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.