Challenging Performance: The Book. 7.5 Conservatoire 2

7 Teaching

7.5 Conservatoire and conformity

The kinds of training in improvisation that are available at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, described by Juniper Hill (summarised in the preceding section 7.4), and the classes run by David Dolan at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London which teach solo and ensemble extemporisation in classical forms and which have been shown to significantly enhance audience experience of the performance of canonical scores, are encouraging signs of change; but they are not yet common, and they have little if any part to play in that dominant feature of conservatoire-level training, the one-to-one teaching studio or (often taught privately) the virtuoso class. The essential model here is that of master–apprentice, an oral method in which the master demonstrates and the apprentice copies, leading easily to the craftsperson model of classical musicianship questioned in Chapter 6.16.

The whole purpose of this core teaching is to fit the student to find work, which at the moment is by definition conventional work.

‘My job is to train them so that they will win the auditions’ (Hill 2018, 145, quoting horn player Erja Joukamo-Ampuja). ‘The people who get the jobs here are the ones that can just play all the notes and all the rhythms in tune and in the right place’ (Hill 2017, 237; Luke, a US clarinettist). ‘The ideal is a person who can produce the right notes with the minimum amount of work and then they’re happy with it’ (228; vocalist Päivi Järviö).

What could be more reasonable than this? Of course students want work, of course conservatoires exist to qualify them for it. Equally, this very simple fact operates with the characteristic ruthlessness of market capitalism to ensure that the beliefs of the employer are performed, flattered and confirmed by the student whom they employ and who (remember Chapter 7.1’s circular model) has been moulded by the same beliefs. It works well if you accept it uncritically and contentedly. It is in the teaching studio that these beliefs are turned in minute detail into perfect, faithful, persuasive, sounding practice.

Yet while most accept these practices as musically ideal and ideologically well-founded in faithfulness to the composer’s intentions, they may even so be significantly damaged by them.

My young students at the Academy, very often they are, in a way, in a prison. They are afraid of many, many things. And they are in a prison also because of these kinds of rules, how you have to interpret or how you have to play technically. (Pirkko Simojoki, quoted by Hill 2018, 37)

Those years with [my teacher] had such a strong impact that I couldn’t survive without somebody telling me what to do and how you have to do it. … When I finished with [my teacher] … [and] then graduated … it was like a nightmare because there was no model to be copied (Hill 2018, 60). After studying seven years with him, I was unable to make any decisions, unable even to find out how to make fingerings for a classical piece of music (Hill 2017, 237). (All these quotes from Tuomas, a cellist)

As the student, my only option was to perform pieces precisely the way my teacher played them. As he put it, “I am the teacher, and I am always right. I am the one who determines creativity and originality. As my student, you are to follow my model exactly. If you do not, you are not only a bad student, but a bad musician.” … I left classical music because of what I experienced. (Classical guitarist, 50-9; a questionnaire respondent for this book)[1]

I studied with a well-respected teacher when I was 18–20 who really only wanted her students to play exactly the way she did. Any deviation from her way was met with ridicule. I almost quit playing. She never fostered any critical thinking in her students or helped us learn to develop our own interpretative skills. Most of the young people in that studio never pursued music further. (Cellist, 40-9)

As Hill says of her participants, ‘An overly-negative interpretation of feedback [which is almost inevitable, one might add, in this obsessively constrained environment] can influence a musician’s trajectory for years’ (Hill 2018, 96). I found exactly this in many of the participants in my own research for this book, whose comments show just how long-lasting the effects of this kind of response to individuality can be.

Another teacher … told me to stop feeling things, that I don’t get to do that—it’s for the audience to feel, not me. This one made me more angry and confused, I didn’t understand how that was even possible (I still don’t). However, I did end up basically numbing out for the remainder of my time at that school[;] and getting over that has been and continues to be a long and difficult process. (Violinist, 30-9)

The end effects were me feeling incapable of my own ability, something I still worry about when performing my own realizations of canonical works. (Pianist, 18-21)

The environment I studied in was extremely discouraging, though they may be unaware. Mountains of opinions and criticism greatly discouraged my creativity. This resulted in a development of anxiety which now hinders my voice, technique, and creativity. (Singer, 20-9)

What kind of culture are we celebrating when these kinds of experiences are common, and to be expected, and are accepted as a price worth paying?

