What's Wrong with the Royal Irish Academy of Music?

The Royal Irish Academy of Music

What's Wrong with the Royal Irish Academy of Music?

If we cared as much about our musical life as we do about our national theatre we would already have seen the Royal Irish Academy of Music discussed in the same terms as the Abbey, argues former RIAM Governor Richard Pine. But can a way forward now be found, one that involves the creation of an Irish Academy for the Performing Arts?

When an institution passes its 150th birthday, one can expect that, however much it may have tried to move with the times, it will be creaking a bit and may be less responsive to change than it might want to be. The Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM), founded in 1848 to provide music education in what was then a musical vacuum in Irish life, is no exception. What follows is based on my close experience and observation of the RIAM as a member of its Board of Governors (BoG) for over 17 years. With its current constitution dating from 1889 (and very rarely subject to revision), with relations between teaching staff, administration and the governing body as distant as ever, the RIAM is today in danger of implosion and eclipse by other music colleges.

Why should this matter to readers of the JMI? Because the RIAM, as the premier music academy in Ireland, is central to music education, and thus to musical life, in this country, and because it is a publicly funded organisation which, except for its annual accounts, is hardly subject to any external scrutiny. If we cared as much about our musical life as we do about our much-debated ‘national’ theatre, we would already have seen the RIAM discussed in the same terms as the recent focus on the Abbey Theatre. But it is clear that, since the founding of the state, music education has been a political cold potato. The RIAM is not fulfilling its self-defined remit, that is, to be a centre of excellence. Excellence in teaching, and the results of teaching, yes! In its idea of the future, of its place in Irish society, or even its awareness of the current educational environment, no!

Most serious of all the defects that I have noted as a governor has been the gap between the administration of the RIAM and the teaching staff, and particularly the lack of appreciation of what it takes to be a first-class teacher of music.

In order to become outstanding music teachers, musicians must not only be proficient as performers, but must understand their music and have the capacity and the passion to communicate it to their students. They must also have the personal qualities that enable them to become a ‘musical parent’ to children who might have no musical support or even appreciation within the home, and to seek the essential musicality, or ‘musical personalities’ among their students which can be sustained and nurtured. Some of these qualities are to be expected among teachers in primary or secondary schools, or even universities: seldom are they demanded from a single teacher who may take a student from childhood to post-graduate level. This is the very special quality (or combination of qualities) which distinguishes the music teacher, and is to be found in abundance in the RIAM: it has contributed more than any other single factor to the uniqueness of the RIAM’s performance in the ‘marketplace’.

We are constantly being told that the demand for third-level places in Ireland no longer outstrips the supply, and that the ‘points race’ is dead. Not so in the RIAM, where, in the past three years, applications for the BA Performance degree have almost doubled, from 110 to 212, with only nine students being accepted onto the course each year, each of whom not only scored 500 points in the Leaving Cert but, much more importantly, had to pass a gruelling audition.

One of the most distinctive features of entrance to the BA Performance degree is that it is quite unlike, say, first-year economics or dentistry, where no previous experience or knowledge is required: these nine students will already have had as much as fifteen years’ acquaintance with their instrument. When they graduate, four years later, they will perform both a full solo recital and a concerto.

This type of third-level education is therefore qualitatively different. As a recent newcomer to the BoG put it, when experiencing three final year concerto performances, ‘this isn’t comparable with 300 kids doing their finals in business studies – this is PhD level!’ The individuality, the virtuosity and the musical intelligence and conviction of these graduates is in itself a story insufficiently exploited.

We need to play to the strengths of these young people, and to put in place a system that will serve their needs.

The crisis within the RIAM
Having been a member of the RIAM’s BoG from 1989 to 2006, I am appalled, in retrospect, at the way in which the administration has been allowed to muddle along in a spirit of adhockery, with little attempt on the part of the BoG to formulate policy, or strategies for implementing policy, or even to inquire into policies that senior management might have proposed. While there have been positive developments along the way – especially in the introduction of new degree programmes – any attempt at reform of the existing structures has been very strenuously resisted, either by specific personnel or, most often, by an innate lethargy in the organisation as a whole. In November 2005 an external consultant, Tom McGuinness of MKP Consultants, was commissioned to make a management report which stated that: ‘With the Director absent for substantial periods, it is left to the remaining members of the Senior Management Team to lead and manage the administrative organisation. However, due to operational focus and apparent disharmony in the team, both strategic and action planning is weak’.

