From education to employment

St Vincent College Head of music setting the right note for next  generation of musical talent

St Vincent College Head of Music Chris Harris with the Solent Sound trophy in one of his department’s rehearsal rooms

A NEW term always brings a frisson of excitement for Chris Harris as a fresh cohort of students gather outside his studios for the first time because he has no idea what great new talent is about to walk through the door.

“It makes you fall in love with the job all over again,” says the 33-year-old Head of Music at St Vincent Sixth Form College in Gosport. “It’s exciting with the new students coming through the door because you just don’t know what they are going to produce.

“You don’t know who is going to perform, who might be better than the Year Twos and whether there’s going to be some competition for them. There are always a few that make you stop and listen.”

This will be the ninth year he has welcomed a new cohort into the studios but each year brings the same mix of young people with a real gift, those who are hell bent on working to earn a place in the music industry and some who need a nudge in the right direction.

Part of Chris’ remit is to help the young musicians on the road towards fulfilling that dream but instilling some good habits along the way. “My way of getting them doing the right things is to find their goals, then I can remind them ‘you want to make a record and be in a band – perhaps rehearsing and being on time will help, what do you think?’,” he says.

“I’m here to make them think about those things and prepare them for the harsh realities of the business.”

He runs six courses that encompass music performance and music technology at Level 2 and 3 and this coming year will have around 40 students. “I like to combine the music performance course with the music technology so while one band are playing the other guys are setting up,” he says.

“The ones setting up the microphones might not think they are having all the fun but they are the ones the music industry is crying out for – it needs more producers, technicians and sound engineers.”

During their two years they will learn all aspects of the industry, from performance and the technical side to sound recording, music promotion and the business side. “You don’t have to be the best musician in the world but you do have to work your socks off if you want to succeed,” he says.

“You are going to have to rehearse, get a job to pay for your living expenses, run your own social media accounts. The music is one part of it but if you want to get paid you have to do everything else and get connected with people.”

His contacts across the south west mean students will get plenty of performing experience with slots in local venues throughout the year as well as at music festivals. “We’ve fought over the last few years and been given some really good opportunities to play at some major festivals and now that reputation is built and the promoters know us,” he says.

“We were at Victorious this summer, yes it was on the very smallest of the stages but our students can say that were on the same bill as Sam Fender, who is probably one of the biggest stars in the world right now, Paolo Nutini and The Libertines.

“The promoters don’t have to do it, they could give all their slots to professional artists but they see it as young people coming through and if they give them a shot now, in a few years they might come back and play again.”

Being at festivals and in music venues is an eye-opener for young people who can see there are many routes into a career in the industry. “Part of my job is getting people to find their niche as well,” Chris says. “Doing a lighting rig or a sound rig can be just as rewarding as performing and there are a thousand different jobs at a festival.”

Seeing that realisation hit home is one of the satisfactions of the job for the Sunderland-born ex-heavy metal drummer, as is seeing his young charges finally land a job.

“Many of the students end up working in the industry but it can take a few years by the time they have left here, gone to university and made contacts,” he says.

“I bumped into former student the other day who was an amazing pianist, he could have been a concert performer he was that good. But he wanted to compose and create and he’s now a full-time composer for a video game company, which is brilliant.

“Another lad is in a band that’s about to record an album in LA and the drummer is also a former student here.”

His advice to all young musicians is to practice but also get out, play with other people, see other performers and make contacts. “Go to gigs, talk to the band, the sound engineer and connect with people, that’s how you find opportunities,” he says.

“It’s not always the best guitarists in the world who get the best gigs, it’s the ones who can use a phone, use a computer and communicate effectively. A lot of the musicians who are virtuosos are what I would call ‘bedroom players’ who spend eight hours mastering a piece but they haven’t got any mates.”

Last year the college won the Solent Sound new band competition for the first time. “They have industry professionals critiquing it and they didn’t get any negative feedback so it was great when we won,” said Chris. “I was really chuffed for the guys because they deserved it.”

The new term will, he knows, throw up a few bright talents that are obviously destined to succeed. “Sometimes they just perform and you think ‘yup, you are actually a musician’,” says Chris.

One student was singer songwriter Erin Newman who is studying at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford but still has Chris as a backing musician for gigs. “I’m sure she could find someone better than me but I just love it,” he says.

His own experience at college has shaped his attitude to his students and their studies. “There were these people who appreciated and celebrated the fact that I could do something well, like play the drums and they pushed me to do it more,” he says. “Without them my life would be very different.”

That’s why his biggest thrill is seeing his own charges succeed. “Just seeing musicians progress is quite nice, I’ve only got them for a couple of years so I’m trying to instil some ground rules, some of the things they should do, some ethics and practical routine and then they go off to better things,” he says.

“What I get a kick out of is bumping into them a few years later and hearing that they’re working in the industry – that’s really brilliant.”

Find out more about music courses at St Vincent College here.

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