The RCM Junior Department: nurturing the stars of tomorrow
Every Saturday, the Royal College of Music buzzes with activity, filled with the sounds of young people making music in every corner of the building.
Aged between 4 and 18, these talented young musicians travel from all over the UK to study at the Royal College of Music Junior Department (RCMJD). Each week, they participate in a tailor-made programme of individual instrumental, vocal or composition lessons; chamber music, orchestral and choral training; and classes that explore wider musicianship.
Since its inception in 1926, the RCMJD has evolved to meet the musical needs of young people and has adapted to the changing educational and musical landscape. The RCMJD provides a programme designed to prepare young people for musical life in the 21st century.
‘The RCMJD aims to inspire students to be happy, successful, healthy and entrepreneurial, and help them meet the ever-evolving demands of the musical profession,’ says Miranda Francis, Head of Junior Programmes at the RCM.
Students are selected for the programme by audition and have the chance to work with teachers who are all professional performers or composers. There are six orchestras, three choirs, jazz bands and over 100 chamber groups working together every week.
Invaluable performance experience
Students are offered the opportunity to perform regularly, and it is these performance opportunities that make the RCMJD experience special for many students. The RCMJD – or JD as it is affectionately known – presents over 100 internal and external performances a year at venues across London.
‘Every concert feels like such a big, collective achievement – each performance is so special and incredibly rewarding. My favourites are always the massive end-of-term orchestral concerts. It’s always an amazing experience to share music with an audience after all the hard work everyone’s put in,’ shares current student, 17-year-old Imaan Kashim.
Of course, the Junior Department had to adapt and move online when in-person events and learning were no longer possible during the pandemic. In March 2020, the RCMJD was up and running within five days of lockdown with an impressive array of online lessons for students.
More than 1,200 digital lessons were delivered every single Saturday, and regular ‘live’ chamber music rehearsals took place as soon as permitted. Students engaged positively throughout the pandemic, which for Miranda Francis was ‘a testament to the dedication of our students and teachers.’
But after navigating the difficulties of running a blended learning programme, there was light at the end of the tunnel in the summer. Senior students were able to come together for an end-of-term socially distanced concert in the Royal Albert Hall in July 2021 to celebrate all they had achieved during an exceedingly difficult year.
‘The Royal Albert Hall provided a splendid conclusion to an extraordinary year,’ says Miranda. This term, the RCMJD programme has now returned to full capacity on campus and the students are making more music than ever before.
Pathways of progression from Junior to Senior College
Many former Junior Department students have been inspired to continue their musical studies to a higher level. ‘We have many students who have joined us at a young age and have gone on to study at undergraduate level at the Royal College of Music,’ explains Miranda.
[quote quote="Approximately 75% of RCMJD students go on to read music at conservatoire or Russell Group Universities." author=""]
About 75% of RCMJD students go on to read music at conservatoire or Russell Group Universities. The majority of those going on to conservatoire choosing to continue their musical studies at the RCM, thanks to close relationships between the JD and senior RCM staff.
For current third-year undergraduate and Victor Dahdaleh Foundation Scholar Rianna Henriques, attending the RCMJD provided a valuable foundation for her conservatoire studies. ‘Students who did not attend a secondary school specialising in music may experience a shock to the system when beginning life at a conservatoire,’ she says. ‘Attending the RCM’s Junior Department for four years helped me to confirm my decision that the RCM was the place for me.’
And for some, the journey starts at an even younger age. 12-year-old Mehdi Uwehemu was inspired to audition for the RCMJD after attending the RCM as part of the Sparks Juniors programme from the age of eight. ‘I enjoyed the music very much and wanted to learn how to play an instrument like the musicians,’ he remembers. Now, studying bassoon at the Junior Department, Mehdi has ambitions to continue his studies. ‘I would love to become a musician when I grow up.’
A route into the profession
Indeed, many RCMJD students pursue careers as professional musicians and have achieved great success internationally.
Alumni of the programme include Martin James Bartlett, current Benjamin Britten Piano Fellow and winner of the 2014 BBC Young Musician Competition; Grammy Award–winning recording artist Jacob Collier; Emily Beynon, Principal Flute of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Clemency Burton-Hill, violinist, broadcaster, journalist and BBC presenter; and composer Mark-Anthony Turnage.
Recently, composer Daniel Kidane’s orchestral work Woke was premiered at the Last Night of the Proms in 2019, and alumnus Matt Glendening was appointed principal clarinettist with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House at only 27 years old.
For Matt, studying at the RCMJD was a crucial factor in his decision to become a professional musician. ‘The performance opportunities were particularly memorable,’ he says. ‘My clarinet teacher, Anthony Bailey, was incredibly encouraging and got me excited about the prospect of pursuing a musical career, supporting me along the way and helping me to achieve more than I thought I could at that stage.’
And the successes keep coming for current students, who look to follow in their peers’ footsteps. Current leader of the National Youth Orchestra (NYO), Gabriella Bavetta, is a Junior Department student, and the RCMJD fields the largest cohort of any junior conservatoire in both the National Youth Orchestra and the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain.
Meanwhile, clarinettist Amalia Beeko is a London Philharmonic Orchestra Junior Artist for the 2021/22 season. ‘Music will definitely be part of my future,’ she says.
Promoting access and excellence
The RCMJD musical community is more diverse and vibrant than ever before, attracting students from a wide variety of backgrounds from all over the country.
‘Our work wouldn’t be possible without the incredible partnerships we’ve forged with other musical organisations who share our educational values and aims,’ says Miranda. The RCMJD works closely with the Nucleo Project, London Music Masters, Future Talent, the London Music Fund and the Tri-borough Music Hub to recruit and nurture talented students currently underrepresented in the music profession.
Each year, approximately 45% of JD students apply (and are eligible) for bursary support, and the demand rises every year. In the 2020/21 academic year, over £200,000 of bursary support was accessed by families most in need.
A challenging climate
Given this increasingly challenging landscape, the Junior Department has a more important role than ever in nurturing – and inspiring – the next generation of musicians.
‘The pandemic has had a catastrophic effect on music making in schools – and on ensemble music-making in particular – across the country,’ explains Miranda. ‘Students are currently under a lot of pressure to make up for "lost time" in their academic studies at the expense of musical activity.’
[quote quote="I have found a place where I belong. The music that I make week on week really feeds my soul." author="Amalia Beeko, clarinettist"]
‘The RCMJD supports students in their musical learning as they navigate the new "normal" and seek to become well-rounded musical artists and global citizens of the future. Anyone with a true passion for music-making and musical potential will flourish here at the RCMJD.’
And, for many of its students, the RCMJD means so much more. Clarinettist Amalia Beeko sums up the essence of its mission: ‘I have found a place where I belong. The music that I make week on week really feeds my soul.’