What are conservatoires for?

Posted: March 20, 2011 in Pedagogy
Tags: , , , ,

What should modern conservatoires be setting out to achieve? Christopher Walters offers a personal response to a debate on this subject held recently at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

I am a conservatoire graduate. My student years were a confusing time in many ways, but one thing seemed clear: the conservatoire experience seemed much more defined for those who had a clear idea of where they wanted to head professionally. These focused individuals had come to the conservatoire to study with a particular teacher and they focused relentlessly on their lessons, with lots of practice in between. The conservatoire’s supposedly well-rounded course meant nothing to them and they did their best to avoid all other classes, which they seemed to do quite easily, as if there was an unspoken understanding that for them the supporting lectures didn’t really matter. But they were undoubtedly gaining something, namely the technique and the nouse required to flourish as a professional musician.

I, on the other hand, floundered, and I suspect I wasn’t alone. For the many students in my year who, like me, arrived with general enthusiasm, a degree of ability and the expectation of a practical, wide-ranging music course – for which the conservatoire’s literature had primed us – the first year was a bewildering vacuum, with little by way of encouragement or support. For me this was made worse by a principal study teacher who took a conveyor-belt approach to teaching, leaving little room for meaningful development. Others among my peers fared better, simply because their principal study teachers were better able to understand where they were coming from.

I mention all this because, to me, Biranda Ford, a research assistant at the Guildhall School, seemed to be speaking from a similar point of view as she presented her research at a recent gathering at the Guildhall School. Ford argued that conservatoire students should engage ‘critically and creatively’ with music, as opposed to focusing mainly on technical development, and that this engagement should be rooted in the principal study, not just in a few peripheral bolt-on modules.

Ford’s proposal is a good one because it would facilitate a genuine move towards the provision of both vocational and broader, transferrable skills, catering for the full range of conservatoire students. She is also right that change needs to happen mainly at the point of principal study – but how? The hallowed principal study is often a locked door, behind which anything goes. For me, this is what Ford failed to address: that principal study teachers are neither trained nor inspected. I believe that until they are, real change will not happen.

I heard recently that a certain conservatoire is about to bring in compulsory teacher training for all its principal study teachers. About time too! If this is true, it will force the other conservatoires to keep up, which will in turn go some way towards addressing the gaping holes in what conservatoires currently offer their students.

  1. George Odam says:

    I was pleased to listen to the aforementioned lecture at the Guildhall School recently and I am proud, as a recently retired staff member, that the School is willing not only to present this work, but to have sponsored it throughout its formative stages. This particular conservatoire is truly willing to be reflective and deserves praise and commendation. Conservatoires, as institutions – all over the world – fall back too easily on the evidence of a few illustrious alumni, living in their reflected glory and ignoring evidence of the many, such as the editor himself, for whom the intensive master/apprentice rather than a pure teaching system did and does not work. Biranda Ford, in her excellent analysis, put her finger on several faults in the ways conservatoires currently provide for their students. At each stage her arguments were fortified by direct quotations from recent students.

    The first I fault wish to identify and emphasise is the fact much of what suited the society supporting conservatoires during the second half of the nineteenth century is still being served up as curriculum and methodology, supposedly relevant to the first half of the twenty-first.The second fault, strongly supported by evidence from current students, was the lack of the engagement of a student’s creativity in their musical studies and its teaching. The third was to be found in the ways in which students are examined and assessed and the fitness for purpose of such exams.

    She also drew attention to a narrative of failure as a potential weakness in a system that so easily drives on the intensity of competition, relying on the crude principle of the survival of the fittest to sort things out. The Editor in his blog above also brings in the vexed question of the training of conservatoire instrumental teachers.

