The UK's leading music colleges want to debunk the myth that they are the preserve of students from privileged backgrounds. This is one of the priorities of the new Conservatoires UK group, which represents all the schools and which met this week for its first national conference.
Edward Gregson, the chair of CUK, opened the conference at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. He said the conservatoires had no shortage of applicants, but he hopes that a wider range of young people will consider music. "Our curriculum design is very different from what it was. Ten years ago, you would have thought we ran courses only to train musicians for mainstream classical performance," he said.
CUK aims to be a pressure group for music for all young people. It is an enthusiastic signatory to the Government's music manifesto, which promises discounted tuition for all primary schoolchildren.
In the past month, it has signed a contract with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service to help give conservatoires a more visible and approachable image to potential applications.
Professor Gregson, principal of the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, said website trials were under way and the new system would soon be launched officially. He added that although the conservatoires were funded by the higher education funding councils, they operated individual admissions systems outside Ucas. "We are coming into the mainstream in terms of admissions systems, which I think is long overdue," he said.
The conservatoires were now "a much broader church", including music appropriate to their local communities, such as traditional Scottish music, Asian music and brass band music.
CUK hopes the Government's music manifesto will help to reverse the decline in instrument tuition in state schools. Professor Gregson said this decline dated from the era of the Thatcher Government.
Patricia Ferguson, Scotland's Culture Minister, told the conference that the Scottish Executive, which has committed £17.5 million over three years to give all primary pupils a year's free music tuition, had increased this by £10 million a year until 2007-08.
Nigel Osborne, Reid professor of music at Edinburgh University and founder of a creative arts therapy project for traumatised youngsters in Bosnia, said thinkers from Plato to Adam Smith had recognised that a healthy society cultivated its musical life. Music helped to build a sense of empathy, he said.
Access all arias
Deborah Neville, access coordinator for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, says: "There is an idea that the arts can be very elitist, but we're trying to knock that illusion down.
"We work in the community in so many different ways, in prisons, in stress clinics, with young people from nursery age to older people who are hospitalised.
"We work with communities that have very low progression to higher education, with different ethnic communities, and communities at a distance."
The Glasgow-based RSAMD has established 11 music centres throughout Scotland, including the Highlands and Islands, providing access to music for students unable to travel to the city.
"That includes financial support for tuition and providing instruments for those who need them," Ms Neville said.
The academy is also involved in the pioneering Goals (Greater Opportunity of Access and Learning with Schools) project in the west of Scotland, which last year worked with 2,000 school children from deprived areas.