At the time of his appointment as Director in 1994, John O’Conor was already a full-time teacher of piano in the RIAM; a performing artist with an international career, especially in the USA and Japan; a recording artist (on the Telarc label); Chair and Artistic Director of the triennial Dublin International Piano Competition; and a regular member of the jury at several other international piano competitions. These are activities in which he has often excelled, especially in his teaching, and he has undoubtedly added lustre both to the RIAM and to Irish musical life in general. But the fact that he continues in all these pursuits in addition to his function as Director of the RIAM gives cause for anxiety.

Because of the problems at management and Board level, the RIAM could well be left behind in the race to transform third-level education. This is all the more serious because there have been – and perhaps still are – in-depth discussions about a possible merger of the RIAM with the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama, which would effectively mean a subsuming of the RIAM into DIT, with a loss of its distinctive style and much-cherished independence. The President of DIT, Brian Norton, has spoken emphatically about the role of the arts in an area which is largely dominated by an insistence on technology and research (see his remarks in JMI 5/1, Jan-Feb 2005), whereas the RIAM has been largely complacent for a very long time on most aspects of music education.

Whether or not a merger of the RIAM and DIT is a runner, the availability, and occasional duplication, of scarce resources is a serious matter for any taxpayer. If the RIAM is to continue as an independent organisation, the way it is run requires root-and-branch reform, in order to restore an effective balance between senior management and the BoG. There are 35 members on the BoG, elected from five different constituencies, most of whom seldom attend the monthly meetings. It is far too large for a modern board of management, which should ideally number around nine – but asking governors to vote themselves out of existence is like asking turkeys to applaud an early Christmas. There are some outstanding individual governors, but they are seldom given any opportunity to contribute their particular skills. In this, as in many other, perhaps more crucial, matters, the BoG has shown itself to be inward-looking, ineffective, unresponsive to – and indeed unaware of the need for – change.

A music institution such as the RIAM, which operates from pre-instrumental tiny tots through to doctorate (fourth level), is a playschool-cum-university with everything else in between, but much more than that, it is a breathing organism that is vibrant and developing, much more than the sum of its exciting parts. It should be, but it isn’t, and not for any want of enthusiasm on the part of the teaching staff, but because there is no effective interface between the BoG and the senior administration, or between the administration and the teaching staff. It has lost its sense of direction and has no strategic plan. The BoG is not in a position to exercise its principal responsibility – to govern the RIAM.

All of this could probably be forgotten about if the RIAM were a run-of-the-mill set-up producing mediocre students. But, with some section leaders of the RTÉCO, and most section leaders of the NSO including the Leader, Alan Smale, on its staff, plus outstanding teachers of singing and piano, the RIAM boasts talent with credentials, qualifications and expertise unavailable in any other single institution in Ireland.

One ray of hope was the submission made by the RIAM in 2004 to the OECD commission reporting on third-level education. It was an almost unprecedented collaboration between members of the governing body and the teaching staff, and it spelled out the centrality of music and music education in Irish life: that document deserves to be widely distributed, if only to demonstrate that the RIAM is, on occasion, capable of rising to the challenge of stating its raison d’être and that of the other music colleges. But as soon as its work was done, and the submission made, that energy evaporated; it has never permeated the minds of those who should be pushing the argument into the arms of government.

As a result of all this, it is not just the RIAM that is suffering, but the future of music education in Ireland which is, in my view, jeopardised by in-fighting, self-serving and lack of vision.

Up to the time of O’Conor’s appointment as Director in 1994, the RIAM had a committee for long-term planning; with O’Conor’s appointment, it was thought prudent to give him scope for his own ideas. However, no long-term plans have emerged in that time, clearly, it would seem to me, because the Director sees the long-term future lying elsewhere, that is, in some form of association with DIT.

So it is not merely the current problems of the RIAM that are at stake. It can be further argued that the governing body of the RIAM is not only responsible for the administration of this one academy, but also has a duty to lead the debate about the direction of music education in Ireland, especially at third level. John O’Conor showed remarkable courage and foresight in the 1990s in promoting the idea of an Irish Academy of the Performing Arts (IAPA), but the subsequent debacle (which saw the project taken up by government and then allowed to fizzle out in 2003) has left all concerned disheartened and jaundiced. In fact, the situation is a lot worse than it was four years ago. There could of course be many who think the RIAM is not an appropriate focus for the development of music education and, as my following remarks indicate, this view seems to be shared by many of the BoG.

