Mind the gap – what two UK conservatoires are doing to support their students

Assistant Artist Manager Callan Coughlan speaks to two London conservatoires to find out about the work they’re doing to support students bridge the gap between scholar and pro

It’s clear that the young classical musician’s career has massively changed and developed in recent years. A now hyper-competitive talent pool is battling it out for their share of what remains a relatively small fraction of the overall music market. The graduates of today are expected to be digitally savvy, experts in self-promotion, have flashy state-of-the-art websites and social media platforms, and differentiate themselves enough to attract the attention of the major artist management agency or record label. Maintaining positive mental health and wellbeing with all these added pressures can be a real challenge for young musicians. The mainstays of a successful musical career – talent, dedication and a hard work ethic – remain at the forefront, but it’s the young musicians who can navigate all of these extra elements, that will make it to the top.

Here’s where the conservatoires come into the equation. We spoke with two of the real mover-and shakers in this field – Jess Walker, Lecturer in Artist Development at the Royal Academy of Music and Diana Roberts, head of the Creative Careers Centre at the Royal College of Music – about the fascinating work they’re doing in helping students bridge the gap between scholar and professional musician.

Could you give me an overview of your role and the department you work within?

Diana Roberts

Jess Walker: I’m a lecturer in Artist Development at RAM. This is an evolving role, because I’ve only been working there for a year. The Artist Development strand at RAM is now an integral part of the degree course, preparing students practically, creatively and strategically for the ever-changing road ahead. We also offer one-to-one career guidance sessions with a member of the Artist Development team, and we liaise with the counselling team over the programming of the Health and Wellbeing provision. In a broader context, Artist Development also forges relationships with outside arts organisations, finding work opportunities and placements for students.

Diana Roberts: My role is hugely varied, and no two days are the same. I manage the ever-evolving Creative Careers Centre, which is recognised internationally for our innovative approach to supporting young musicians, as they bridge the gap between student and professional life. The department’s services include one-to-one guidance and bespoke career advice, workshops and presentations by industry specialists, valuable online resources, business development support, and a broad range of professional opportunities – involving paid performances, teaching work, and administration placement.

How has the career of musicians changed in recent years?

DR: I would say that the range of opportunities has grown substantively over the last five to ten years, and musicians have therein been enabled to take the lead on their own initiatives, also. The greatest shift is of course due to technological advances. Musicians are able to promote themselves wider than ever before, due to the ease of website-building, and the audience development advantages of social media and YouTube channels, for example.

Jess Walker

JW: Immeasurably, and there are both good and bad changes to consider. The lack of security for a working musician is at a particularly low point. In the UK, many choruses have shrunk or gone part time, and orchestras are nearly all hiring musicians on a self-employed basis. This makes what was once a good safe job, an increasingly rare prospect. Another problem is the increased commodification of artists, which creates a whole middle tier of artist finding it hard to survive. You’re either starting out, commanding a lower fee, and with the advantage of being new, or you’re a bankable artist guaranteeing good audience numbers. If you do not fit into either of those categories, you might well find yourself struggling to get the gigs you used to. This brings me to the good side of how things have changed. It has never been easier to promote your skills. With the internet, stylish website providers, and the mixed blessing of social media, if you want to show the world the new project you’re working on, you can, and at a negligible cost. Young artists are increasingly producing, curating and peer-promoting, as well as playing, conducting or composing.

You’ve both already touched on this but how important is it specifically for students to be digitally-savvy? Is self-promotion key today?

DR: It’s imperative. Some students actively try to avoid it, but my response to them is largely to make them aware of the possible stifling of new possibilities therein. Committing to social media activity is a choice – it takes time to find your way, and your own voice. It is, however, an increasingly essential part of presence and profile in the modern industry, especially when starting out.

JW: Yes, it is vital, though there are of course downsides to self-promotion. Some sensitive musicians feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘showing off’ about themselves, and in an ideal world, they would prefer to have someone do it on their behalf. Sadly, I think it’s quite hard to survive as a musician today without engaging with this aspect of modernity. A few years ago, I might have thought it wasn’t necessary, but then in a conversation with a world-renowned director, I discovered that he had cast his previous opera almost entirely from YouTube clips. Ever since then, I’ve advised musicians to keep their web content up to date, and to make sure it includes video.

Considering these trends and changes in the careers of professional musicians, how are your institutions reacting and adapting the curriculum to prepare students for working life?

JW: I think RAM is at the forefront of offering a curriculum that prepares students for life as a professional artist. Of course, I would say that, but I do actually think what we’re doing is special, because rather than focusing on the idea of the musician as entrepreneur, which is quite an outside-in approach, we are looking at developing core artist skills and self-knowledge, in order to empower students to go into the world as fully rounded, creative musicians, who can work expertly across genres. Lectures offered include preparing professional documents, auditioning, how to practice effectively, online presence, being self-employed, and tax issues. We also programme sessions about artistic identity, creative programming, and getting your own projects off the ground, thereby encouraging students to engage with their own creative skills from the outset.