    There is need for an objective analysis of how success through the conservatoire system has been and is being achieved. The biographies in many concert and opera programmes show how many of those who make it into the profession have been post-graduate students, many coming from a diversity of undergraduate studies. Biranda herself is a case in point. The undergraduate course is four years long and the case for this length of study, given the criticisms like those given by Christopher above, needs to be made coldly and analytically. Crude economics are going to make this analysis imperative if new generations of students are to continue to be able to benefit from the best of what conservatoires offer. The description the Editor gives of the balance of his curriculum is far nearer to that of a post-graduate course, where research and self-motivated study is the norm. If it can be shown that post-graduate conservatoire study is vital for professional success, as was the case of Bryn Terfel for instance, then maybe there is an argument for concentrating energies and shrinking resources on this aspect. Drama is also a main study at the Guildhall and Daniel Craig and Joseph Feinnes graduated into the profession after only three years of intensive physical and intellectual study without one to one teaching. In these days of economic privation everything has to be questioned and justified.

    Many of the current conservatoire teachers I know, and there are so many very good ones, would agree about the corrosive influence of chasing technical perfection at the expense of musical insight. Some of the greatest teachers, like Graham Johnson for instance, concentrate intensely on musical understanding and artistic insight without allowing the need for sound technique ever to be forgotten. His recent books clearly demonstrate this. However, the system of examining with heavy emphasis on one short main recital in the final year, tends to drive the teaching of students down an ever narrowing corridor. Is such a system of assessment by ‘apprentice piece’ still fit for purpose and what should those ‘pieces’ be? Is it equally fair to all students? Does it match the needs of a profession that is mostly based on a portfolio of work? Does it reward creativity and engagement and promote the values, skills and opportunities of the world outside the conservatoire? This examining methodology was first formulated in the nineteenth century and it dominates the curriculum still. In the end, examination systems define the teaching, and for evidence of this witness the problems raised by the National Curriculum in schools and the examination system towards which it teaches. Teaching to the test is inevitable and, in the end the test itself is the easiest thing through which to promote change. In essence examinations should be real jobs for real people.

    The Association of European Conservatoires has been much engaged over the past few years in looking at the recruitment, professional training and professional development of conservatoire instrumental teachers. This work is on-going and deserves all encouragement. Reference to it and some details of this work can be found on the AEC website. It is not accidental that the initiative for this international study first came from the Guildhall School, some of whose teachers continue to be actively engaged in it. Since most institutions employ about 400 of instrumental teachers, drawing straight from a profession that is notoriously difficult to enter and in which to remain stable, recruitment for the many instrumental teachers needed is a constant headache for the administration and heads of departments. If conservatoire students were under the age of majority then such loose and informal recruitment of teachers would be banned. But the potential for harm as well as good lingers on. Looking at it from an inexperienced teacher’s point of view, there is a distinct lack of induction, code of practice and professional development on which to rely and from which to learn. The nightmare of making teacher training obligatory would instantly deprive all managers of sleep forever, although a few noble souls do elect to undertake teacher training courses. There is a lot to be said for the master/apprentice system of training and for a practical approach to be dominant, but even masters need help to avoid the abuse of apprentices so well documented in history.

    Biranda, at the beginning of her lecture, reminded us of the true meaning of the word ‘conservatoire’. The protecting, nurturing, blossoming and conserving function of the first conservatoires in Renaissance Italy, was directed solely at the orphaned pupils, for whom music provided a ladder of opportunity. In most conservatoires today the emphasis appears to be on conserving the so-called eternal verities of a canon of repertoire to which both student and teacher are subservient. Because of this, the creation and performance of new music continues to occupy a smaller and sometimes closeted existence, this is by contrast with Paris in the nineteenth century, and even Venice in the sixteenth, where most of the music performed was contemporary.

    • Many thanks George. You are right that the Guildhall deserves credit for sponsoring this research, which has not sought to put a positive spin on the conservatoire experience. I should add that my conservatoire experience has not held me back in life, and any lack of structure may well have given me extra drive. In addition it was often an exhilarating environment. But my reservations about aspects of the conservatoire curriculum remain, and I will be interested to see whether or not Biranda’s recommendations are developed in any noticeable way.

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