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Joel Wilson, President of the RCM Students' Union

FeatureSpring 2021

Student voices

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In a new regular series, ‘student voices’, we hear from a member of the student body about this term’s activity and how the student community has been feeling. This time, Joel Wilson, President of the RCM Students’ Union, discusses another term in lockdown, the impact of the pandemic and the joy of being able to return to campus.

12 months on from the first national lockdown, I still marvel at the speed with which the RCM rose to the challenge of maintaining operations online. This is a difficult task for any university, so for an institution so strongly connected to their history and tradition of live performances and music making, the undertaking was an even more daunting prospect. To be where we are today is a testament to the resilience and dedication of the RCM community. We must acknowledge that online tuition has been a solution that has at times tested the resolve of both our staff and students. But I can say with utmost pride that it is a test we have tackled with creativity and patience. Now we have been able to return to our Kensington home, there is an opportunity to reflect on our experiences throughout this period.

Student perspectives

When I began to consider writing about how students have been feeling, it perhaps didn’t dawn on me quite how tough an undertaking it would be. With students spread across the world, with everyone facing their own individual challenges, it became clear that there would not be one overarching perspective.

So, perhaps to contemplate different cohorts’ experience of studying within a pandemic would make more sense. My immediate thoughts turned to our youngest students, those having just joined us with the task of not only beginning a degree, but also embarking on an entirely new chapter of their lives in very strange circumstances. Although our first years have encountered unique challenges no other students have had to before, there is now the excitement that comes with knowing the end is in sight, and surely their experiences can only get better as things return to normal. As they say, the only way is up!

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What of our students moving on this coming summer? It certainly comes with some trepidation; stepping out into an industry that, to put the most positive spin on it, has taken a sabbatical year! With a wary view of the musical landscape ahead of them, the milestone of graduating takes on an even more significant weight. A tangible achievement to work and strive towards.

Then there are the students ‘in the middle’. Without either the struggles of starting a degree, or leaving the protected world that a university provides, they are the students repeatedly reminded to keep on, carry on. And students have done an amazing job of persevering throughout the last year, working together and supporting one another. The RCM community has, and will always be, a place of collective inspiration and collaboration.

A culture of motivation

Whatever the circumstance, a big difficulty for all students during this term has been motivation. It is to be expected that we will all experience ebbs and flows of motivational energy, especially through the last few months. So one of the biggest tasks for both RCM staff and the Students’ Union has been to help support students through the difficult periods, and aid in cultivating an environment where students can thrive, be it from our beautiful Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall or their living room.

After a really interesting conversation with one BMus brass student, I was left with optimism on this front. Having pushed through the autumn term with some difficulty, they found that confiding in their first study professor had had hugely beneficial results in their playing, practice and overall experience of study. ‘At first I was nervous to discuss with my teacher, I didn’t want them to think I was making excuses… But we had such an open conversation and I think it made us both feel a lot more comfortable! Ever since, our lessons have been so much more fruitful, we are communicating on a much easier level and I’m really enjoying where my playing is going!’

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Professors have been tasked with providing one to one tuition through various online methods. Despite the distance, this has often necessitated more frequent communication with students. In truth, our professors are facing very similar challenges to those they tutor, which can facilitate a more honest and empathetic relationship. This has been essential to the ongoing success and wellbeing of our students throughout the periods away from the building.

Convo Club

The priority of the Students’ Union has always been the wellbeing and welfare of our students. The importance on having the right kinds of support has been highlighted more than ever in recent months, and we must continually work towards providing a balanced environment that is both constructive and nurturing. To do this, students have to feel safe and supported by the institution, and have a healthy, vibrant community around them.

With in-person interaction at a premium, the SU has spent the year looking at ways to facilitate the connections and positivity usually a natural occurrence across our campus. With some amazing work from our International Officer, Andrew Chen, and great support from the RCM, RCMSU ‘Convo Club’ began running after the Christmas break. Pinpointing a particular need to support our students globally, Convo Club has two primary aims:

  • To provide casual English language opportunities to English-as-an-Additional-Language students in a low-pressure environment.
  • To provide regular social opportunities for the student body in general (with a particular emphasis on cultural and social exchange between both Home and International students, and/or groups of students who otherwise might not have the chance to meet).

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We are so pleased to say that we have had such a positive response, with students across over 15 countries taking part. It has really highlighted that, despite the physical distance, the kindness and togetherness between students has never been stronger.

Preparing for the Future

As we slowly return to normality, excitement is building for the number of things that have temporarily not been possible. But we also have a unique opportunity to look at the potential benefits gleaned from this period that our students will be able to take advantage of in coming years.

Humans have a tendency to be stubborn in the face of any change. This stubbornness has been challenged by necessity over the last year, forcing all of us to rethink how we interact and work in so many ways. The performing arts are no different, and perhaps the recent digital innovations will be the catalyst our industry has needed to engage and appeal to a far wider and more diverse audience.

Having graduated two years ago now, I can probably count on my hands the number of times I had to prepare and edit my own recordings, something which is now a weekly, if not daily, occurrence for our current students. This familiarity and comfort with digital resources can only stand them in good stead as the unknown future of our industry evolves.

In many ways, the pandemic has been a rollercoaster ride of active inactivity, which has tested all of our resilience at times. But thanks to the huge work of our professors and staff, the commitment of our students, and the love and support of our entire RCM community, we come out of this stronger and more together than ever.

Joel Wilson

Joel is President of the Royal College of Music's Students' Union.