On course for the big time

Norwich's Access to Music training centre helps young musicians maximise their potential and prepare for a career in the industry. Today a new suite of rehearsal and production rooms will be opened.

Norwich's Access to Music training centre helps young musicians maximise their potential and prepare for a career in the industry. Today a new suite of rehearsal and production rooms will be opened. EMMA LEE had a sneak preview.


The name, to coin a phrase, does exactly what it says on the tin. The Access to Music centre in Norwich gives young musicians the chance to build on their talent and maximise their chances of breaking into the notoriously hard-to-crack music business.

It helps those who dream of seeing their name up in lights develop their performance skills and there are also courses for those who want to work behind the scenes as composers or behind a mixing desk.

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And as well as being a launchpad for many successful careers, Access to Music, which is based at King's Street, also enriches the region's culture and community through involvement in festivals and city initiatives.

It's a vibrant place - and today the completion of a new suite of fully equipped rehearsal and production rooms will be officially opened by Norwich South MP Charles Clarke.

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Centre manager Ian Johnson is clearly proud of the new, improved, facility.

“An awful lot of money has been spent,” he says. “The rooms have had to be sound-proofed and the rehearsal rooms have been kitted out with new equipment - new amps and drum kits. Because the centre is so popular - our courses are always over-subscribed - we've spread out as much as we can.”

Access to Music officially began 12 years ago in Leicester, and has been in Norwich for around eight. There are now 22 colleges around the country, and Norwich is the second biggest.

“The idea behind it was that the way that music was taught in some schools was turning kids away. They would go home and teach themselves guitar or bass but there wasn't anything for them in class,” Ian says. “GCSE music has caught up a lot, but we are still completely over-subscribed - we have to turn people away. Depending on what courses the students do, the qualifications are equivalent to GCSEs or A-levels. Standards are high.

“I think it's a great achievement that Norwich is the second biggest centre and shows what talent, enthusiasm and motivation there is out there.”

The Norwich centre has 179 students from all over Norfolk and beyond - one student travels in from Bury St Edmunds.

“Norwich is a very creative, musical place,” says Ian. “And it's not like we advertise - word just gets out.” There are 15 full and part-time tutors, who are either musicians or have worked in the music industry. They also have other day jobs - Ian organises the Norwich Fringe festival.

He became involved by chance. The premises occupied by Access to Music were previously music rehearsal studios and Ian worked there part-time while doing a college course.

He had worked for HMV and Virgin in London, had run a small record label and had written some articles for music magazines.

“They asked me when the college moved in if I would like to teach music business and it grew until I became the boss,” he says.

The centre, which is funded by the Learning and Skills Council, runs two courses - the performing musician course, which is for people who play instruments such as guitar, bass or drums, and then a creative music producer course, which is for people who make music on computers or DJ.

Courses are free for under-18s, after which it's £350. They culminate in the students having to record and market their own compilation CD, down to designing the cover art and persuading local retailers to stock it.

Some 'graduates' from the courses go on to university, with some going into teaching. Others go straight on to work in the industry.

“A lot of people do very well behind the scenes,” Ian says. “Tom Belton, who came here, is now working in a big London studio. He's done a remix for Jamiroquai and has produced some of Take That's new stuff and has worked with some big names like Simply Red. And Joshua Roberts won a Radio One DJ competition and has DJ-ed alongside Fatboy Slim, Dave Pearce and Judge Jules. There are some bands who are recording.”

A handful of bands chosen from all the colleges around the country make it into Access to Music's Academy in London, where they get a real taste of working in the music industry - bands from the Norwich centre are currently working there.

“If they go into the academy they take the Artist Development Programme. They go there as a band and it's geared towards getting into the industry - they're introduced to labels and solicitors - all the contacts they need to make the next step,” Ian explains.

The centre's rehearsal business is going to be re-launched soon, so that musicians who are not necessarily Access to Music students can use the facilities to practise in during evenings and weekends.

“The extra curricular activities galvanise what we do,” Ian says. “The students like to be here even when they're not being taught, which shows their passion. The place is packed in the holidays.”

Which is surely music to everyone's ears.

Access to Music is at 135-137 King Street, Norwich. For information phone 01603 615 846.

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