Lost in Music

Does the SMT think itself omniscient? In Plan20-things-to-do-before-you’re-sacked, our mismanagement opines on the music provision at Kingston, although none of its members are music specialists. According to them, KU has been duplicating the work of the conservatoires. Really? The purpose of the conservatoires is to produce concert performers and future leading composers in classical music. True, some have an interest in jazz too, but with the best of wills, Kingston was never in this game. There has always been an emphasis on music tech at Coombehurst with a broader outlook than the classical colleges of music.

So last summer the Dean decided it was time to turn Kingston’s music school into a factory of pop. Needless to say, this is motivated by Music’s league table position and will be executed with cuts to staff. Music is low in the tables, but so are other departments in FASS (Psychology, Sociology and Criminology). Furthermore, there are 60 postgrads in Music bringing in substantial income. So why was Music, at very short notice, told to turn pop, on pain of closure, threatening the jobs of staff who have classical backgrounds? This blog understands that applications for the new popster courses are low, thanks in part to the usual lack of advertising by the hopeless senior management. Cheaper and easier just to shed the long-serving teaching staff, the agenda that underlies the ‘business-minded’ outlook of the SMT and governors.

But all this raises the question of what universities are for and the standards of academic activity. Is pop music really a legitimate subject for a university to offer? There are university courses that include the musicology of popular music, but that is something different. It has been suggested that Kingston needs classically trained staff with experience of pop. They are fairly rare animals:  not too many potential academics spend years studying classical only to hit the rock stage. Anyway, are classically-trained musicians incapable of teaching pop music, given its musical limitations, a few exceptions aside? Certainly it takes little time or expertise to teach three chords, the basis of many simpler pop songs (and four chords cover many more). The basics of rhythm and chord progessions is standard stuff, though perhaps our classical musician does not have the insight into what makes a hit record, nor probably the interest.

From the other point of view, how many successful pop musicians had a university-level education in music? Very few indeed. One famous exception who went to conservatoire is Rick Wakeman, though he never finished his course, preferring to work as a session musician and going on to become an icon of prog rock. A more recent singer, KT Tunstall, studied music at university, but few if any of the most innovative rock and pop stars of the past such as Lennon & McCartney, Brian Wilson, or even the avant-garde Don van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) received a higher education in music. Ed Sheeran, master of the bland, who went to a minor music college, is not much of an ad for a higher music education, at least not for music originality. Is Kingston to be another training ground for all the Sheerans and Taylor Swifts of the future? Not very appealing to serious musicians.

Sniffiness about pop music aside, there is certainly a case for music tech and production techniques, a highly skilled area which Kingston can and does offer a great deal. And skilled session musicians are always in demand to compensate for the inadequacy of the “stars”, but it is unreasonable to discard academics who happen to lack experience in, musically speaking, an unsophisticated genre. If Kingston really wants to go down the lightweight road that’s given us X-factor and that Canadian kid, one might speculate that we will soon be offering BAs in Popular Fiction with modules on the work of Dan Brown. Dumbing down in this way might just draw in a few more students, but will only hasten the decline of Kingston as a serious university.

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