and then they can signpost you in the right direction.

RWCMD student concert. Photograph by: Kiran Ridley

At conservatoire you are more responsible for your own learning, so we advise familiarising yourself with how your institution works from the get-go. Things to find out about include: booking practise rooms, scheduling lessons with your tutor, borrowing music and/or instruments, arranging time to rehearse with your accompanist, and how to create chamber ensembles.

Make sure you go along to any induction sessions as they’ve been designed to welcome you and show you how your particular conservatoire works, as well as to introduce you to your new course mates – the friends you haven’t met yet!

Abigail studied at a conservatoire for both her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees:

Abigail Fraser, SU Vice-President (Music) RWCMD

‘As Conservatoire study is more performance-centred I knew this was the choice for me. Another factor was the amount of 1:1 teaching and smaller class sizes when compared to university. Conservatoire training can be full on with course structures reflective of the industry. This can often mean long rehearsal hours, scheduled in evenings and on weekends, so I think this is an important aspect for individuals to consider.’

Becky completed her undergraduate degree at a university before attending a conservatoire as a postgraduate:

Becky Mercer, SU President, RWCMD

'When I left school, I had my heart set on being a classroom music teacher. Therefore the academic side of a university degree felt more beneficial to me than focusing on performance. However, as I progressed, I found that my passions lay in performing, so came to a conservatoire for my Masters’ degree. While I feel that my skills as a horn player have improved drastically since coming to a conservatoire, I believe that the personal development I had at university is what gave me the ability and space to concentrate on that area.'

When RWCMD graduate Toks Dada (now Head of Classical Music at the Southbank) was studying at the College he said, 'playing your instrument really is the minimum you should do'.

So, onto the fun stuff!

Your institution will put on concerts throughout the year and you, as a student, will get to attend for free or at a heavily discounted price. Take these opportunities and attend a wide variety of performances, not just those related to your discipline. This is your chance to not just see world-class performers, but learn from them. At RWCMD, we have regular masterclasses from visiting artists, which means we get the chance to work closely with those at the top of their game. There is so much more to performing than simply playing the right notes.

You will be surrounded by people who have a love for creating and performing, and this is your chance to utilise that, and maybe learn a new skill, discover a new passion, and collaborate with other students.

For example, RWCMD’s student-led entrepreneurial arts company REPCo gives students the opportunity to create and devise new performances. Abigail has taken part in REPCo since her first year, which has given her numerous opportunities to perform lesser-known pieces and work alongside student composers, developing partnerships that have continued throughout her studies. She recommends taking the time to nurture partnerships made during your time at a conservatoire as these can continue into your future career.

Depending on the school you went to, this could be the first time you are surrounded by like-minded people, but don’t give in to the temptation to see them as competition. Instead, you should see them as colleagues that you can learn from and collaborate with. Realising this was a game changer for us, both in improving our musicianship and mental health.

Coming to a conservatoire is a decision that we’re both so glad to have made. Our last piece of advice is to always remember why you’re here: to get better at what you do. This especially applies to your instrument - you’ll never have more time to practise than you do while you’re at music college, so make the most of it!

Find out more about the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) at rwcmd.ac.uk

Header image: Zoe Rahman masterclass in the Dora Stoutzker Hall.
Photograph by: Kirsten McTernan

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