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A student working on laptop with headphones on, in the RCM cafe

FeatureSummer 2021

Going digital: a new era of learning and performance

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When the global pandemic hit in 2020, the Royal College of Music – and educational institutions around the world – underwent an immediate and all-encompassing shift to digital learning.

‘Little were any of us to know how we would suddenly need to be completely reliant on digital in order to learn, teach and communicate,’ explains RCM Artistic Director Stephen Johns. ‘The challenge was to move online with existing systems, and in many cases completely rethink how we worked.’

In the summer of 2020, the RCM published its updated Digital Strategy. The report presented four overarching themes: developing a digital culture in the organisation; improving technology governance and compliance; improving digital capability and skills; and securing ongoing investment in technology.

With College systems designed for on-site, live teaching and performance, the challenge of updating the existing infrastructure was significant. The generous support the College has received for this area from its Deputy Chairman, Jane Barker CBE FRCM, has been pivotal in meeting this challenge.

‘We have seen exceptional work by the digital teams to support students and staff, and with thanks to the More Music Technology Fund, supported by Jane Barker, we have been able to increase both the capacity and security of our systems. That work is ongoing, with upgrades to Asimut (the College's in-house diary platform), Wi-Fi and College computer access all in the pipeline,’ says Stephen.

The statistics bear out just how important digital access has been for students over the last year. The College’s online learning portal, learn.rcm.ac.uk, has seen a 95% increase in views year-on-year, with users’ time on the site increasing by 45%. The balance of access has also changed, with a 10% reduction in use within the UK, and access from China alone increasing by 482%.

Recognising this shift, in September 2020 the College installed new Panopto recording systems – a specialist academic video platform – which have captured over 7,000 hours of material, including classes, concerts, student recordings and more.

One team that updated its online provision for students with great success is the Chamber Music team, headed by Chris Bell. Beginning in January, RCM students were encouraged to attend supplementary classes, which informed them to think beyond live performance and to consider job roles in all areas of the musical profession.

Named ‘Workshop Wednesdays’, this new online initiative created by the Chamber Music team connected students with a varied network of professional musicians and educators to instil chamber music expertise virtually. Each session invited an artist or arts manager to speak about a different professional skillset required to be a chamber musician, ranging from marketing and self-promotion (Hermes Experiment) to workshop skills (Jonathan James) and creating alternative classical experiences (Manchester Collective).

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Alongside these workshops, student-moderated ‘In Conversation With’ sessions saw appearances from ensembles including the Leonore Trio, Onyx Brass and Fidelio Trio. Additionally, ‘Chamber Unwrapped’ discussions focussed on key repertoire and ideas in the field of chamber music.

Ashby Mayes, a fourth year BMus student who attended the new online sessions, commented, ‘I really enjoyed the online chamber classes throughout the spring term. I've particularly enjoyed hearing how other chamber groups rehearse and how they have continued to stay driven during the lockdown periods.’ 

Now that students are back on campus, online content remains crucial to learning. The Chamber Music team continued a blended learning approach in the 2021 summer term, with internal concerts and ensemble play-throughs reintroduced, and online sessions evaluated to ensure maximum value to current and future students.

‘It has been both interesting and exciting to see how blended learning – a combination of online plus in-person – has changed so much how we learn and teach. In the first three months of the autumn term, when many were back on campus, access to learn.rcm averaged close to 500,000 views per month,’ explains Stephen.

The learn.rcm site is not the only RCM platform that has seen increased viewership. The College has been able to share performances with a world-wide audience through the RCM YouTube channel, with the concerts and classes published as part of the Digital Performance Programme. Since March 2020, the channel has gained over 10,000 subscribers – now standing at a total of 30,000 subscribers – and has received over 1.1 million views.

Made-for-video productions have been particularly successful, with Opera Scenes and the InFocus Series receiving particular acclaim; and a recent masterclass with Sir András Schiff has received almost 50,000 views in just over a month.

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For Stephen, the digital future at the RCM looks secure. ‘The speed with which we have all adapted has been breath-taking. We have all learnt so much about how technology can enhance our teaching and learning, stimulate curiosity and discovery, and share all that is best about the RCM and our art form with each other, our supporters, and the world at large.’

Online learning and performances have kept the RCM community together – and will be shaping how we learn and teach for years to come.

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Contributors

Zoe Spencer, Marketing Officer

Stephen Johns

Stephen Johns is Artistic Director of the Royal College of Music.