Part 2: Conservatoires are too Conservative

Conservatoires are interesting beasts. From the outside, the concept of a school for music is both logical and necessary; a continuation of a fine tradition first institutionalised in Paris in the late-18th Century (though tracing its history through centuries of church training).

It is on the inside that issues begin to arise. Whilst I have no doubt that these institutions started with the most pure intentions, we find ourself at a paradoxical crossroads now. Put simply, schools aren’t teaching creativity anymore. They are almost exclusively concerned with re-creativity.

As a young student, you are told that if you practice enough, you will succeed. When I was a student at the Royal Academy of Music, London, I was one of one hundred and four piano students throughout the undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Our days were filled with the minimal amount of contact classes, with private practice (six hours plus) given a premium.  It is quite a surreal thing to walk through the practice rooms of a high level music academy. You hear Liszt rhapsodies, Rachmaninoff concerti, Chopin etudes, Beethoven sonatas, all in a macabre aural orgy of technical facility. We all practiced manically; to get that examination mark, win that competition, get that recording contract, play that world-famous concert hall, under that world-famous conductor.

In reality, maybe one or two of the pianists in that class will be successful in securing a recording contract. Five or six more might have success in the large international competitions around the world, leading to performance careers. Perhaps two will become successful Conservatoire instrumental teachers, another five or six becoming successful repetiteurs. At an extremely optimistic level, this leaves around eighty immensely talented and hard-working pianists (only pianists!) left in the workplace with nowhere to hide.  And now multiply this by the three, for the other high-calibre music schools in London, then add those schools in Scotland, Ireland, Germany, France, Italy, etc., etc.

I quite enjoyed my time at RAM. It was wonderful to be surrounded by these incredible talents, and the manic work ethic endemic to the establishment. Every day at lunch, we would sit together in the canteen; either in catatonic silence as we recovered from two straight hours of note-bashing, or in overly-expressive and animated expressions of fury, as our narcissistic (every pianist is a narcissist. It is the only way to justify spending six hours a day or more in a room by yourself) need to complain would rise to boiling point.

The student body was an interesting thing to watch also. Cliques formed according to instruments and nationalities, as naturally as they occur in high school. The cellists were the cool kids; violinists the too-cool kids. Violists hid behind the two, whilst double-bassists kept to their own corner and never disturbed anyone (unless they were trying to get through the same door as you with instrument in tow). The flute players were strange but sweet; clarinet players living up to their hyper-phallicised expectations. Singers - wait, did I mention pianists were narcissists? - would walk around dressed as if about to take the Met stage at 9am on Monday morning, talking at anyone who would listen. Brass players were rarely seen outside of the bar, percussionists were the stoners, pianists were the nerds.

Perhaps the most universal feature of the music student collective, was the strong aversion to any class that wasn’t strictly related to performance. This included history, theory & analysis, and especially, music business. To most students, the concept of owning and operating a sole-trader company is as foreign as working as a chef in a kitchen. To most, the concept of having to focus on anything not explicitly related to instrumental mastery, is considered an utter waste of time. Why spend time writing an essay or reading texts when you could be practicing (… or drinking in the bar downstairs)

The onus here is on the instrumental teachers. Here is the crux of the issue: instrumental teachers represent the one percent of musicians who have made a success of instrumental performance - and as such, often were able to avoid these banalities. Rightly so, they aim to mould their students into replicas of their own image- with one motive only, to create the best possible players. But the teacher is not only one cog in the machine, they often play the role of mentor with guru-esque stature in the life of a young musician. So if they are not openly passionate about business/marketing/PR, in teaching theory, in a fully-rounded musical education, then where will the influence come from?

Music students as a collective are far too complacent in their situation, and what they assume to be their academic requirements. Quite simply, they do not know what is expected from them after they leave the hallowed halls, and if they do, they are not trained competently enough to search for the full potential use of their trained skills. When I was an undergraduate student in Adelaide, we were given six weeks in a three year course of music industry training, which included grant applications, budgeting, music licensing and copyrights, and legal documents. Six weeks. In context, there were three separate performance classes per week, meaning a total of around two hundred and sixteen individual classes on performance, alongside the seventy two instrumental lessons; or roughly five hundred and seventy six hours of instrumental learning. And six hours of career development.

So we focus on the primary purpose of our study - the instrumental development. But what exactly are we learning? Perhaps one of the most frequent and uninspiring questions I heard in Masterclasses and repertoire classes was ‘What recordings have you listened to?’, or, ‘Which is your favourite recording of this piece?’. Why is this question asked so frequently? To an optimistic person, it may be to test how much inspiration the student has received whilst learning this piece. The pessimist, however, would view this as a damning indictment of the importance placed on recycling ideas and taking them as gospel; that each student must subordinate to a previous ‘master’. To play a Chopin ballade, one must listen to twenty different recordings, and make a collage of their favourite musical ideas before presenting the finished product.