Helena Gaunt’s useful essay on ‘Apprenticeship and empowerment: the role of one-to-one lessons’ (Gaunt 2017) offers (as one might reasonably expect from the (then) vice-principal of a progressive conservatoire) a relatively optimistic, but not uncritical view of the master-apprentice culture in conservatoire, based on research studies. Here, the well-known pianist and teacher Boris Berman is quoted to provide an idealised view: ‘with advanced students “the teacher’s main role is to help them find their own musical voice”’ (Gaunt 2017, 30, citing Berman 2000, 198).[2] This is certainly what is claimed, and what we would like to happen; but does it? The quotations above, which are far from atypical for those who have studied at this level, suggest that students’ experience can be very different. Berman sees the student as substantially responsible in that case: ‘the student needs to offer the result of his [sic] creative work, thoughts, and ideas for me to be able to respond’ (31; 200). Moreover, ‘a student must be ready to subscribe to the teacher’s Weltanschauung, his general musical and aesthetic principles’ (32; 199). In other words, believe in your master, and then for your lesson take him musical ideas that are compatible with his beliefs. That seems a fairly honest and realistic assessment of how one-to-one teaching works best at this level. But it hardly encourages creativity. Rather it feeds a culture in which each teacher is seen, and sees themselves, as having a unique insight into the repertoire in question, insight the sharing of which will enable their students to develop unique insights of their own.

Somehow, then, the student absorbs a unique view and within that still manages to find something of their own to contribute. It’s not hard to see how, if this is what is going on, over time these differences will become smaller and smaller; because at every generation the scope for innovation is limited to that range that was available to one teacher in the previous generation, which was itself a subset of the range available to one teacher from the generation before; and so on. Of course this model is idealised and fanciful, and of course students hear many more performers they admire; but given the cultural and social constraints, especially the authority felt by the student in the famous teacher, it is horribly possible that it contains some truth.

Gaunt (40–1) reports Koopman et al.’s finding that ‘while teachers often stated that one of their aims was for students to develop artistic independence, students were not aware of this’ (Koopman et al. 2007, 388).[3] Koopman et al. also found that students who were not overawed by their teacher and who played a more active role in lessons had more positive experiences (perhaps justifying Berman’s claim above). We need to bear in mind how much this demands of a student who has been taught for years to be obedient and who may now find themselves being taught by one of their childhood idols (‘…lessons are easily dominated by the personality of the teacher, and students are not encouraged to take initiative.’ Koopman et al., 392).

They also reveal the extent to which students are left to work out technical problems and strategies for themselves, with teachers content to provide inspiration and examples of what’s required, but not detailed guidance on how to achieve it. (‘The master makes use of his personal strengths—superior knowledge and inspiring qualities—rather than taking the self-effacing role of servant to the learning process’ (Koopman et al., 391–2).) There does appear to be a widespread perception among the harder-headed conservatoire teachers that, when it comes to technical matters, students should not be guided too closely or too kindly, and that those who sink are not strong enough to swim on their own in the professional sea. Overall, Koopman et al. reveal a surprising level of non-coordination between teachers’ and students’ perceptions, and between both and the observations of the researchers, reflecting all too well the extent to which (as argued in Chapter 6 above) WCM provides fertile ground for self-delusion.

Throughout the research literature on conservatoire teaching similar problems are highlighted. And so it becomes easier to understand the reluctance of some institutions to take part in research studies.[4] Let us credit, then, the Royal Conservatoire of the Hague who hosted the Koopman study and aimed to learn lessons from it; and the other conservatoires now asking questions about their own practices and fostering more open attitudes to research and creativity.

Another good example is the study by Mirjam James and Karen Wise, agreed to by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal College of Music (both in London), in which lessons and practice sessions were videoed for later analysis by the participants working with the researchers. One interesting finding was that while, on the one hand, not following a teacher’s advice can feel like ‘betraying the teacher’—a telling word to use—on the other, students are considerably more creative in their practice sessions than their lessons would lead one to expect.[5] This doesn’t necessarily translate into counter-normative performances in public because of the obvious career constraints, but it does emphasise the potential that remains within young professionals to think and work differently.

In James and Wise’s study teacher and student (separately) used videos of their one-to-one lessons to identify moments when they felt that something creative had been achieved or something had been learned that would help in being ‘more creative or original in performance’ (James, Wise & Rink 2010, 230).[6] What is striking here, from our perspective, is how small are the changes that students identify as ‘creative’: most of these moments are really about legitimate ways of being more expressive within norms. In the studio environment tiny changes seem highly significant because they are all there is: as a trainee musician one has to invest oneself in them in order to stay positive; hence seeing them as creative, rather than just as skilled, that’s to say as moments of good craft. There’s a instance of this in their Example 4 where, viewing a moment in their lesson video, the student comments:

‘[…] he just said at the end there, ‘trust yourself’ which is a fantastic thing to say, so if you just sit back with the long arms, you feel calmer […] you feel like you’re overseeing the whole system […] gives you much better sound and psychologically much calmer, you’re breathing better, and you know, I just love that, trust yourself … it’s so easy to have so much self doubt, and worry, which immediately makes the sound go quite poorly. I thought that is fantastic. And that can be applied everywhere […] in performances even better a mantra to have because that’s when you are even tighter and even more nervous, […].’ (James, Wise & Rink 2010, 238)

