As the head of Barnsley College’s music department, Richard Tolson knows all too well about how the music business works as well as the importance of music in education.
Richard, more affectionately referred to as Rich T (a popular British biscuit) by both colleagues and students, has been in the music industry for the majority of his life. Working as a professional musician for various artists Richard toured extensively around Europe. After several years on stage, he decided to step from the limelight and take up working on the other side of the desk as a sound engineer.
Richard also spent some time working as a resident composer for a television company, writing many commissioned works.
Having spent many years working as a professional musician both on stage and in the studio, Richard decided to take his career in a new direction. In the nineties he set up an education company creating music education materials for schools, colleges and universities.
Richards next logical move was to progress into teaching. While still working, he completed his teaching qualifications, and after doing several years’ freelance tuition and teaching at other professional organisations, he settled into his job as the head of the Barnsley College music department.
Not being one to just sit behind a desk all day, Richard likes to get involved in students learning, encouraging them to be the best they can be. He also passes on his valuable knowledge by teaching several classes including Associated Board theory and music technology.
Alongside his job Richard peruses other things including working on his own musical compositions. However his creativeness isn’t confined just to music as also has a keen interest in photography, specifically sports photography.
He is also a director of Penistone FM radio station, and as such is responsible for the scheduling of the round-the-clock music, training and a variety of other tasks.
Richard was happy to answer my questions:
How did you get into the music industry?
I studied music privately whilst at school, learning the piano as a foundation instrument. I went onto college and after a year studying A levels decided to switch to a BTEC vocational performing arts music course. Changing pathways was the best thing to happen to me at that time. Before that I wanted to be a sound engineer but felt the school’s career person would say ‘get a real job’. So I spent one year doing A levels and then through it I realised I needed to study for what I wanted to do, not what the careers officer wanted me to do. The course was excellent and really allowed me to develop and experience different aspects of the music profession in a structured and secure environment. Leaving college I went to University ‘Bretton Hall College’ to study Popular Music. Whilst in the final year of the degree I answered an advert for a keyboard player and joined a band. I was in Germany touring when my dissertation had to be handed in, so I got someone else to hand it in for me. So there were no lucky breaks, simply studying and practicing my instrument / technology.
What artists have you played for and toured with?
I’ve played for many bands and live sound engineered along the way. I spent many years playing keys and doing pre production work for bands then moved into live sound engineering. I’ve worked with many artists, famous and upcoming acts, headlining and supporting – at the end of the day it’s a show and then you move onto the next gig.
What do you think the future of music technology is?
In a professional environment I believe in the studio you will see many touch screen mixing desks making an appearance, where the console is a huge touch screen work surface that interacts and replaces the mixing desk. We are nearly there already with digital desk and monitors.
How did you get into teaching?
I wanted to take control of my own income, instead of it being depicted by agents. So I enrolled on an introduction to teaching qualification that gave me a foot in the door into a local college. The course ran on a night that we rarely worked so it was ideal. I think I missed a few sessions due to work but was able to catch up and complete. The qualification and networking in the education sector secured me some paid teaching hours and the rest is history. I worked in a school for a year, privately taught, and worked in colleges. College FE sector was what I preferred and have stayed in since. I work now at Barnsley College where we have just been recognised by OFSTED as an outstanding college. Recognition of this type in the education sector is excellent for staff and students recognising all the hard work and standards we have at the college
Why do you think music courses are so popular?
Music courses help people develop in so many ways. Yes people want to learn an instrument and find employment in the music industry and related fields. However good courses are also designed to develop young people in terms of confidence, time keeping, social skills, networking skills etc all things to aid progression in life. Music is a fun subject however it’s still demanding and to be studied at academic levels.
Do you find teaching rewarding or would you rather still be working as a professional musician?
Teaching is a highly rewarding job. For a while I was able to do both, teach and work professionally. I put in silly hours, finishing work at college at 5pm and then being driven down to a gig 4 hours away, do the gig and then driven home to have 2 hours in my own bed and then back to work at college. Great at the time and I did it for a long time, but it’s also nice at the moment to spend time at home, not living your life travelling. I put long hours in at college now so committing to professional gigs is very hard. I will go back to it but not at the moment. It’s important I do go back to it otherwise the industry relevance is not credible anymore. The best aspects of teaching are seeing young people develop and seeing them recognise the educational distance they have travelled and the journey they have been on whilst studying with you.
What have been the highlights of your career?
Every student achieving their qualification.
Have there been any parts of your career that you regret?
None, apart from needing more time in the day and possibly spending more time working as a composer in residence for a TV company – that was good fun.
What does music mean to you?
Music is a form of bringing people together and enabling talented people on stage and behind the stage to enjoy their line of work. A lot of work in music is not glamorous, people see the product, the finished item, but the process is the challenging part that we all enjoy as well.
What advice would you give to people wanting to get into the music industry?
Come and study at Barnsley College or your local music institution. As a musician you are self employed ultimately, you can either play your instrument or you cannot. There is a market for everybody in the music industry, do your research, understand what market you want to work in, never bad mouth another act. The industry is small and you are guaranteed to meet paths again in the future.
Thanks very much.
As always, happy to help!