Interview: Helena Gaunt, Principal of Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama

Professor Helena Gaunt was appointed the new Principal of Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in September 2018. Jessica Salter of the ISM caught up with Helena during her first week.

‘The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) is a college that spans several disciplines - music, acting, musical theatre, theatre design and stage management – the combination has been an important part of the decision to join the college. And coming from London – where they are many conservatoires – it’s clear that RWCMD is a very different kind of place, having both a national and international remit and being the only conservatoire in Wales.’ Helena tells me.

Helena Gaunt began her career by freelancing as a professional oboist (and a founding member of the Britten Sinfonia) before moving gradually into conservatoire teaching and going on to provide strategic leadership in academic development, research, enterprise and internationalisation at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama (GSMD) as Vice Principal & Director of Innovation.

‘While performing as a professional player, I started teaching for a couple of hours a week at Guildhall and found I absolutely loved teaching. It’s inspiring, exciting and very fulfilling.’ Helena explains.

Helena later became Deputy Head of Wind, Brass and Percussion at GSMD in 2002. ‘I felt it was just as important in my work as playing professionally.’

‘While in this role, I got involved in research (this was the early days of research within conservatoire environments). I had all kinds of questions about how we learn and how I was working with students, and I wanted to explore these.’

Having completed a doctorate looking at teacher and student perspectives on one-to-one tuition in conservatoires, she began to focus more broadly on curriculum design and academic development at Guildhall. From 2008, she worked across music and drama disciplines in the School, looking after research and academic development.

‘I had a responsibility not just in music but also in theatre. This opened my eyes to the value of an institution covering several disciplines: there is huge potential for collaboration and exchange between them.’

Helena then went to go on to become Vice Principal and Director of Innovation at Guildhall, continuing to oversee research and - most importantly – to catalyse new areas of work. She tells me that this has been ‘very much about entrepreneurship and enterprise’ as well as research, and ‘about developing partnerships, particularly the central creative alliance with the Barbican Centre.

‘Guildhall Creative Entrepreneurs, one example of this, encourages recent graduates and established professionals to build new cultural projects, think outside the box and make things happen out in the world.’

RWCMD Master Class October 2016
Kirsten Mcternan

Now taking over from Hilary Boulding as Principal of RWCMD, I ask her what drew her to the role and her plans for the college. ‘I wanted to take another step into an even more overarching strategic role. The Royal Welsh College spans multiple disciplines and is an institution at a very exciting stage of its development. Wales is such an interesting context at the moment – the creative industries are growing, and there are huge social, cultural, educational and economic issues to address. The arts have a vital part to play in this. It’s essential then that we engage from our strengths and proactively embrace diversity and inclusion agendas.

‘Hilary [Boulding] had an extraordinary vision and transformed the institution not only in terms of its buildings and physical environment but also in the way it connects with the professional industries. International standards, particularly on the drama side of the College are outstanding. Yet, there is a whole lot more to do.’

Whilst at Guildhall, Helena valued partnerships and relationships with the arts industry and she identifies it as something she wants to build upon in her role as Principal.

’The Royal Welsh College has fantastic partnerships with the Welsh National Opera and BBC NOW, for example. We would like to extend those partnerships internationally, and more locally to include for example the National Museum and a range of arts organisations and higher education institutions. We want to look at how collaboratively we can develop a stronger sense both of cultural destination and of impact through the arts into wider Welsh society and further afield.’

Building on her experience at Guildhall, Helena also wants to encourage students at the Royal Welsh College to think about cultural entrepreneurship and innovative professional practice. ‘I think the College has put a lot of effort into encouraging and enabling students to put on their own work and to think out of the box across disciplines. I would like to take this to the next stage, incubating innovative projects for the longer term, and creating a laboratory for fresh thinking and next practice in the arts.’

Chamber Orchestra
Philip Griffiths Photography

Helena wants to continue the direction of giving students the tools they need to find their own strengths. The College already has a strong reputation for supporting every student on a personal pathway. ‘This is something that we will focus on further; how students find their own voice, and go on to make this sustainable as a professional – with the right mentors and support to develop resilience, physically, mentally and in business terms.’

We also discuss the importance of the College’s uniqueness as the only conservatoire in Wales and both its national and international reputation and responsibility as a factor in her attraction to the role there.

‘It is so important that the Royal Welsh College is part of expressing, supporting and developing the Welsh nation and the Welsh brand. There is a huge role for the College to play in flying the Welsh flag in the UK and further afield. This includes championing Welsh music and Welsh theatre. For example, the College is already involved in theatre work in the Welsh language and in nurturing and celebrating the next generation of Welsh composers. There is a vital artistic remit there. There is also an important mandate for the College in advocating for and realising the soft power of the arts for Wales.’

‘In light of Brexit, we must ensure that we stay connected within Europe and further afield overseas. If anything, we must strengthen the sense that professional education is thoroughly engaged internationally, because that is how music and theatre are evolving in our contemporary world.’

I mention the decrease in the uptake of music at GCSE and A-level and ask her whether this is already having a harmful effect on the quality and volume of students at RWCMD.

‘Everyone is aware that this is a particular issue in music. The pressures of fewer young people learning to play mean that we’re seeing fewer people come through to audition with the right level of ability. For some instruments, like oboes and bassoons, this is an acute problem. It is essential that the College now finds ways to play its part in rebuilding music education in Wales. What I am pleased about is that we’re increasingly seeing a number of organisations, including the music services and the conservatoire, looking at how we can work together to develop a compelling and sustainable offer, because quite clearly, no one institution can do it alone.’

‘And it’s not just about music. We must ensure that young people have the opportunities to engage in the arts as a whole. The College’s Young Actors Studio, which has already established its first hub out of Cardiff in Pembrokeshire, is demonstrating the value of properly inclusive opportunities. Talent exists in all quarters of our society, and there is so much more that needs to be done to nurture it. I think without doubt that across the conservatoire sector we profoundly believe that education absolutely has to include the arts, not in the margins but at its heart. This is critical to the UK continuing to be at the forefront of the arts and the creative industries. Perhaps even more importantly, it is critical to the future of the UK as a civilised nation.’

‘The Royal Welsh College plans to play its part in the ecology of the arts and arts education as a whole in Wales, and at an international level. It feels like a very exciting and challenging context, and I’m delighted to be joining such a vibrant community at this time.’

Jessica Salter, Communications Officer, ISM

This feature first appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of ISM Music Journal.