This example is unusually revealing of the problem that students face: constant anxiety leading to tension, induced by fear of failing to achieve what’s required to succeed. This is a key moment for the student, when they find themselves able to make guidance from the teacher their own (Wise, James & Rink 2017, 151). Something previously only understood as advice—something they strove to enact or copy—becomes understood through embodiment, becomes part of the way they make music. It’s easy to appreciate and celebrate the sense of achievement that this brings. And yet, it is far from being creative in the sense of innovating: it’s creative only in the sense that it adds to the student’s abilities, enabling them to conform with more convincing artistic results, performing more persuasively now that they embody the norm. When this seems creative one can see how the concept of performance creativity has been appropriated by normativity in order to tighten its grip.

It’s understandable, precisely because there are so many constraints upon their artistic freedom, that students still buy the fiction that they are developing unique musical personalities expressed though their interpretations of canonical scores. If one didn’t believe this it would be hard to maintain a positive attitude, to feel that this is a desirable profession and that the pain required to get into it is worthwhile. When, many years later, professional musicians do suffer breakdowns it is often, as we shall see in chapter 14, because they’re no longer able to maintain this fiction. So it is understandable that the aspiring musicians questioned for Volioti and Williamon (2017) gave one of their highest scores, when asked how they use recordings to influence their practice and performance, to ‘to develop my own distinct style’ (closely followed by ‘to comply with current performing styles and practices’).[7] Students are using recordings to get access to readings they’re not learning from their teachers, to get a sense of what else has been acceptable, of the range of the norm, and to hear models on which they can draw in order to find a safe space within it. That’s what ‘distinct’ means in WCM: a place of safety within normative practice that they can call their own, even if, in truth, it’s not.

Henry Kingsbury, in his 1988 study of life in a US conservatoire, emphasised how ‘The social dynamics of the conservatory are of fundamental importance to the aural tradition of “classical” music’ (46). What he meant by aural here includes pressures and politics of student/student and student/staff interaction and discussion—the ideas that circulate, the beliefs that underpin assumptions and comments—not just what’s explicitly taught. ‘[B]oth the manifesting and the assessing of musical talent are to a great extent matters of social power and authority’ (77). It’s in this light that we can better understand the importance for both teacher and student of the student ‘making’ what they’re taught ‘their own’ or, as I’ve put it, embodying in themselves the tradition (re)presented by their teacher. Not only do they now fit better into the in-group of those who understand, feel and do; it’s also a vital stage in the passing on of one musician’s cultural genes (or memes) to the next generation, of teachers keeping themselves alive by keeping their musicianship in circulation while believing that they are keeping the tradition alive.

We can see this at work in Kingsbury’s observation of one of his conservatoire’s teachers: ‘A fundamental principle of Goldmann’s teaching was that students must play what is printed in the score, and yet that they must not play something simply because it is written in the score, but rather because they feel it that way’ (87, cf 99). To play as required is not enough; you must also believe in the correct reading, feel it in yourself, and prove your belief by making that feeling audible in the way you perform. In doing so you prove to your teacher your belief in them and in the musicianship they represent: ‘While the score is invoked as an authority in Goldmann’s class, it must be kept clear the real authority does not reside in the score, but in Goldmann and, to varying extents, in the students’ (92). The feeling is the music’s meaning (101), and thus music can only be meaningful when performed by someone who believes the correct reading of the score. To transmit musical meaning from composer to listener you must believe.

There is an important aspect of this that rings true for any performer. A note, a phrase, a whole piece, can be driven along by feeling in emotional synchrony with the dynamics of the sounds one makes, and vice versa. Feeling, and believing in the feeling, are powerful tools in the making of persuasive performances. The danger comes from adding into this the belief that a particular sequence of dynamic shapes, or a particular performance of a dynamic sequence, is the right or the wrong one—that it’s not enough to produce something that works dynamically; it has to be something that proves one’s adherence to a particular set of beliefs about what it is right and wrong to sound and to feel. Conservatoire, and indeed all WCM gatekeeping, is ensuring both that the process is convincing and that it is correct, while all the time arguing that only what is correct can be convincing. Hence the belief illustrated in Goldmann’s lessons that ‘with an authentic edition of a work by an acknowledged genius, the values of good performance simply cannot conflict with adherence to the score’ (94). Well, of course they can. One has to insist that they cannot as one of a battery of strategies needed to prevent either oneself or one’s students discovering that alarming, revolutionary fact.

