Leeds College of Music celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. Chris Bond takes a look at how this pioneering college has changed over the years.
The sound of a piano being played drifts through an open upstairs window and somehow manages to drown out the cacophony of lunchtime noise.
It’s the kind of warm, mellifluous sound that anyone who regularly walks past Leeds College of Music will be familiar with. Leeds, of course, has a rich musical history. From the brilliant classical concert series season at the town hall and the superstars who fill the First Direct Arena, to the tiny venues tucked down various back streets, it’s a city awash with music.
For the last 50 years Leeds College of Music has played an integral part in all this and on Sunday it celebrates its landmark birthday with a special big band concert.
The college is one of just nine conservatoires – places that specialise in the study, training and research of music – in the UK, and one of only two in the North of England. It prides itself on attracting some of the best musicians not only from Leeds and Yorkshire, but from around the world.
During the last half a century the college has produced award-winning musicians and songwriters as well as all-girl jazz bands and classical-rap cross-over artists and pretty much everything else in between. Today, it has more than 1,200 students and its plush campus houses seven recording studios, 60 practice rooms as well as 190 on-site study bedrooms.
It’s a far cry from its humble beginnings providing evening jazz classes in the Leeds Institute building. The Leeds Music Centre, as it was originally called, was established just as the 60s started to swing to a different kind of beat.
But despite being seemingly out of step with the prevailing musical mood of the time, the college flourished.
Gerry Godley, the college’s Principal and Managing Director, says it filled a gap in Yorkshire.
“It was born out of a need because in this part of the country there was no institutional structure to provide access to music education. So it was driven by an evangelical need to provide access to music tuition.”
It initially specialised in jazz music and to this day is still sometimes affectionately referred to as “the jazz college”, although it now also covers pop and classical music, as well as music business and music production.
Over the past five decades its students have performed in concerts, festivals and operas not only in Leeds, but across the UK and Europe, and they regularly work with the likes of Opera North and West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Godley says the college attracts some of the best local talent around as well taking budding musicians from as far away as Japan, Hong Kong and the United States, and this year will have tripled the number of students from outside the EU.
They charge students £9,000 a year but Godley points out that around half its students receive a bursary of one kind or another.
“We recruit irrespective of people’s background. If you have the talent you need to be here and we’ll find the support to get you here. This is an important legacy of the college, because that was a founding principle of the college back in 1965 and it’s still something that’s very important to us.”
So, too, is their work in the local community. “We have a Saturday music school that takes people from the age of 11 onwards, we work with people like Yorkshire Youth and Music and we have a community symphony which has people who are 80 in there, so we’re talking about all ages.”
The college has partnerships with the likes of Apple and Steinway which means students have access to some of the best equipment around. Not only that, but its reputation extends to the wider music world, and only last month musicians taking part in the Leeds International Piano Competition came to the college to practice.
As well as developing their music abilities, Godley says that part of the college’s raison d’etre is to foster a sense of collaboration among its students.
“The college plays a significant part in the wider musical life of the city, because the students make music inside the college, but equally if you go to the Brudenell Social Club, or dozens of other venues around town you’ll find Leeds College of Music students involved.”
The college has had to adapt to the changing face of the music business which has been revolutionised in the past decade and it makes a big play of equipping graduates with the ability to make a sustainable living from music, whether that’s as a performer or working as a producer or engineer behind the scenes.
Music technology, in particular, has changed radically over the past 50 years which creates challenges, but also new opportunities. “Music plays a critical role within gaming and we have students here studying music production who have already decided their interest is in gaming, or music for films,” says Godley.
“This multi-disciplinary side of things isn’t a luxury any more it’s a necessity, because we’re preparing people for a life in music, not just a career.”
The college enjoys a reputation for embracing change. It was home to the first youth orchestra in the UK in 1966 and set up the first short course in Indian music in Britain two years later. It also launched the first ever jazz degree in 1993 and a decade ago became the first UK conservatoire to run a pop degree.
Kari Bleivik came here as a jazz student and now works at the college as a lecturer. She says the college has developed close ties with the city’s music scene and has made a big contribution to it over the years. “The two are intertwined. A lot of musicians when they finish here stay in Leeds and likewise a lot of musicians that live locally teach here.”
As well as its full-time degree courses the college also runs summer schools and shorter courses aimed at both kids and adults. “We’re in the middle of a short course now and there’s a lady who’s flown all the way from Argentina to do the course. She did the first part of it last year and has come back for the second instalment, which shows just how far we’re reaching.”
The college is expanding the type of courses it runs in an effort to give students more strings to their bow (if you’ll pardon the pun). These include teaching them about the business side of music, things like PR and event management.
It can also point to past alumni like the singer John Newman, best known for the song Love Me Again and Michael Spearman, from the band Everything Everything, while other former students have gone on to work with superstars such as Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue.
Craig Golding is a principal lecturer at the college and an expert in music production. He says this side of the industry can offer a wealth of opportunities.
“One of our students was recently involved with the engineering and production work on Rihanna’s last album and was part of the Grammy award given to that. There are various others who have done the same kind of thing.”
As Golding points out, music is about much more than the product we see and hear on a stage. “There are lot of people working at the top end of the industry who won’t necessarily be the person you see on the stage but they’ll be working behind the scenes,” he says.
“Not all students are necessarily going to play in a philharmonic orchestra, but they will still go on and do a range of different things to a high level.”