In October 2004, in the middle of discussions between the RIAM and DIT, the Irish Times published an article by me, ostensibly discussing the relevance to music education of the OECD report on third-level education in Ireland, but in fact calculated to galvanise the RIAM into taking the lead in a field where, by virtue of its autonomy and independence, it was better qualified to transcend vested interests and the institutional mindset of the colleges which are subject to some higher, external, authority.

My misjudgement could not have been greater. Instead of endorsing my viewpoint, the BoG ‘agreed that the article constituted an outrageous breach of Corporate Governance’, and that it was a breach of confidentiality – accusations that I vigorously rebutted at the time. The Chairman called for my resignation and gave notice of a motion of censure. (I didn’t resign at that stage, and the motion of censure never materialised.) Although I did not realise it at the time, it was the beginning of the end of my association with the RIAM, not least because it made painfully clear how incapable was the BoG as a collective entity to grasp the essentials of what was at stake.

The international context
In 2005 I proposed a radical reform of the RIAM: my colleagues on the BoG politely (very politely) ignored it. It was based on the general principles of institutional change which I had been able to study throughout western Europe as a consultant to the Council of Europe, and from the background of having spent almost all my career in the public service. One of the problems I identified was that institutional change (particularly the transformation of cultural institutions) is difficult to understand and sometimes painful to accept.

One reason is that, generally speaking, the governing bodies of such institutions are composed of middle-aged, middle-class people. Overall, such bodies, and the managements to which they entrust the activities of the institutions, have been slow to adapt to certain demonstrable changes in the societies within which they function. The RIAM is, I believe, no exception to this generalisation.

The changes in question – all of which are evident in Ireland today – are: societal, generational, aesthetic, economic, educational and ethnic. A lack of clarity about cultural change is not unique to Ireland. At a recent congress of the Association of European Conservatoires, I was astonished to hear Peter Renshaw (Former Head of the Menuhin School, Head of Research at Goldsmiths’ College (London) and consultant to the Irish government on the proposed IAPA) rehearsing (no pun intended) the arguments regarding the necessity for conservatoires of music to adapt in the climate of institutional change today. It gives me no pleasure to record that he used terms, expressions and arguments reminiscent of (and in some cases quoting verbatim from) texts originated by me and my colleagues in the Council of Europe 20-25 years ago (!), when this necessity had already been recognised in respect of cultural institutions generally (cf. The Development of Cultural Policies in Europe, Finnish National Commission for UNESCO, 1982).

Why (I asked other participants at the congress) had it taken 25 years for European music conservatoires to catch up with the thinking about, and the process of, institutional change that had been formulated in the late 1970s (in respect of art galleries, theatres, and even concert halls)? The answer was that music conservatoires had held themselves aloof from such change, on the grounds that their core activity was the transmission of a perennial culture for which the required skills were unchanging, thus obviating the need for such change. And it was also acknowledged that this had been an entirely misguided viewpoint which is today being challenged and demolished by the actual transformation of these conservatoires, particularly in the light of the current emphasis on technology, cost-effectiveness and the changing curriculum and practices of the conservatoires themselves.

An Irish Academy for the Performing Arts?
It is the idea of an Irish Academy for the Performing Arts, capable of meeting these challenges, that should be exercising the minds and consciences of the RIAM and of all other organisations in Ireland with responsibility for training performers. The irony is that this has been John O’Conor’s goal all along, but that, each time he has started the ball rolling, the necessary political nous has not been there to follow it through.
It is the muddled thinking on this subject which continually trips up the quest for the elusive IAPA. The exact form of association of any constituent college(s) in an IAPA (teaching principally music, dance, drama) has always been one of the central structural problems. In May 2004 O’Conor wrote to Ellen Hazelkorn (Dean of the DIT’s faculty of Applied Arts) of a possible ‘merger/association/amalgamation or whatever we call it’. The fact that the envisaged action could be referred to as ‘merger/association/ amalgamation or whatever we call it’ indicates just how little understanding there is of these far-reaching ideas.

