“we’re really relaxed about being creative” — miz deshannon, leeds college of musicBack
“The College of Music even has its own myths now,” says Miz DeShannon. “And we’ve only been going for fifty years.”
Fifty years, in the context of a city institution, and when you’re throwing around words like ‘conservatoire’, isn’t a long time. Fifty years only takes you back to 1965, whereas conservatoire not only takes you back to the Renaissance, but to Renaissance Italy, where the intense methods of practical teaching and learning that are synonymous with conservatoires were developed.
Leeds College of Music is a conservatoire, and it’s a young one, and maybe it’s in these confusing gaps around its heritage that the myths grow. LCoM is a youthful institution, applying modern methods to the teaching of new and classical and new classical music, plus pop and jazz and rock and anything else, immersed in centuries-old traditions that are invisible, like oxygen, in the six Apple-authorised Mac labs high in the modern building on Quarry Hill.
Leeds College of Music began in 1965 as Leeds Music Centre, based at the time in the Mechanics’ Institute, now the City Museum; in 1972 it became City of Leeds College of Music and spent a long time in the old chapel on Woodhouse Lane that is now the Hedley Verity pub; it then became simply Leeds College of Music in 1997 when it moved to a new building on Quarry Hill.
It has been called different things, moved to different places, its students and alumni have rehearsed and performed all over the city and all over the world. There is a time capsule buried somewhere, but nobody is sure where it is. That’s how mythology is made; but then, that’s music. Think about Robert Johnson, meeting the devil at a crossroads and doing the deal that gave him, and us, the blues; if that happened, it happened in the 1930s, within reach of our living memory. Music doesn’t waste time when it comes to making myths.
Part of Leeds College of Music’s hopes for its fiftieth year are that it can reconcile the heavy preconceptions, carried around like cellos or double-bass cases by the classically or jazzly-loaded uses of the serious term ‘music’, with its actual vibrant and irrepressible youth, as an institution and a spirit and a vital part of Leeds.
“It’s a really nice environment to be in,” says Miz, who is LCoM’s External Relations Manager. “Being around the students there, who are really relaxed about just being creative; I think that’s why I find my job so enjoyable.”
The environment on Quarry Hill has been a hothouse that has allowed its students and staff to thrive together; but it hasn’t helped LCoM show its best to the rest of the city. The neighbours at West Yorkshire Playhouse are replanning and reorganising their entrance to bring it closer to St. Peter’s Street, and LCoM won two RIBA architectural awards this year for a small but nifty extension that created a more welcoming entrance on St Peter’s Square.
From the doorstep, a few paces could take you inside the homes of BBC Leeds, Yorkshire Dance or Northern Ballet; the Gallery at Munro House, Kendall’s Bistro, Aagrah or The Wardrobe aren’t much further. It’s one of the pleasanter decisions Leeds can you bid you make, on one its nicer streets; the straight up, down and along brick and glass of the old warehouses on one side, the BBC and LCM like two hands, intertwined and bent at the knuckles, on the other. There’s not much traffic and it catches the sun. And there’s loads happening there.
“The road from the bus station is a bit of a barrier,” says Miz. “I was speaking to somebody the other day who has lived in Leeds a lot longer than me, who didn’t know what was on this side of the road. I was like, but that’s where the theatre is! The ballet! The Wardrobe and the BBC!
“Our building has absolutely tons of facilities. Recording studios, rehearsal rooms, huge desks, including one that might be originally from Abbey Road — although I don’t know whether that’s a myth. There are rehearsal rooms kitted out for all different types of music: piano, percussion, indie rock bands, jazz; students are in there until three in the morning. The building only really closes for a few hours so it can be cleaned, then it’s open and back to work again.
“Quarry Hill is definitely a creative bubble of its own, and I think because of the road layout a lot of local people don’t know anything about what goes on around here. It’s been quite a closed book. We want to use our fiftieth birthday as an opportunity to celebrate what goes on in all the different spaces around here.”
