This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam's pop division, a significant milestone that prompts reflection and celebration. Established as a breeding ground for international talent, this unique division has catapulted numerous musicians into successful careers. From notable alumni like DeWolff, WIES, and Jungle by Night, to bands performing at prestigious festivals such as Eurosonic Noorderslag, Glastonbury, and SXSW, the division has a rich history of accolades including the Sena Pop NL Award and the Grote Prijs van Nederland. But what fuels this remarkable success, and what does 'pop' even mean in today's evolving landscape? To get an insider's perspective on its 20-year journey, and to find out what to expect from the much-anticipated anniversary concert on October 5th at the Melkweg venue, we spoke with the department's pioneering founder and coördinator, Jack Pisters.
So, first things first. Jack, what’s your own background? What led you to wanting to start the pop division?
“Well, my passion was rock music. However, I chose to study jazz primarily because I had played electric guitar as a child and had no desire to delve into classical guitar. I did enjoy playing classical piano; however, I always found it difficult to remain seated for long periods. My parents were classical music enthusiasts, and I was already enrolled in piano lessons, so additional guitar lessons weren't an option, particularly given the cost.
Around the time I was 13 or entered secondary school, we had woodworking classes, and that's where I built my electric guitar. My determination was simply unstoppable. Eventually, my parents recognised my devotion, especially after the homemade guitar began to warp—though it still produced sound and I still own it to this day. They finally decided to purchase a proper electric guitar for me. My commitment to the instrument was so fervent that I won Gary Moore's guitar in a solo competition within a few years. Simultaneously, I played in a hard rock band and continued my classical piano studies. It didn't seem all that unusual at the time; others also mixed and matched their musical skills, blending different genres.
Back then, you could either study jazz or classical music, so I chose the first. Before my jazz studies, I started teaching and exploring pedagogical methods. I wanted to incorporate music and teaching and started working at CVA. It was especially exciting to help others with their solo’s It always struck me as odd though, this duality of rocking out in bands over the weekend and then switching to a more formal, academic setting during the week.”
Having enjoyed a fulfilling 12-year tenure at the conservatory's jazz department, Jack Pisters recognised a vital gap: the music he broadly categorised as 'pop' deserved its place within the institution, particularly with a focus on the composition of new songs and fresh material. A pivotal decision was made in 2003 to launch a pop division in Amsterdam. Armed with a deep familiarity of the institution, Pisters was perfectly poised to assemble a dedicated faculty and design a curriculum that, in his words, was both "fresh and in alignment with the essence of this musical form."
How do you look back on the last 20 years?
“Looking back on the past 20 years, I'm incredibly thrilled by the high-quality music our students are producing. It's been astounding to see how quickly they've been able to perform at major festivals like Pinkpop and even Glastonbury. Initially, I thought it might take longer for them to reach such stages. The international touring accomplishments are also remarkable. A few years back, we had five or six acts from our division sell out Paradiso with their own original music, which is no small feat. And let’s not forget all the sold out Ziggo Dome’s by Kensington.
When we first started the pop division, the notion of a conservatory focusing on pop music wasn't taken very seriously. Now, doors are opening everywhere for our graduates. They're not just touring across Europe, but globally, and we have a number of bands making a significant international impact. I find this incredibly impressive, and I make it a point to frequently attend performances by our alumni. It's gratifying to see how far we've come and the exceptional talent that has emerged from our programme.”
What would you say, are the most significant changes and developments you’ve seen?
“Over the last two decades, our curriculum has been highly adaptive, constantly evolving to meet the changes in the music industry. We've added diverse production courses and regularly update our business classes, ensuring we cover an ever-changing array of music styles and instruments. This hands-on approach keeps things interesting for both faculty and students. The highlight is that our students graduate by creating their own original music, which allows us to address specific questions and issues that come up along the way.
Five years ago, we expanded our offerings with the launch of the Amsterdam Electronic Music Academy (AEMA). It opened doors for students to major in laptop-based music production, offering a two-year associate degree focused on electronic genres like urban, hip-hop, and techno. This has infused new energy into the programme, attracting a diverse set of students and top-tier instructors.
Our business classes are deeply integrated into our students' graduation projects from day one. Them organising the maydays festivals is a good example of that. Given the growth of digital platforms and social media, this area of study is always in movement, offering various elective courses to meet the current demands of the industry.
Every student engages in recording, producing, and song writing, all centred around creating new music. The aim is not just to produce exceptional musicians but also entrepreneurial artists. Whether they end up writing music for documentaries or crafting their own albums, the focus is on contributing new, quality content to the musical landscape. It's a dynamic ecosystem, and we strive to keep up, if not stay ahead.”
What do you want people to know about the programme?
“Our musical scope is incredibly diverse, spanning from Bob Dylan to Justin Bieber and Frank Zappa to Kendrick Lamar. We're not confined to a genre; we're an inclusive space for all musical styles. Our alumni have found their way into numerous bands such as Goldband and Spinvis, exemplifying our range.
Our students are vocal not just in music but also on global issues, including mental health, the environment and so on. We listen to them and adapt our curriculum to their needs. They define their own styles, and we discuss everything. ZEP, one of the bands that will be performing on October 5th, gained 180.000 followers on TikTok during the pandemic, using it as a creative platform. We look at that and discuss the opportunities. Opinions can vary widely but are all valued.
We help our students with all aspects, but we won’t organise a tour for them or participation with projects such as the Popronde. We want to teach them how to do this themselves and answer questions they might have while pursuing it. That’s much more beneficial in the long run.
What we look for in our students is a clear vision for their music, a willingness to learn, and an openness to evolving. They must have a strong work ethic and a passion for all kinds of popular music. We adapt and listen to our students, ensuring our programme remains fresh and relevant.”
What can we expect on October 5th?
“It's going to be an extraordinary celebration at a venue that holds a special place in our hearts. Amsterdam's music venues, including Paradiso and Bitterzoet, have been incredible supporters, especially through the challenges of the pandemic. Our relationship with Melkweg is particularly significant to us.
We’ve invited students and alumni from various years, showcasing an eclectic mix of acts. Some may be touring internationally and won't make it, but we intend to represent the diversity of our community. I’m incredibly excited about the names we’ve already released and there’s much more to come. We’re not allowed to name some yet, but they will make for great surprise acts. People are really going to be disappointed if they miss out.
It's a night to raise a glass to all we've accomplished, thanks to our incredible instructors, staff, and, of course, the students who have shaped us.
In essence, expect an electrifying live concert experience. The event serves as a meeting point for anyone involved or interested in exploring pop music as an art form. It's a retrospective and a celebration, encapsulating the spirit of the academy across its multiple stages.”