Christopher Morley


Who would have thought that the proposal to create an organisation devoted to the well-being of music students could go through so many travails? Yet reading through John Smith’s meticulously-assembled history of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Association  it becomes abundantly clear that such altruistic aims had to jump through so many hoops before achieving reality.

It all began when staff and alumni of the then Birmingham School of Music thought it would be a good and noble idea to establish a kind of old boys’ club to assist the current students of their alma mater with support both financial and moral. But years of correspondence between the then Principal of the BSM, Louis Carus, and authorities at the then City of Birmingham Polytechnic faltered at stumbling-block upon stumbling-block (not much has changed in recent years, during the BSM’s renaming through Birmingham Conservatoire until at last today the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and the City of Birmingham Polytechnic now firmly established as Birmingham City University).

There were similar difficulties with the Charities’ Commission, but virtue transcended bureaucracy  and now the RBCA is currently celebrating the (slightly lockdown-delayed) 40th anniversary of its founding.

Among the many facets of the Association’s work over those 40 years has been the annual Freshers’ Welcome evening, hosted by the popular Jeremy Patterson, now Emeritus Chair of the RBCA,  the providing of an ever-open door to students in need of help and advice, and, spectacularly, the highly successful campaign spearheaded by the late Pamela Hobson, to find sponsors to name seats in the splendid Adrian Boult Hall, the jewel of an auditorium within the busy and welcoming Paradise Circus Conservatoire building, now sadly gone to that great demolition yard in the sky.

Tony Bridgewater, Chair of the RBCA, tells me more about the make-up of the organisation and its activities.

“RBCA currently has just over 400 active members, made up of Annual members, Life members and a small number of Honorary members. They come from all walks of life, and are not just Alumni. All are motivated by a love of music and the pleasure of supporting students at the Conservatoire who are in financial need. Most members are 40 years old and above, but there are a few younger members, including some undergraduates who are offered free membership for a year. 

“We have developed the work of the RBCA in a number of ways. In partnership with RBC we now offer ‘RBCA Awards’ to the most financially vulnerable students. RBCA pays £2,000, and this is match funded by RBC. The award is made in year 1 and continues through the 4 years of the undergraduate course, a total of £16,000 support per student. We aimed to have one Award winner in each year, but due to the current increase in financial pressures on students we have made two awards this year. In addition, an alumnus has donated the money to create a 3rd bursary, the Jane Anne Smith RBCA Award.

“We have also given £1,000 to an Audition Fee Waiver Scheme, which removes the barrier of audition fees for students from low income families wishing to apply to RBC.

“In addition, we consider requests for one -ff support for students, including £1,000 to a young composer from Brazil with sight impairment, and we are currently making a similar contribution to a young pianist from Kenya.”

During the pandemic lockdown, development staff in  the RBC administration worked heroically to host a monthly series of Zoom meetings, RBCA Together, so that members could keep in touch, sharing in a fascinating variety of online presentations from staff members, alumni and others. There were many tributes and grateful accolades.

“What an interesting and informative session. Truly inspirational”, was one. Another emailed “Thank you and your team for bringing some Christmas cheer into our home today.” And yet another, “The details of how RBCA Together are supporting students was a very welcome reminder of why we are so keen to see RBCA thrive.”

Past Principals of Birmingham Conservatoire pay tribute to the work of the Association. Professor Kevin Thompson, now based in the Far East, even draws on Robert Browning.

"Living overseas one is truly thankful of being able to remain in touch. Browning’s, ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’, becomes more pertinent with passing years.  RBCA Together online events enable musicians, alumni, friends and supporters to continue interactive engagement with Royal Birmingham Conservatoire; its high quality endeavours, work in progress and in performance.  That one is able to keep up-to-date, wherever in the world one lives will remain an enduring source of pleasure. Heart speaks to heart, cor ad cor loquitur - more idiomatically, what comes from the heart goes to the heart." In his ending Kevin subconsciously quotes from the inscription Beethoven scribbled on the title-page of his Missa Solemnis.


Professor David Saint praises the recently-instigated RBCA Awards scheme, created to assist deserving young musicians as they progress in their work.


"As a recent President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians and former RBC Principal I have seen the challenges facing new and aspiring professional musicians, and I am delighted to support the RBCA Award campaign to help and encourage them in their studies."


And world-famous cellist and conductor Julian Lloyd Webber, Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire when it was awarded the “Royal” accolade (and which delayed publication of my own history of the institution while all titlings were amended by the brilliant publishers) declares,


“I have always believed that every young person in the UK should have access to high quality music education. The RBCA helps to give a wide range of students the support and confidence they need to succeed at our outstanding Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.”


*The RBCA 40th celebration concert and AGM will be held at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire on Sunday October 30 (2pm). Interim Principal Shirley Thompson will be present, along with Past Principals Kevin Thompson, David Saint and Julian Lloyd Webber OBE. There will be performances from current RBC students.



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