“THE CONSERVATOIRE IS A LIFE CYCLE OF MUSIC EDUCATION”
The birthday celebrations include a performance from the LCoM Legacy Big Band, made up of musicians from the full range of styles offered in the first fifty years; and an evening with LCoM Fellow Marc Almond, who will be performing versions of his classic songs with alumni Alex Munk and Martin Longhawn, the current Contemporary Pop Choir and New Music Collective. Before either of those, though, LCoM will be taking part in Leeds Light Night at Holy Trinity Church, featuring students in collaboration with LCoM’s Head of Events and Enterprise, Dr Paul J Abbott, who is occasionally responsible for The MrWobblyHead Project, an experimental and costumed alter-ego combining Bowie and T-Rex, on Mars.
“Paul’s stage show is visually crazy,” says Miz. “It’s really experimental music but it’s fun. You can find all sorts of music colleges where they have a famous guitarist teaching, but the depth of knowledge that our tutors have makes them different. Paul has studied up to his eyeballs, and he’s still performing and experimenting and collaborating and constantly putting out new music.
“I think we have a real depth of knowledge and expertise here, that the tutors have from their own education and the commercial work they do. Dave Walsh, for instance, is one of our senior lecturers on the jazz degree, and I do not know how he finds time in the day to actually sleep. He works at LCoM full time and has been in the office all summer, but still keeps writing and recording and making YouTube videos about how to do particular styles of drumming, and then he’ll email me to tell me about a five-star review of a new album he played on. It’s so great to have people like that, who are out there working and performing.”
Jazz remains one of LCoM’s major points of difference, and one of the points where the conservatoire has consistently pushed Leeds forward as a home for excellence and experimentation in another young artform, with another deep heritage.
“The jazz degree at Leeds was the first jazz degree in Europe, and jazz is really strong in Leeds. Several of our tutors performed at Manchester Jazz Festival, and they lead the way in terms of their theoretical and technical expertise in music, and also in the actual performance of it. I think it’s just in the nature of jazz musicians that they can’t resist being at some sort of jam night together.
“In Leeds there is jazz all over the place. There are the performances we have at LCoM, Sela Bar has regular jazz nights, something’s always happening at Seven Arts; I don’t know what came first, whether the city initiated jazz at Leeds College of Music, or LCoM kickstarted the scene in the city, but it filters through into lots of things we do. People on our pop music degree learn slightly differently about songwriting, structure or rhythms, with real jazz or blues leanings.”
The pop music degree is another area in which LCoM is breaking ground, joined by new degrees starting this year in Film Music and New Music that put Leeds at the forefront of commercial and experimental developments in the industry.
“We see what our alumni have gone on to do in recent years, and learn what areas they’ve gone into,” says Miz. “We have several graduates who have gone on to write soundtracks for films, video games or advertising; and one of our production alumni, Ben McAvoy, founded a company called WMP in Leeds, who provide composition and sound design for projects with clients like Arsenal FC and Listerine.
“It’s been similar with New Music. Our pathway leader for Classical Music and the New Music degree, Damien Harron, has a really contemporary way of looking at classical music; and initiated by our Head of Undergraduate Studies, Dale Perkins, we’ve run the International Festival for Artistic Innovation conference every year that brings together music academics to perform what’s almost the scientific side of music. That aspect of music is becoming more prominent, with Mary Anne Hobbs’ broadcast from the Proms on BBC 6Music showing that this is a movement within the industry that Leeds College of Music can be active in.”
The specialisation and excellence that the conservatoire produces can make its processes feel mysterious to the uninitiated, but that’s always been the case; it was easier to understand Robert Johnson’s ability with the guitar as the result of a deal with the devil than as a skill earthly beings could acquire. Difficulty can sometimes be mistaken for elitism, but the only requirement at LCoM is talent.
“The conservatoire offers a life cycle of music education, from the Saturday Music School, to short courses and Further and Higher education, so students can come here and do courses that lead them into degree courses and onto a career in music; and about half of the students here are on some form of financially supported learning, which is incredibly high compared to the average.
