Out of Croydon, the real Fame Academy This week's Brit awards will feature singers who were students at a unique free school, writes David Smith Sunday February 15, 2004 The Observer The neighbouring streets are down -at-heel, the railway station gets its share of drunken football fans and the nearest town is Croydon, long derided as a lumpen jungle of gloomy tower blocks. Yet thi s is fast becoming the heart of Britain's music industry. From the outside, the Brit School for the Performing Arts and Technology blends well enough into its humdrum surroundings. Inside, however, there is a sense of youthful brio. Teenagers are acting and dancing in a state-of-the-art theatre, experimenting in the visual arts, broadc asting from their own radio station or making music in a digital studio designed by Sir George Martin. One group of 16-y ear- olds is grilling members of Duran Duran about how to make it in one of the world's most fickle professions. Welcome to the real Fame Academy - ent ry is free. Uniquely in performing arts education, the Brit School is jointly funded by the Government and the British Record Industry Trust, a charitable organisation set up by record companies to promote music education. When the £6 million building was officialy opened 12 years ago by Culture Sec retary David Mellor, it survived local protests. Now it has pros pered as a cent re of excellenc e that has defied elitism to become the engine driving homegrown talent. Key among the charitable donations will be proceeds from the Brit Awards, where this year former Brit student Amy Winehous e, the 20-year-old jazz-influenced singer, has two nominations. A current student, Katie Melua, 19, will perform at the Brits after being called up in place of Dido, having already knocked the superstar off the top of the album charts with her debut 'Call Off The Search'. Students like Ella-Louise Brown, 16, who would not have been able to afford fees to attend, says: 'I want to improve my singing and songwriting. I didn't come here because I want to be famous, that's not what it's about. When I started here I was thinking: "How am I going to write a song?" At home it would take me hours, but when you know you have a deadline your mind works differently. 'There is a very special atmosphere here. At breaktime and lunchtime people are in the corridors playing guitar and singing with each ot her. We're always helping each other get better. We'll be honest and tell someone if their voice is not on top form.' The school's philosophy is to hone individual talent in an age of conformity. Nick Williams, the principal, says: 'Katie Melua was encouraged to explore musical styles and to develop as a musician. In Britain we've become cons ervative about music. People are defensive about what will sell and what won't. 'The music industry are good people to work with. They've always understood we're about more than a record factory. They're glad we've got a Number One and high-profile ex-students and are also very glad we've had the biggest improvement in GSCE results in the country. We don't want students who don't care about their academic future - we want to excel on all fronts.' Each year the school takes on around 130 14 -year-olds, who study a full range of GCSEs along with vocational courses, and 300-350 16-year-olds, whose qualification carries the same weight as three A-levels, and who often study an A-level in addition. Ninety per cent are drawn from London, north Kent and nort h Surrey, with 10 per cent from the rest of Britain. There are often three to four applicants to every place, with selection based on auditions, workshops and interviews. The school's vocational courses are in dance, theatre, musical theatre, music, production, visual art and design and media. There is significant crossover potential. Louis Johnson, 16, from Dulwich, south London, studying music, has just finished working on a radio programme entitled Songs that changed the World. 'We had to produce a cover version of 'My Generation' by The Who and make a radio doc umentary explaining why it had such impact,' he says. 'I thought I had a wide musical knowledge before I came here but now it's definitely wider.' Students are encouraged to gain experienc e in the industry through workshops, work placements and auditions. Tuesday afternoons are devoted to audition requests and it was at one of these sessions that Melua met Mike Batt, the composer and record producer who has become her mentor. They are also taught the practicalities of business, legal issues s uch as copyright, temping should they fall on hard times, and how to target the Radio 2 playlist. Singers such as Ronan Keating and Tom Jones, the DJ Judge Jules and producer Glyn Johns, who work ed with the Beatles, have all visited to share their ex pertise. There is an unusually loyal network of alumni which now includes Grammy-nominated Floetry, a duo formed by graduates Marsha Ambrosius and Natalie Stewart, who have written songs for Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson. A casual visitor is struck by the students' good behaviour and friendly yet respectful manner towards teachers (older students call the principal 'Nick'). It is nothing to do with a privileged upbringing, as the intake crosses all boundaries of class and rac e. They are at the school by will rather than compulsion and already have a focus on their careers, often working into the evening and reluctant to go home. Tony Castro, the director of music, says: 'All the students are here by choice. Nothing compares with going to sleep having earned your money as a musician. Being paid for doing somet hing you feel in your bones is not a bad feeling. I've got a department full of kids who are passionate about it. That 's the one thing we cannot teach: if you don't have the passion, you won't be here. 'We are not about producing identikit singers or the Fame Academy thing. We want everyone to find the thing that makes them different. We spark them, give them a hard time and don't search for less than excellent. 'The discipline is very import ant: a deadline is a deadline. I don't see it as my job to tell them how lovely they are and how well they're doing. They've got to be multi-talented if they're going to have anything more than a five-minute career.' The Department for Education and Skills' annu al £3 million contribution is vital, he adds. 'It's fundamental that it's free. There are a pile of kids out there who don't have a "traditional music background". If you're in a primary school where music isn't valued, it can be very hard. We are representing a need to find kids with talent wherever they are. ' A classic example is Winehous e, whos e time at the Sylvia Young stage school ended unhappily before she found redemption at the Brit school, and who this week may be crowned on British music's biggest stage. Her former teacher, Adrian Packer, says: 'Although she had a difficult history wit h her previous schools, we felt she would benefit from the style of learning at the Brit School. We gave her a plac e because her individuality was overwhelming. She was self-assured and instinctively expressive. She was extremely popular with other students because she always resisted the obvious; she was inquisitive and challenging. 'The bottom line of this place is that the diversity is staggering. It's culturally , socially and emotionally diverse. Amy fitted in because of her individuality. There isn't a "Brit School type", and that is the key.'
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