When the proposal to create an IAPA was adopted by government in 1999-2002, the DIT was left out in the cold. Now, with the Government having given up on the idea in 2003, the DIT seems O’Conor’s only hope of realising his vision. Today, with its expected move to a greenfield site at Grangegorman, DIT is probably better placed than other music colleges to provide what the country needs, despite the superiority of teaching at the RIAM, and O’Conor, recognising this, has tried to link the RIAM and the DIT into a scheme that would essentially create a new conservatoire. I don’t think anyone (myself included) would stand in the way of this, provided the planning was conducted openly.
We hear much about transparency in public life, and much about consultation, agreement and openness, yet the discussions between the DIT and the RIAM, the two most powerful forces in music education in Ireland, have shunned transparency and openness, and have failed to initiate consultation with those whose vocation it is to provide the education in question.

Following discussions between the Director of the RIAM and representatives of DIT (Brid Grant, Head of the Conservatoire, and Ellen Hazelkorn, now a member of DIT’s governing body) , a document titled ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ (MoU) was composed by DIT and delivered to the RIAM on 19 March 2004. The MoU – for a new conservatoire to be set up jointly by the RIAM and the DIT – was drawn up without consultation with the RIAM’s BoG. The RIAM Director and the DIT planned to hold simultaneous meetings on 24 May 2004 to inform their respective staffs of this proposed development. Serious reservations were expressed by the RIAM staff at their meeting, and the Director subsequently had to acknowledge that the RIAM was not, at that stage, ready for such a merger. He passed on the anxieties of the RIAM’s staff, and their reservations about the difference in work practices and standards between the two organisations, and stated that these would need to be addressed. This has not happened, at least not in open forum.

Yet a month later, another document, entitled ‘The Next Steps’, emanated from DIT, attempting to repair the damage and proceeding on the assumption that there would, nevertheless, be some rationalisation between the RIAM and the existing DIT Conservatoire. Naturally, this caused some disquiet among RIAM staff, not least because it had appeared that their views had been taken on board and relayed to DIT.
In fact, behind-the-scenes discussions continued between the RIAM and DIT, despite assurances that this was not the case, and I suspect that John O’Conor’s genuine anxiety to create some new third-level tier of music education in Ireland still drives him on to find a way forward. The question that must occupy us all is: will it be done efficiently and appropriately, with adequate checks and balances?

A way forward?
The lack of success in establishing an appropriate IAPA is at the core of the problem, but the fact that the whole project was allowed to die shows us that we do not really understand what the problem is. Therefore, we cannot identify a solution. When invited by the editor of JMI to contribute to a discussion on music education (JMI 6/1, Jan-Feb 2006), neither the Minister for Education nor anyone in her department was prepared to do so (although responses were received from the Labour and Fine Gael parties). This is not a party-political matter, nor one for personalities. Nor is it the remit of any single government department, as the long-promised and recently established joint committee on the arts and education indicates.

We cannot afford complacency. As Martin Drury said in presenting the Music Network blueprint for nationwide peripatetic music teaching, in Ireland we allow for things to happen, but we do not provide for things to happen. I would like to see him proved wrong. At present, he is right. We have been far too insular in Ireland in our thinking about classical music education, and we have allowed ourselves to forsake openness, to ignore standards and the need to give value for money, in order to pursue less public agendas. This must stop.

There needs to be a concerted activity to set out in compelling terms the condition of music in Ireland, and a plan for its development. I would like to think that the Forum for Music in Ireland could achieve this, but its progress so far has been too slow and too fragmented.

The most important activity would be for all the stakeholders to clarify their collective thinking on issues such as:

> the uniqueness of the process of music education;
> the utilitarian possibilities of music education, especially bearing in mind the apparent imperatives in the ‘political’ environment affecting all educational initiatives;
> the problem of promulgating the raison d’être of one-to-one teaching, which music teachers take for granted but which raises eyebrows in the area of ‘unit costing’ and ‘value for money’;
> the profession of music – what does it include/exclude?
– what are its socio-economic possibilities?
– what philosophical or ethical values can be enunciated in support of the choice of music as a profession?
– where does the profession of music ‘fit in’ with the rest of society?
> specifically, since the workforce consists predominantly of music teachers,
– what is a music teacher?
– what personal and professional qualities should a music teacher possess?
– what function(s) is a music teacher expected to perform?
– what is the relation of a music teacher to the overall objectives and strategy of his/her employer?

These questions have certainly received less attention than they deserve, and the special qualities of the music teacher are, as a result, under-appreciated. If we cannot acknowledge these problems, and if we cannot explore the issues and responsibilities among ourselves, what hope do we have of convincing others of our arguments?