“There was a report recently that said young people from affluent families were six times more likely to get a place at a conservatoire, and when we saw that we stood back and looked at the kind of students we get coming to Leeds. We do have students from what you’d call traditional classical music backgrounds, and then almost half are from what are classed as low income families, and they all do so many different, eclectic things here, and do so much collaboration themselves with students from the College of Art or the School of Dance.
“Basically, if you’re someone who gets great results in your A-levels, gets high grades in your music exams, but then finds that your parents can’t shell out to get you to an audition — that’s something we address from the start. You’re immediately means tested so we can concentrate on whether you can come here on your merits; it’s not about money.”
“EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN LEEDS IS EXCITING”
The importance of art and accessibility was instilled in Miz from a young age; a career as a dancer might not have worked out in the end, but the influences of the education haven’t been lost.
“I was always dressing up and singing and dancing as a kid,” says Miz. “So my mum didn’t have to push me very hard into going to dance school. That brought a lot of cultural activity into my life at an early age. We didn’t have tons of money, but I was always being shoved in the cheap seats at a Northern Ballet production of something, or going to art galleries because they were free. School holidays were spent looking at stately homes and galleries, so I really understand how being able to access arts and culture can be incredibly beneficial to a young person.”
And the dancing career? “Ha. Well. It was an experience. The thing was that I was always taller than everybody else in my class — I don’t think I’ve actually grown much since I was about eleven, so I was surrounded by all these cute little girls in tutus and I was like a foot taller than everybody. I kept being given the boy’s parts because I was tallest, and as a lanky teenager just wanting to fit in I felt so self-conscious, like I was being singled out, and it kept putting me off. So although I was getting distinctions, when it came to my final dance exams I wasn’t really concentrated on doing them.
“It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that somebody pointed out that, actually, when I was at dance school, I was getting the solo roles all the time — all the best parts. I looked through some old photos and it suddenly struck me that God, yeah, that was constantly me at the front of the stage. I had all the solos! But as a kid you don’t see it like that. You just feel singled out.”
A BTEC in art and design and a degree in design management set Miz up for a career in branding and marketing for design agencies, stage management, event management, gig promotion, writing and press work, mostly around Manchester, until the pull of Leeds pulled Miz to Leeds College of Music.
“I moved to Leeds in March 2014. I was slowly but surely reeled into just being part of the city.
“Everything that happens in Leeds is exciting. It’s incredibly friendly, which sounds like a silly thing to say, but it’s true. At first I thought it was just me because I was new, and everything felt new, but after six months I thought, this isn’t wearing off. And after more than a year, nope, it still hasn’t worn off.
“It’s a really friendly city and a really creative city, and the fantastic independent things that go on, like Duke Studios or the Indie Food Festival, seem to come from a wonderful place. I think people here really stop and think about what they’re investing their money in, and think about whether what they’re doing is something that will be beneficial for the city and its growth. They don’t just chuck money at big glamorous projects or whopping great buildings. A bit more thought goes into the regeneration — or the generation — of things in Leeds.”
The welcoming, creative atmosphere has also given Miz the chance to revive the MPIA Agency, originally a project undertaken at Salford University to help photographers benefit from the same kind of industry representation as illustrators, now a pressure-free platform that fills the walls at Outlaws Yacht Club with with the work of emerging artists.
“Outlaws is a really relaxed, open space,” says Miz. “So the artists aren’t under the pressure of dealing with commercial sales or anything like that. They can sell things if they want, or if they don’t, they don’t have to. That means it’s a really fun side project for me, that has been really well received since I’ve been in Leeds.”
That city-wide vibe of low-pressure culture is perhaps what helps Leeds College of Music produce such consistent excellence, without the imposing profile it could reasonably wield as a heavyweight cultural institution. Instead, you’re as likely to feel an LCoM effect some unknowing night at the Belgrave or Sela Bar, as in its own Venue auditorium on the top floor of the BBC.
“The reason I enjoy working there is because that’s the whole vibe I get from the environment,” says Miz. “It really isn’t an elitist place, and you don’t get the impression when you’re there that you have to be anything that you’re not.
“People at LCoM are there just because they enjoy music. They want to create things, and they’re incredibly good at it. It’s just a wholly talented bunch of people.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 28