Musicianship in higher education

young woman singing in a dark room with a spotlight creating dramatic lighting

Student Julie Evans performing at Hope University © Thomas O'Malley

Instrumental and performance teaching in higher education has traditionally been dominated by classical music and has been established in university departments and conservatoires since the nineteenth century. Although institutions such as Berklee College of Music in the US, New South Wales Conservatory in Australia and the State Academy of Music in Bulgaria have offered degrees in jazz and rock since the 1970s, popular music courses aimed at undergraduate students only really began to emerge in the 1990s.

Unlike classical music (which has had over a century of institutional assessment), the evaluation of popular music making within universities varies across differing institutions. This is perhaps because of the multitude of differing genres and styles that make up popular music, each with differing technical requirements and a variety of skills required. For example, because jazz has been around for nearly a century (and changes in the genre happen very slowly) a largely standardised set of evaluative criteria has emerged within higher education institutions. Jazz colleges and conservatoires tend to follow the conservatoire model (involving intensive instrumental tuition and master classes) with a overarching emphasis on producing virtuoso performers. Other courses (such as those concentrating on rock and pop) have a differing bias, often aiming to develop a student's originality and creativity through placing instrumental or vocal training within a wider set of skills such as songwriting and stagecraft.

The constantly changing nature of popular music means that the idea of evaluation can be problematic. The musicologist Philip Tagg argues that it is, "impossible to freeze popular music skills into set of repeatable study packages because changing social and musical practices require by definition changing criteria for how those practices can be assessed" (Tagg, 1998: 231). Despite these difficulties increasing numbers of music departments in the UK are now incorporating popular music performance into their programmes. Some have a performance focus (such as those at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts and the Brighton Institute of Modern Music) whilst others integrate instrumental study into a wider programme covering aspects such as music technology, music business and composition.

barefoot young man standing at a microphone and seated female guitarist performing on stage

Student performance by Maria Valencia and
Tom Grant at LIPA © Jodie Svagr

Indeed many of the things needed to progress in a career in music are not necessarily directly related to instrumental and performance skills. Networking skills, initiative, market analysis, financial management, people skills, time management, marketing and audience development are all key to surviving in a competitive field. Most aspiring musicians who are serious about a career in the music industry have had some instruction in these areas, and in recent years even the most traditional conservatoires have addressed the need to develop skills beyond musicianship.

Education in musicianship is however just one aspect of popular music studies in higher education. Some university degree courses provide instruction not just in the practical aspects of musicianship but also in areas that help to further understanding of musicianship in all its many aspects. Since its foundation in 1988, for example, the Institute of Popular Music (IPM) at the University of Liverpool has promoted a broad, holistic approach to the study of popular music. This involves understanding the social and historical contexts of music and musicianship as well as how music is made and listened to and the particular musical sounds and structures involved. This requires an approach that combines a range of academic disciplines, such as sociology and anthropology, musicology, music business and media studies.