It goes without saying that a third-level tier needs to be underpinned by a comprehensive programme for music education at primary and secondary level, but that is not the purpose of this article. The most serious deficit in our thinking at present is on the question of the changing nature of the music profession: it is an economic fact of musical life that only a very few musicians can earn a living as solo performers. We are producing graduates whose career paths may not lie in the same direction as they have traditionally, i.e classical performance and teaching, but we demonstrate little awareness of how we can help them to enter a profession which is by no means as solidly based as it once was on traditional options. We have a responsibility to make our students aware of the ever-widening career options, and of the fact that full-time employment in any one sector is increasingly unlikely.

We also need to avoid fooling ourselves that we are producing squadrons of world-class players. In recent years, since the introduction of the BA Performance degree, we have seen the emergence of some extraordinarily good young musicians, but (with the possible exception of James Galway) Ireland has never yet produced a classical musician of world-class in any category – no-one in the class of Antti Siirala, or Leonidas Kavakos, or Angela Gheorghiu (to name musicians from comparably small countries). And no conductors or composers anywhere near the first league. This is not because we don’t have the talent, but because we don’t nurture the talent appropriately. And we don’t seem able to recognise the problem of standards: we have no idea of what ‘excellence’ actually means.

And we certainly don’t treat all the children of the nation equally! Oh no. For the most part, we run a cosy middle-class system for the children of gentlefolk. If this were a debate on the issue of a national children’s hospital, instead of a national conservatoire, the views of the stakeholders would have been publicly rehearsed and the solution would be a political imperative.

As far as the RIAM itself is concerned, I am convinced that nothing short of a force majeure in the form of government intervention will rectify the injustice meted out day-by-day to our gifted musicians and their teachers by the inefficacy of its governing body. Such intervention worked in the case of the Abbey Theatre, where its board was humiliated into mass resignation. But the IAPA fiasco shows what can happen when politicians and civil servants get in the way of an idea, and it should warn us not to put our faith in such cynical manoeuvres.

It is time to change the way the RIAM is officially governed. The Board of Governors should be replaced by an ‘RIAM Trust’, consisting of seven to nine persons, which meets once every three months. Its function should be to ensure that agreed strategies are being carried out in order to achieve agreed goals. Strategies and goals should be contained in a rolling three- or five-year plan, agreed by four parties:

i) the RIAM Trust itself;
ii) an Academic Advisory Board of nine to fifteen people, meeting with the members of the Trust on a six-monthly basis;
iii) senior management, consisting of the Director, Secretary and Registrar;
iv) the five heads of faculty.

Senior Management, together with the heads of faculty, would constitute the Executive Board.

What should the RIAM do, given that the Director’s contract expires next year? First, its governing body (hopefully a reformed one, with less passengers and less cronies) should take a policy decision on how it intends to develop, and what kind of director it should appoint to implement that policy; second, it should then search internationally for that person.

And, at the same time, it should be moving towards a form of co-operation with DIT and perhaps CIT (on the basis of governing-body-speaking-to-governing-body) which would see the appointment of Visiting Professors of the calibre of singer Jorge Chaminé, pianists Dominique Merlet, Heinz Medjimorec and Pavel Nersessian, accordionist Elspeth Möser and chamber music players from the Vanbrugh and ConTempo quartets. All of them we know from experience to give brilliant masterclasses, but their involvement in Irish musical life should become more profound by means of a residency of one week in six, to leaven the existing excellent teaching our students receive with new and international ideas.

As I wrote back in 2002 (JMI 2/3), ‘if excellence is the aim, then the muddled thinking that has brought the dream of an IAPA to this point of disillusion is completely out of place because it is tied to existing conditions, practices and standards which, however well intentioned, are totally unsuitable to empower that quantum leap’. There is nothing that a bit of joined-up thinking cannot achieve. But we cannot achieve it if we remain tied to the apron-strings of the past, of received wisdom, of conventional pieties. And especially if we continue to inhabit the same woodwork. Goethe said that ‘I only discuss with people who agree with me’ – by which he meant that there is no point trying to have dialogue with those who have a different agenda. He wouldn’t be having many discussions around here.


Published on 1 March 2007

Richard Pine, Director of the Durrell School of Corfu, is a former Concerts Manager in RTÉ. He is the author and editor of books on Irish music history and of definitive studies of Oscar Wilde, Brian Friel and Lawrence Durrell.

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