Training British virtuosos -- worth a shiny tuppence

''You think buying a French horn was expensive?'' One parent was saying to another in a crowded entry hall to one of London's best-known schools, the Royal College of Music behind the Albert Hall in Knightsbridge.

''That's only (STR)1,300 ($1,950); let me tell you something: My daughter plays the harp.

''It cost me (STR)7,000 ($10,500) for a new one.'' The other parent blanched. ''And that's not all. We had to buy a new station wagon to haul it around.''

It was a typical (well, almost typical) conversation on the first day of the junior department in the ornate, red-brick, Victorian Royal College.

The college itself, known around the world, was founded 101 years ago, in the same year (1882) that Cesar Franck was emerging from obscurity, that Tchaikovsky was working on ''Mazeppa,'' that Richard Wagner was finishing ''Parsifal,'' and that Rimsky-Korsakov was between jobs.

The junior department, attended by children from 10 to 18 on Saturdays, began in 1926. Among its better-known graduates: composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (''Cats, '' ''Evita''), his cello-playing brother Julian, and the classical guitarist Julian Bream.

Aside from the classroom sounds of flute, violin, horn, piano, and cello, the hubbub in the hallways was typical of schools - musical and nonmusical private and public, elementary and secondary and tertiary - all over Britain as another academic year swung into gear. And like many parents around the country, the parents of junior department students fretted over their child's education.

The Royal College of Music, like almost all institutions of higher education here, relies heavily on government grants. At a time of prolonged recession, those grants are being cut and economy is the order of the day. Yet hard times or no hard times, parents spend money on musical children today as they have done and will continue to do. The reputation of the Royal College is high.

Unlike its elder parent, however, the junior department itself receives no public funds. Still, more than half its pupils (149) have all their fees paid by a local government authority (council). Another 10 have half their fees met.

The recession hits in a more insidious way. So many local education authorities have had to cut back because of reductions in state spending that the Royal College is no longer finding as wide a range of young people coming to audition. Then too, prices can discourage students from taking up particularly expensive instruments.

''We are inundated with flute players,'' director Edward Fivet says. ''They all want to be James Galways, you know. . . . On the other hand we are short of violas, double basses, and bassoons, partly because the instruments tend to be expensive and partly because you need physical strength to handle a double bass. . . .''

Mr. Fivet remains cheerful, however. ''We have 276 students this year,'' he says. ''That's down from just under 330 last year, but we had an unusually large number of older ones leaving.''

The junior department is unique in another way: It teaches music but tries to discourage many students from taking up music full time.

According to Mr. Favet, many young people don't realize the difference between music as fun and music as full-time work.

The profession is filled with cut-throat competition in Britain, which has only nine major orchestras, five of them in London. It has been estimated that for every orchestral vacancy that occurs, 60 to 70 applicants come forward. Many musicians go to Europe, to West Germany in particular, which has many more orchestras than Britain.

Says former director Barbara Boissard, ''We try and advise students not to join the profession, but they don't all listen. . . .''

Yet some do: this year only about 45 graduates of the junior department went on to study at the Royal College full time.

A major project for the junior department now is to send its orchestra to New York, Washington, and Philadelphia in August and September of next year - if sufficient funds can be raised.

It is eagerly discussed in the hallways - a great incentive, even if it means extra spending for fathers who have had to find (STR)7,000 for a daughter's harp.

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