The move to a new building on Birmingham City University’s City Centre Campus represents the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Birmingham Conservatoire to establish its role as one of the major players in higher music education. By complementing its current provision with new world-class facilities the Conservatoire will become a formidable competitor among its peers in the UK and internationally.
In the increasingly globalised landscape of higher music education Birmingham Conservatoire, unique among the nine British conservatoires, will be able to strengthen and enhance its already excellent educational offer with a vast range of additional resources from the adjacent University campus, and in particular from the other disciplines in its parent faculty: English, acting, media and the visual arts.
The new building will accommodate the same number of students as the present one – around 650 overall. However, it is expected that the number of applicants for the Conservatoire’s undergraduate and postgraduate courses will grow, especially from overseas. An increasingly selective intake, attracting the most talented students and the very best tutors, will contribute to the repositioning of the Conservatoire on the international market.
The Conservatoire is both a provider of higher music education and a public arts organisation, presenting more than three hundred events every year and fulfilling a central role in the cultural fabric of Birmingham. The two dimensions are completely intertwined, and cannot exist in isolation. In its new City Centre Campus location the Conservatoire will become the public face of the University, welcoming Birmingham’s audiences to its concert seasons and a variety of other public events, from community and outreach programmes to commercial hiring of its facilities.
The new location at the heart of the Eastside ‘learning quarter’ (BCU City Centre campus, Aston University, Birmingham Ormiston Academy, Birmingham Metropolitan College) will stimulate the development of a new and younger audience base. However, the move away from our current neighbours (Town Hall, Symphony Hall, CBSO Centre, The Hippodrome, The Rep) will require considerable effort to maintain established audiences. The design of the new building will take this into account. It will be striking and unique, making the new Conservatoire a destination of choice among the city’s various performance venues. It will emphasise the public dimension of the Conservatoire and its role as the interface between the city and the rest of the University’s campus.
The new building will be open and accessible to people of all ages and sections of the community. A number of local music organisations will regard it as their home. Among them the Aston Performing Arts Academy, which draws from one of the most socially and economically deprived areas of the county. The new building will also provide a friendly environment to families and children as the home of the Junior Conservatoire, a key provider of high-quality pre-tertiary music tuition to over 250 talented students drawn from all over the region and from a diverse range of backgrounds.
The way in which music is taught in conservatoires has seen great changes over the last fifty years. From a narrow curriculum focused on training for the orchestra it has evolved into a well-rounded education enriched with research, pedagogy, community work, entrepreneurship, music technology, non-Western music practices and performance health. The new building will reflect the changing nature of music education by providing staff and students with flexible, multi-purpose spaces that can be easily adapted to different needs. One-to-one and small group teaching will take place in teaching studios of different sizes, equipped with grand pianos and audio-video recording and streaming facilities. To provide the best possible student experience all teaching studios will adhere to stringent acoustic insulation and sound absorption standards. The larger rooms will have higher ceilings for better sound diffusion.
Instrumental and vocal practice, the staple of conservatoire education, will take place in dedicated rooms: fifty individual small practice rooms, twelve medium-sized practice rooms for one to three people, twelve ensemble rooms for chamber music and high sound pressure level instruments, and nineteen specialist practice rooms for piano, organ, percussion, harp and jazz. All rooms will be acoustically treated and optimised for the different sonic characteristics of the instruments.
Public music performance will be at the heart of the new Conservatoire. The new building will contain three main performance venues, all exhibiting the highest standards in acoustic design to compete with other existing facilities in Birmingham. A 500-seat concert hall to replace the Adrian Boult Hall, a 200-seat hall to replace the Recital Hall, and a 100/150-seat flexible venue for jazz and other music genres to replace the Arena Foyer. A small organ studio (to be used also for piano masterclasses, chamber choir and early music) and a small ‘black box’ space for experimental composition, electronic music projects and non-Western music practice (including our historical collection of Balinese gamelans) will complete the provision of performance spaces. A large, multi-level foyer area with café/bar facilities will provide access to all the performance venues and a spatially interesting meeting place for students and audiences alike.
Birmingham Conservatoire prides itself in being a caring and nurturing environment. It is an international artistic community where talented students are challenged to achieve their best but can also experiment freely to broaden their creative horizons in a safe environment. Continuous and meaningful interactions among peers and between students and staff are essential for creativity and innovation to thrive. In the new building social interactions will be encouraged by providing several open spaces full of natural light on all levels. These areas carved out of circulation space will allow students to meet and relax, providing a welcome change from hours of solitary practice.
Building on its strengths in music technology and research the new Conservatoire will feature a pervasive digital infrastructure to support innovative pedagogy models, including state-of-the-art digital audio and video recording, and specialised rooms for low-latency distance learning and live broadcasting and streaming of concerts, workshops and masterclasses. Direct digital connectivity from Conservatoire venues to the adjacent Media Centre in the Parkside building will ensure access to the University’s outstanding media facilities.
A modern and well-stocked music learning hub will provide students with all the resources needed for their studies: instrumental and orchestral scores and parts, catalogues, reference books, CDs, DVDs. The hub will include dedicated media booths, computers and a silent study area. It is expected that large lectures for full-year groups (100+ students) will be delivered in a lecture theatre on the University’s campus, while movement and acting classes for singers will be delivered in the School of Acting’s facilities in the Millennium Point building.
Learning from the experience of the University’s Parkside and Curzon buildings the new Conservatoire will be another example of environmental sustainability for the HE sector. The specialist nature of the building will make it more challenging to achieve ambitious environmental targets, opening the way to innovative solutions that can potentially be replicated elsewhere.