Source: Frances Marshall, Royal Academy of Music
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The Royal Academy of Music: An inspiring place to train

Tiffany Qiu realised her passion for the piano at a very young age. As a girl, she would follow prestigious competitions closely — watching for the next big winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition, from the first rounds to the finals. Many of her favourite pianists trained at the Royal Academy of Music.

As the UK’s oldest music conservatoire, the Academy has produced some of the most impressive musical artists of the century and beyond. Alumni include five-time Grammy award winner Jacob Collier and the legendary Elton John. Alumni and other leading industry figures regularly visit the Academy to give masterclasses, perform alongside students or record together.

Naturally, Qiu knew she wanted to pursue her studies at the Academy. This was only cemented during her audition process. “I noticed that the students who were stewarding were very warm, welcoming, and down-to-earth, which made the experience less daunting,” she shares. “The professors were also very interesting, inspiring, and easy to talk to, so I felt that I could really thrive in such a supportive environment.”

From the start, students are encouraged to be well-rounded, independent musicians. Much of this revolves around taking initiative in their pursuits.

Source: Frances Marshall, Royal Academy of Music

Source: Frances Marshall, Royal Academy of Music

“For most of the performance classes and concerts, students need to put their hand up and sign up themselves,” she explains. “I didn’t realise until later that this was to create a habit of taking ownership of our own careers, rather than letting things happen on their own. This is especially crucial in today’s world, where musicians need to learn how to be their own agents and promoters.”

For example, students can play in public chamber concerts throughout the year, as well as take part in masterclasses. “As a pianist, I was automatically assigned a piano trio to work with in my first year and went on to play in a piano quartet, with singers, with woodwind and brass players, in orchestras and contemporary ensembles!” Qiu says.

Fellow student Charlotte Spruit agrees. “At the Academy I have had the chance to perform as a soloist, in chamber music, and in larger ensembles,” she says. “Since June this year I have been part of Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT), which has been one of the biggest steps in my career so far.”

Spruit’s career as a musician has skyrocketed since joining the Academy. She began as an undergraduate student in the strings department where she studied the Baroque violin — which sparked a passion for historical performance. Recently, she took part in the Sir Elton John Global Exchange Programme, where she managed to study with the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna.

Today, she is a postgraduate student pursuing historical performance — influenced by the Academy’s Head of Historical Performance Department, Professor Margaret Faultless.

“When I first started, she immediately got me to join for all kinds of Baroque projects — in fact, my first concert at the Academy was on the Baroque violin,” Spruit recalls. “She also helped me prepare for the Bach Competition in Leipzig last year, and with the auditions for YCAT this year. Now that I officially am part of her department, she continues to support me and always gives me great advice on everything.”

Personalised support is a common feature of life at the Academy. Qiu received weekly one-to-one tuition with her piano teacher, Professor Ian Fountain, who she says was a “key influence” in her approach to piano-playing.

“Technique is a very personal aspect of each musician, and before coming to the Academy, I struggled a lot with tension in my hyperactive fingers,” she explains. “Ian was very patient and guided me through the process of using more economical movements. I had a previous piano teacher who was very strict and made me constantly fear our lessons. With Ian, I realised the importance of a good teacher who is always encouraging, especially during the times you feel down.”

The best part? Students are based in the heart of London — one of the best cities in the world for arts and culture.

“London is an incredible city to live in as a music student,” says Spruit. “Every evening there are several concerts going on with some of today’s leading musicians. London also has some of the most spectacular museums. I think, as a music student, it is very important to also engage with other forms of art. Visiting museums always gives me fresh inspiration and new energy.”

Source: Frances Marshall, Royal Academy of Music

Source: Frances Marshall, Royal Academy of Music

For Plínio Fernandes, 29, from Brazil, the capital has “massively contributed” to his growth as an artist. “London is, in my opinion, the most culturally vibrant city in the world, with a great number of world-class orchestras and concert halls, wonderful museums, galleries and a very multicultural demographic,” says the BMus and MA graduate. “That environment is extremely inspiring for any artist and certainly has a big impact in my artistic life.”

So much so that straight after completing his MA, the guitarist signed a multi-album deal with Decca US – Universal. “Since then, I have released two albums. Because of the success of the first CD, my career has developed massively and I have been performing solo recitals and concertos around Europe, Asia, the US and South America,” he says.

He credits the environment at the Academy for his success. “Observing other successful fellow students at the Royal Academy of Music, speaking to them and observing their path has prepared me to cope and understand the demands of such a career,” he says. “Plus, the main opportunities I got in the professional world that enabled me to start an international career mostly came from partnerships with other Academy students and from recommendations of Academy teachers,” he says.

“We are very lucky to be so well-connected with outstanding international visiting professors who work closely with the students in rehearsals and in masterclasses,” says Qiu. “We are also encouraged to try new things — like the annual Students Create Festival, a student-led series of concerts where conventions are broken, opening up new possibilities to what constitutes a classical performance.”

Spruit adds: “It is outstanding that the Academy has supported me as much with my projects outside as well as within. The personal care for every student is something unique about the Academy and it allows students to naturally grow into their professional lives.”

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