Busker BAs

John Robert Brown

Are you a gambler, seeking an exciting way to spend your A-levels? If yes, a BSc (Hons) in Business Economics with Gambling Studies at the University of Salford could be a good bet, with work placements at UK gambling firms. Interested in fire engines and hoses? How about a degree in Fire Engineering at the University of Central Lancashire.Keen on surfing? Why not combine sport with education and take your surfboard along to the Institute of Marine Studies at the University of Plymouth for its BSc (Hons) in Surf Science and Technology.There is now a whole industry devoted to devising higher education courses in subjects never previously considered for degree-level study. While some thinkers are still debating whether this is the correct direction for higher education, others are devising more such courses in an ever-widening range of subjects.

In many institutions the question is no longer, is it appropriate, but can we enrol the target student numbers? In our universities, the supposed citadels of critical thought, the route to survival and success is not to question the trend, but to follow it enthusiastically. How can our music departments contribute to this nice little earner? What sexy new music course can we think of to attract lots of students, provide good retention rates for those enrolled, have links with industry, satisfy the higher education funding councils, please the various foreign funding bodies that support overseas students, and give encouraging employment statistics for its graduates?

Look around any decent HE education fair, and you'll find a variety of music degrees and diplomas on offer, from DJ Scratch Mix to Indian Music, and just about everything in between. But there is one aspect of performance that seems to have been overlooked. It's the one type of live music we all experience. Busking.

An interested and varied three-year course could be designed around busking, with a six-month work placement on the street, shop doorway or underpass. Study topics could include building the most effective repertoire, how to dress for success, the effectiveness of eye contact with passers-by, the choice of location, how to deal with critics, laws affecting public performance, the relative effectiveness of the solo versus the ensemble, what to do with foreign coins, how much cash to leave in view, the effectiveness of an attendant dog and when to move on.To begin with, the course document would need to be written. As the subject matter doesn't sound too grand, a supporting document could benefit from a coat of academic verbal varnish to make it sound erudite. A sprinkling of jargon words and phrases would do the trick, such as 'accountability and excellence', 'homologies of structure' and 'interdisciplinary derivatives'. Use of such vocabulary would be essential to be taken seriously, and to cover up the bald patches. Staffing would be simple. Faculty members could be recruited from a street near you. Extramural lecturers and external examiners could be drawn from those advanced buskers who travel from city to city, or from those who have an international career.

Some musicians already take this matter seriously. The cellist Julian Lloyd Webber has recently been named the first official busker of the London Underground. He has already appeared at Westminster station, playing a selection of music composed by his brother, Andrew.

In May, papers reported two operatic buskers had been picked to sing at the finals of the FA Cup and Champions League after being spotted singing on the streets of London. Rebecca Knight and Karen England, now known as the Opera Babes, were seen outside the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, by the team charged with organising the pre-match entertainment. As a result they sang the National Anthem and Abide With Me in Cardiff in May, and performed individually in Milan a fortnight later. Rebecca Knight is a mezzo from Hitchin, Hertfordshire, who trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

So, there you have it. One of our major colleges is already unwittingly training people who go out busking - and I'll bet Rebecca Knight and Karen England aren't the only products of our music colleges to advance their careers by busking. All that is required now is for some daring college to act on my suggestion, seize the initiative, and formalise the process. Any takers?

This article first appeared in The Guardian, August 17th ,2001. Used by kind permission.
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