Can rock music be taught?
Students may have to look past raised eyebrows when they tell people about their course, but they're already armed with raw talent and a will to put in the hard graft, writes John Meagher
Luke Healy has got used to the raised eyebrows and the School of Rock jokes when he tells people he is studying for a degree in modern music.
"And yet," the Mayo student says, "nobody would think it was bizarre to study art at NCAD or classical music at Trinity. Maybe it's because this course is so new that people have odd hang-ups about it. But those attitudes will change for sure."
"This course" is a four-year modern music degree at the BIMM college in the heart of Dublin's Liberties area. The DIT-affiliated institute opened its doors in Ireland in 2010, having had a presence in the UK since 2001. BIMM stands for Brighton Institute of Modern Music, in honour of the English city where the original college was established.
It is by no means the first "rock school" in Ireland -- the Ballyfermot College of Further Education, Dublin, has run a popular music performance course for many years -- but BIMM is the only one that offers a fully fledged degree.
Luke (21) is in first year and is one of 600 students currently enrolled at BIMM Dublin, and he says he is loving every moment of it: "Being in this environment with so many creative people is very inspiring. And the sense of 'forced creativity' really works. I'm much more productive than I was -- and I'm a better musician too."
Walk through BIMM's minimally appointed and stark white building on Francis Street or its more cheerfully decorated new annexe on The Coombe nearby, and you're unlikely to confuse it with any other third level institution on the island.
The vibe is more akin to a school dreamed up by Carlsberg's marketers for a TV ad, with classroom after classroom boasting engaged-looking students playing guitar, or practising singing scales, or learning the finer points of home studio recording on a Mac.
In one, piano specialist Max Greenwood goes through the finer points of songwriting; another finds Turn frontman Ollie Cole deep in conversation with his class. Elsewhere, in the large room that is designed to replicate a conventional music venue, Delorentos' Ró Yourell, is getting ready to put students through their live paces.
Elsewhere, there are compact rooms for private music practice, including one boasting a full drum kit, as well as dedicated areas where students can enjoy one-to-one tuition. Instruments of every description and music paraphernalia of all hues can be found at every turn.
Theodora Byrne (20) from Limerick says the degree not only greatly broadens her knowledge of and appreciation of music, but also enables her to be constantly in the presence of artistically-minded people. "It's a very stimulating atmosphere," the second year student says. "Not only can you learn so much from the tutors, but from your fellow students as well."
Theodora, who sings in the band Sails, displays an enthusiasm for BIMM that is palpable. But, she too, sometimes has to explain the merits of the course to doubters, including other musicians. "You'd get classical music students wondering just what it is that we learn here."
It's snobbery, she believes, that derives from ignorance. "Why shouldn't contemporary music be treated in the same way, academically, as classical music? Modern music is a wonderful art form that has had an enormous impact on the world for decades. It's ridiculous to think that it's not relevant enough to be studied to degree level."
On the ground floor notice board, the photos of the various lecturers are posted -- and it doubles as a veritable who's who of contemporary Irish music. Singer-songwriter Cathy Davey, ex-JJ72 frontman Mark Greaney, current Glen Hansard band member Graham Hopkins and the respected music manager, Alan Cullivan, are among those who pass on their insight and expertise.
Conor Adams, frontman of the critically lauded band Cast of Cheers, is also on the tutor roster. "Had this degree been available when I was leaving school I would definitely have wanted to do it," he says. "I would have learned things in a short space of time that took me years to get my head around, especially when it comes to the workings of the music industry.
"One of the things that seems to appeal to the students is the fact that most of us tutors are working musicians and are doing our thing right now. They appreciate the fact that we can give an honest, straight-up assessment of the challenges and obstacles they are likely to face."
His words are echoed by BIMM colleague Cormac Curran, who is best known for his membership of Villagers, the band most likely to win the Choice Music Prize next month. "There's so much more to the course than just music theory. The fact that we are out there releasing music and touring puts us in an ideal place to talk about how the industry is right now, not what it was like even 10 years ago -- because that's no longer relevant for them."
The Villagers keyboard player acknowledges the fact that music history's biggest names did not require a similar rock school in order to learn their trade, but suggests that's mainly because modern music courses weren't available in the past.
"There's always scepticism about something new," he says. "But if anyone was to spend a few hours here they would change their perceptions pretty quickly. There is such a practical dimension to what's studied that not only arms the students when they complete the course, but helps them right now as many of them are getting out there and releasing music and playing shows."
Dara Kilkenny is the director of BIMM Dublin. She grew up in a household steeped in the music business -- her father, Ossie, used to be U2's financial advisor. "Yes, there's a great deal of fun to be had on this course, but we want to foster a real sense of professionalism too," she says, "so we carefully monitor attendance and if it falls below 85pc we pull people in. Even more than most degree courses, you get out of it what you put into it so we want people to be here for every class."
Emily O'Connor is a twenty-year-old student who says she -- like most of her compatriots at BIMM -- have realistic expectations for a career in music. "We can't all be huge stars," she says, "and are under no illusions about what the pitfalls are. But already you can see that some people will gravitate towards other aspects of the music business, such as management or production. Some people ask me if there's a risk in doing a course like this in terms of job prospects, but I think in this economic climate there's no guarantee of work no matter what you do. But if you're a musician, and want to develop all aspects of your trade, I think a course like this is the best thing you could do."
Curran, meanwhile, insists that modern music schools such as BIMM can only do so much: "You have to have raw talent to begin with. That's a prerequisite. Hopefully, the years here can hone that and develop it in exciting ways. But we can't invent talent if it's not already there."
- CAO applications for BIMM's modern music degree course closes on February 1