Lessons on life beyond the spotlight;FE Focus

17th April 1998 at 01:00
Martin Whittaker reports on Birmingham's new generation of music students.

Four unknown rock bands from Birmingham are busy planning a two-week tour of Amsterdam. The bands' members have done all the arranging - sorted out sponsorship, chosen the venues, fixed up accommodation.

At least they don't have to arrange time off college - this is college. They are all students taking a two-year BTEC diploma in popular music - and the Dutch tour is one of their assessed projects. The course, run by South Birmingham College, is now in its second year. The college has had floods of applications and holds auditions for each year's intake.

Rob Thomas, head of media and performing arts at the college's sixth form centre, said: "On this course there's a practical emphasis. They have to play together as bands, they have to improve their instrumental skills, but there's a business component to it as well - they learn about the music business.

"It was obvious that A-level and GCSE music weren't going anywhere, they just weren't attracting sufficient students to run."

Course leader Julie Parker is the embodiment of this apparent disaffection with traditional music teaching. She is classically trained with a degree in music from Birmingham University, and she used to teach music in a secondary school.

"I was bored out of my face," she said. "It was just down to the syllabus - there's no reason whatsoever why music should be boring."

Julie believes in a practical approach. For one part of the course, the students have to find their band a paying gig. One of the bands - Irresistible - went down so well at a local pub that they've been asked back.

Julie has seen students' confidence grow as they progress through the course. "The idea is that they learn by experiencing it, not by me giving lectures but by getting gigs, by promoting themselves.

"Most of these kids haven't done well academically. A few have severe literacy problems and some have no qualifications at all."

The 21 students occupy a wing at Harborne Hill school where large former classrooms have become well-equipped rehearsal and studio space. Over the two years they get a taste of the music business, from tuning a guitar through to learning state-of-the-art recording techniques.

The final qualification is equivalent to two A-levels and students build up a portfolio of their work, including tapes, videos, and promotional material, to take with them.

Bobby Saundh, 21, from Nuneaton, had spent three years studying to become an accountant when he switched to this course. Now he is in his second year, and is going on to university to study music technology.

"I really want to be a performer, but I also want to learn the technology side as well," he said. "You need something to fall back on if your performing doesn't take off.

"Since I started I have learned to read music and play the keyboard a little. I have composed a song. It gives you confidence - now getting up on stage doesn't bother me that much."

There has been some adverse reaction, said Rob Thomas. "I do get some stick from older members of staff - pop music? How can you get qualifications in that? But we're preparing students for what it's like out there in the real world. This is no soft option."

The BTEC syllabus upon which the course is based reinforces this. The programme, it says, "aims to enhance chances of employment in an industry which is very competitive and often only provides irregular, short term employment."

There has been a big growth in courses relating to the music industry over the past 20 years, and there are now an estimated 150 related courses nationally, ranging from a BA in music industry management at the University of Salford, to a course in Sussex entitled Singing for the Terrified.

David Hughes, spokesman for record giant EMI, believes the increase in these courses is in response to the Government's recognition that music business means big business. He said Britain's rock bands come second only to Scotch whisky in terms of our biggest invisible exports.

"The value of the industry has been absolutely recognised and that led to chancellors of the exchequer and others starting to take it seriously," he said. "I think that must have helped in terms of the funding colleges needed to introduce courses with that sort of speciality.

"If there is a downside, it is a potential danger in raising the expectations of students that it'll be easier to be a success. This has always been a fascinating industry and it's getting harder and harder to get the first foot in the door."

He says the chart is still the measure of success for the industry. "It's a facile comment, but it's still absolutely true - there's still only 40 records in the top 40. How many people are trying to get in there?" There is also concern from the British Phonographic Institute, the record companies' trade association, over the standard of courses.

BPI spokesman Charles Stewart-Smith said: "I think there are two concerns, one of which is should we not have some sort of quality control mark on them?

"And I think a further concern is that there are too many of these courses given the size of the music business. But the BPI and the music industry does welcome well-trained people who understand what the music industry's about."

With this in mind, the organisation has produced a guide to courses, called MED 98. In an introduction to the online edition, Alan McGee - head of Creation Records and discoverer of Oasis - says: "Our industry makes a massive contribution to this country's GNP, turning over more money than the steel industry, but the vast majority of people in it have had no formal training.

"If more of the highly talented and motivated people at all levels of the music industry had a chance to develop their existing skills and even learn new ones, it could only be a good thing."

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