DR: The RCM offers a broad range of modules and extracurricular activities to prepare musicians for the world of work. Alongside the career development services offered by the Creative Careers Centre, we have a successful learning and participation programme – Sparks – that offers training and professional opportunities for education work and projects in the community. Within our degree programmes, and alongside principal study one-to-one teaching and musicianship development, we offer courses in business and entrepreneurship, teaching early years and beyond, studio experience, music administration, performance in the digital age, creative project management, and professional portfolio skills.

Royal Academy of Music

How do you think recent graduates can differentiate themselves in the hyper-competitive market of today?

DR: It is vital that musicians begin by identifying their unique selling points, strengths, and desires. Having done so, they should then design an effective career strategy, a subsequent range of targeted promotional materials and, ultimately, a professional persona. Professional development should always be considered, and musicians should seek to up-skill wherever necessary, in order to stay relevant in a competitive industry.

JW: It depends what area of music they are set on. For a musician who is only interested in orchestral life, difference isn’t necessarily that useful. They should look to be the most appropriate player for the particular opportunity, and to have acquired the social skills to integrate well into a group.

For solo artists, conductors, ensembles and composers, it is important that difference comes from a place of integrity, and not from a desperation to be noticed. Learning to articulate artistic identity in a concise way is the thing that has become increasingly important. In a world of sound-bites and low concentration span, the artist who can encapsulate their unique skills is more likely to get noticed.

“Unfortunately, being judged and constructively criticised are inextricably linked with life as a professional musician, and if we don’t look at why young people’s mental health is being adversely affected by the culture in which they exist, we won’t be able to produce healthy, self-reflective musicians.”

Jess Walker


Whilst preparing students for life after university, how are conservatoires simultaneously addressing student wellbeing and promoting good mental health?

JW: This is a priority. In their online world, students are bombarded with a strange mix of increasingly polarised views and calling each other out for perceived slights and micro-aggressions. I have noticed that many of our students fight shy of debate and discussion, because they are scared of saying ‘the wrong thing’. I’ve also noticed that they can find it hard to receive feedback, because they perceive it as personal criticism, with intent to wound. Unfortunately, being judged and constructively criticised are inextricably linked with life as a professional musician, and if we don’t look at why young people’s mental health is being adversely affected by the culture in which they exist, we won’t be able to produce healthy, self-reflective musicians. Artist Development works alongside the counselling team and the Senior Tutor for Pastoral Support, who programme Health and Wellbeing provision at RAM. These sessions are very varied, including basic topics such as how to sleep well, and how to receive feedback. They also include injury prevention, looking after mental health, social competence and keeping fit. The sessions are compulsory for undergraduates, and very much encouraged for postgraduates.

DR: At the RCM we actively promote wellbeing and good mental health. Having a range of different engagement options is key. Physical and mental health is high on our agenda – at our Halls of Residents we have a gym, an annual Health and Wellbeing Week, we have an online service, Big White Wall, where students can seek help and support in a way that suits them, our Student Services team is always on-hand to help in any way that they can with health and financial matters among other things and we have two councillors that students can book time with at no cost to them.

Finally, looking at it from the artist management perspective, does your institution help start the conversations between the potential future artist, i.e. your student, and the prospective agency?

DR: The RCM frequently invites agents and managers to major performances. Beyond that, we maintain mutually positive relationships with as many industry contacts as possible, in order to open as many doors as we can. We partner with a number of the major orchestras to offer side-byside schemes, we are a partner organisation for the tri-borough music hub, and, over the years, the Creative Careers Centre has built relationships with over 40 venues across the UK, including concert halls, churches, museums, galleries, hospitals, and care homes, and we offer mentoring with leading industry professionals.

JW: It does, as and when it becomes necessary. If students come to me for advice regarding representation, I help them work out which agency might suit them, and the best way to introduce themselves. We also invite agents in to talk to students, so that they get a first-hand understanding of how best to approach a manager for representation. Sometimes students come to me with contracts they are about to sign with a new agent. We look through the contract and I suggest anything I think needs querying. I always stress to students that it’s important to get signed at the right time, rather than making it an early priority. In today’s profession young artists have to hit the ground running, rather than accepting opportunities they can’t then use to the best advantage.

To find out more about the career guidance department at the Royal College of Music, check here. For more information about the Artist Development initiatives at the Royal Academy of Music, check here.

This article was originally published in the Autumn Edition of The Green Room.

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