What happened during the pre-recording era, when the only way to experience music was via actual experience - not sitting at home with a set of headphones, scrolling through YouTube and Spotify? Careful now, but did a musician actually have to make legitimate decisions based on instinct and educated style? The optimistic vs. pessimistic argument above is answered best by sitting on the parochial fence; yes, it is important to understand style, before making educated decisions based on historical precedent. The danger is the utter reliance that not only students, but teachers also, have in referring to recorded material. Put simply, if Richter played it this way, it must be correct, therefore, be more Richter. 

But I am not Richter. I wish I was Richter. I wish I was Pollini, Horowitz, Van Cliburn, Perahia. But I am not; I am Lloyd. And if I tried to be the above, I would be a very poor imitation of the above. I am, however, the best Lloyd the world has ever known. Likewise, my friends are the best Lebhardt’s, Myslek’s, Sandrin’s, Grigaliūnaité’s in the world. It is time to embrace that fact; though this will be discussed further in the Recording Industry section of these posts.

Teachers are often forced to downplay individualism in conservatories. Art is perhaps the most subjective matter in the world. Yet in a university system it must be adjudicated objectively in order to give a percentage mark for students to graduate. The flashpoint moment in my career was a very small moment in a private lesson. I was playing through Noël, the thirteenth movement of Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus. Whilst playing through for my teacher (who was not a Messiaen specialist), I did a rather musical (if I do say so myself) thing by anticipating the end of a phrase with a slight decrescendo and ritardando. My teacher said ‘Oh, you can’t do this. It sounds great, but it isn’t marked in the score, and as a result, if the adjudicator does not know the piece, they will have to mark you down as it isn’t technically correct’. This was the exact moment I decided I no longer cared for the education system - if what sounds best is not correct, then what exactly are we studying in this thing called ‘music’?

Whilst that is an example of the impact of objectivism in music, perhaps even more damning is the irreconcilable nature of subjectivity in examination. Another example of this is when I was preparing Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1; I had been working on it for months leading up to the examination with my teacher. He had to go on tour two weeks before, but kindly set up three lessons with other teachers at the Academy, in order to help prepare. Whilst my teacher was obviously happy with how it was going (or at least, did not raise objection), Teacher #1 (a Shostakovich specialist) thought it needed a vastly different approach to finger technique - requiring a more crisp, angular sound. Teacher #2 (who was on the examination panel) disagreed with almost every phrase and musical decision my teacher had instilled and promptly tore my playing to shreds. Teacher #3 thought it was great. What this left me with was a huge dilemma: do I follow my natural instincts, or my teacher’s, or the Shostakovich specialist, or the examiner’s? Needless to say, I gave a haemophilic bastard-child interpretation of all four, resulting in a hugely underwhelming experience.

But what is a student to do? The one or two musicians I mentioned in the opening paragraphs who are destined for greatness, transcend these issues. Their musical/technical abilities allow them to present concrete, confident, and complete performances that are truly at the highest levels. But these are the exceptions; the Conservatoire is above all, a place of learning; but with the current format, it is impossible to focus on larger development, in the relatively small amount of time gifted to you. The practice of grading is degrading; it goes against the ability to develop on a large scale, as you are constantly worried about the next exam and not your overall development. 

Examiners are essentially forced to sit through two days straight of piano playing, from Bach to Berio and beyond, and give an educated mark which measures the entire group of performers. Exams generally last one hour each, which is an excessively long time to concentrate fully on each note played. The default must then be to separate entirely from the music, and judge it on the lowest common denominator - what is correct, what is not. Subjective thoughts must appear because it is what drives us emotionally, and objective opinions can only be formed on the black and white, where emotion does not infiltrate. Thankfully, most examiners I have spoken with are equally loathe to do this job as we are to undertake them; this at least, is a connection worth exploring.

Perhaps all of this is a disconnect from the original principles of music pedagogy, perhaps it is an oversight in the development of the music academy in line with musical development. Put simply, when the Paris Conservatoire opened in the late-18th Century, musicians trained in a very, very different way to contemporary musicians. They studied composition, conducting, and performance in equal measure, from a much earlier age. Even then, you had Satie and Debussy throwing two fingers up to the establishment and doing their own thing. Since then, we have added an extra 200 years of music, become more proficient at our instruments, discovered historical performance styles, welcomed in countless technological developments, and of course, become slaves to the recording industry.

As a result, something had to give; we had to let go of composition, learning counterpoint properly, learning how to conduct and understand orchestral instruments. Accompanying and solo piano playing became more and more separated - now the two courses are completely unrelated to each other. Chamber music became a side subject. And now we have completely specialised solo pianists, who are unable to make a specialised solo career.

The issue of the schooling mindset is perhaps best explained in another minor moment in my history at the Academy. During a repertoire class one week, the Head of Keyboard Studies - an eternal optimist, and wonderful pedagogue - made an off the cuff remark about ‘when you all have your own recording contracts, you’ll understand’. A postgraduate pianist in his final year made an involuntary sound at this, to which the Professor enquired, ‘what’s funny about that?’. His response - ‘well that would be nice, wouldn’t it?’