Friday, 12 February 2010

The Sad Demise of a Wonderful Music Degree Course

It is with great sadness that I bring you this post. Below is an open letter to the Principal of Strathclyde University, Glasgow, where I completed the BA Applied Music degree in 2008.
If you would like to show your support for former, current and future BAAM students and staff, please sign the online petition here and visit this page for information on who you can write to.

12 February 2010

Dear Professor McDonald,

I wish to express my concern and disappointment at the proposal to terminate the BA Applied Music course (known as the ‘BAAM’) at Strathclyde University and suspend entry from 2011.

I graduated from the BAAM in 2008 with a first class honours, specialising in performance. I went on to do the MMus Ethnomusicology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. I currently work as a freelance musician, music tutor and workshop leader and am employed by Tower Hamlets Arts and Music Education Service as a Wider Opportunities music tutor. I have also taught and given workshops for the Jewish Music Institute's Klezfest summer school, the SOAS Widening Participation Project, and Edinburgh Fiddle Festival, amongst others. I am currently studying on an Arts and Music Workshop Leader programme which includes the City & Guilds qualification Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector (Level 4).

Whilst studying for my MMus, I specialised in klezmer (the wedding celebration music of east European Jews) in both a research and performance capacity, studying performance with the UK's top klezmer musicians Ilana Cravitz and Merlin Shepherd, and developing a unique, historically informed, technique for cello playing in a bass role within a klezmer ensemble. My intention is to develop this further with study on a performance-based PhD programme in the Music department at SOAS.

As a cellist, I have a successful performance and recording career in the areas of klezmer, folk, rock/pop, theatre, experimental improvisation, and electronica. Highlights include live and session work with electronica artist Double Thumb, sessions with former BAAM and folk singer John Malcolm, session work with Project Earth Rock, Scottish Widows’ Staff Cultural Programme, and performances as an on-stage musician with Glasgow's Theatre Fusion. My current projects include an album of original and traditional klezmer music, an interactive performance piece in collaboration with other top UK klezmer musicians Ilana Cravitz (violin/dance), Carol Isaacs (accordion) and Laoise Davidson (vocals/mandolin/dance) and VJ Miki Shaw for Southwark Council's Silver festival in April, and a series of workshops on experimental klezmer and improvisation for adult musicians beginning next week.

The BAAM was the making of me as a musician. I went into the course having had a wonderful two years of development and discovery in a nurturing environment at Chetham's School of Music, Manchester, followed by an uninspiring year at a conservatoire. I was questioning what I wanted from the music industry and found answers I would never have dreamed of in the BAAM: free improvisation, community arts, folk music, the value of music in education, academic study of less accessible music by the likes of Berio, Mahler, Berg and Schoenberg and ways to unpack and understand it... and now I am making a career in several of these areas. The BAAM gave the space to develop and discover who I was as a musician whilst providing the structure and support to keep me on-track.

The BAAM is a hugely respected institution in Scotland, the UK and further afield. It is heavily over-subscribed, receiving 400+ applications every year for some 30 places. When I mentioned to other musicians, at all levels in the music industry, from school pupils to seasoned professionals with years of experience, that I was studying on this course, I frequently heard a response along the lines of ‘that a really great course, I’m hoping to do it’. High-profile BAAM alumni include: Scottish folk musicians Julie Fowlis, Anna Massie, Rachel Hair and Bethany Reid, composer and lecturer Colin Broom and singer songwriter Jamie Sellers to name a few.

The course has this formidable reputation because of its unique position in Further and Higher music education provision in Scotland. It attracts students from a diverse range of musical backgrounds, from experimental electronica to classical, folk to jazz, and brings them all together in an environment that encourages creative collaboration, sharing of knowledge and skills, and experimentation in a supportive atmosphere. Coupled with top-rate teaching and a course structure which allows for breadth and depth of study, permitting students to explore and develop their musical interests whilst equipping them with a broad range of skills and adaptability essential to those wishing to make a living in today’s fickle and financially insecure music industry.

For the finest artists (amongst which there are and will be several BAAM graduates), the music industry can yield huge financial rewards and I am pleased to inform you that, of the current and former BAAMs I have discussed this issue with, there is a definite feeling that we will not be donating any of our income to Strathclyde University’s Alumni Fund or any other financial appeal from the University if the BAAM is closed. Please take a moment to think about the implications of this:

The University will miss out on a steady drip of small donations from those of us who earn average incomes during our lifetimes and feel like ‘putting something back’ into the institution that launched our careers. We’ll be taking our spare cash somewhere else. Not really a big loss, BUT...

It only takes one former BAAM having a huge hit single single to make a few million which they may wish to share with the University in recognition of its help in forming their musical careers. However, this will not happen if this former BAAM feels aggrieved at the closure of the course that set them on the start of their musical career.

Never mind current BAAM graduates, what about the future BAAM graduates? It could be one of them who makes the millions which get generously shared with the University. Do you really want to stop investing in a course that could bag you so much cash?

By cutting this course, you insult future generations of musicians and those who benefit from musicians. That's schools, FE colleges, universities, social inclusion programmes, community organisations, individuals who engage in the arts through live performances and recorded media, hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, charities, social services, religious organisations, theatres, private companies... I can think of more, but I have better things to do than list everyone. You get the idea: every sector of society benefits from musicians in some way and your proposed actions will have a deeply negative impact on future musicians.

Your policy of course closure is short-sighted. You are throwing away assets valuable to the University and the Scottish and wider UK economies as a whole. I urge you to examine your conscience carefully before committing to any decision that you will regret in the future.

I have read Sandra White MSP’s letter to you regarding the proposed cuts at Strathclyde University and your reply, which have been circulated in the public domain. I am appalled by the arrogant attitude betrayed by your suggestion that she advise her constituent that ‘the appropriate channel for raising concerns about internal university matters is through the Students Association’, not, I infer, through more high-profile channels such as his/her MSP. The entire tone of your reply suggests that you believe this matter to be of no concern to Ms White and that she should not involve herself in this legitimate concern raised by her constituent. I find this attitude a disgusting insult and I request that you treat future enquires, including this one, regarding cuts at the University with the respect they deserve.

I look forward to hearing from you in the very near future.

Yours Sincerely,

Sally Russell, BA Hons, MMus