Like Kingsbury, Bruno Nettl (1995) draws on experience of US institutions,[8] approaching the conservatoire as an ethnomusicologist and anthropologist. He finds that, as well as all the positives of WCM culture, ‘we are also forced to suggest dictatorship, conformity, a rigid class structure, overspecialization, and a love of mere bigness are all explicitly or by implication extolled’ (Nettl 1995, 42). It’s argued by those within, he observes, that this is necessary and ‘that the kind of social structure described, for all its undesirable aspects, is essential for the proper performance of music by the great masters, that in order for music of such an incredibly elite character … to be created and performed one must simply sacrifice independence and personal opinion, must undertake an incredible amount of discipline and accept dictates of an elite wherever they lead’ (ibid.). Nettl finds his observation of conservatoire culture leading him inexorably (and to his evident discomfort), in the final paragraphs of his book, to the conclusion that

‘we have this—by many criteria—great music, styles, and genres that have been accepted in most of the world as music at its best. Yet this music lives and is transmitted in institutions that abound in conflict and inequality, in which population groups and their musical surrogates constantly jockey for position, in which little is said that does not make comparative evaluations and where everyone keeps score. … What is it about Western culture that makes this great music so representative of aspects of our cultural system with which many denizens of the music school would not wish to be identified?’ (144–5).

Nettl’s last sentence there reminds us that the WCM State and its policing—the nature of which is gradually emerging in this and the next few chapters—is antithetical to white western values, to the extent that one constantly wonders what this music says about us. Another sense in which music schools are failing to do exactly what they claim to do, in terms of students’ membership of wider society, is all too well identified by Carol Richardson (2007):

The call for papers for the 2006 International Conference on Music Education, Equity, and Social Justice centered on the ways that democratic issues of equity, social justice and social consciousness might be enacted in the practice of music education, broadly defined. I found this call disturbing, as upon first glance there seemed to be little or no connection (or even a potential for connection) between these democratic issues and music teaching and learning as I have come to know it during my career as a performer, conductor, classroom practitioner, scholar, college professor and department chair. For example, the master/apprentice and conductor/ensemble models institutionalized in our profession are not democratic; the typical teacher/student exchanges at the core of our studio lessons, rehearsals and music classrooms are not models of shared musical decision-making power, in spite of national standards statements about music education as a means of enhancing each student’s ability to ‘define and solve artistic problems with insight, reasons and technical proficiency’ (MENC, 1994 What every young American should know and be able to do in the arts (Reston, VA, Music Educators National Conference ), p. 19).[9]

Hardly less concerning is the extent to which teachers (despite their certainty in their expertise, and the authoritarianism that that is felt to justify towards students) do not know—because the knowledge does not exist; perhaps also because teachers don’t think they need help from research in this respect—what the body does and needs to do in order to make music. An example of the extent to which even fundamental matters of physical technique are disputed is provided (with many more) in a survey of piano teaching guides by Katharine Liley:

Article 14 strongly advocates a low wrist, particularly in octave playing, where the wrist is to be lowered ‘even further if tiredness starts to take hold’…, while Articles 4 and 8 both propose a high wrist for octaves…, Article 4 also arguing that keeping the wrist in a low position for too long could lead to injury… Article 7, meanwhile, argues for flexibility in positioning of the hand, wrist, arm, elbow, and particularly the torso, all body parts being ready to adapt to the varying positional requirements of the music at any moment…[10]

It’s hard not to conclude that there are no sufficient grounds for enforcing either technical or artistic approaches to WCM performance, nor for any teacher demanding unquestioning obedience from a student who wishes to play or sing healthily or musically. It’s always something that has to be negotiated and discovered in each individual case.[11]

We may readily agree that it’s the job of conservatoires to fit their students for work, but when that means to get work that makes the institution thoroughly complicit in maintaining norms, with all the damage that norm-enforcement does within and far beyond the institution. No one is more aware than a conservatoire now of the need also to fit students to make work, and it’s there that the space could be created for far more varied results.

An ethical music school should not be gatekeeping to suit the gatekeepers: it should be putting pressure on them to rise to the challenge of thinking and responding as imaginatively as its students.

Continue to 7.6 ‘Izabela Wagner on the training of virtuosi’

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[1] Where no publication reference is provided for a quote it comes from a questionnaire carried out for this study. The survey was addressed to professional classical musicians and asked the following questions. 1) Please give an example of when you were prevented from, or strongly criticised for, being innovative or creative or original in the way you performed a piece or a moment in a piece.  Feel free to give more than one example. 2) What do you tell your students about being original in their performances? 3) Would you like musicians to feel freer to be creative when performing classical scores? 4) Anything else you’d like to say. 59 responses were received (25 female, 28 male; 3% aged 18-21, 15% 22-9, 42% 30-9, 20% 40-9, 12% 50-9, 7% 60+; 76% studied at a conservatoire, the rest at university and/or virtuoso class).
[2] Gaunt, Helena. 2017. Apprenticeship and Empowerment: The Role of One-to-One Lessons. In ed. John Rink, Helena Gaunt and Aaron Williamon, Musicians in the Making: Pathways to Creative Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 28–56.  Berman, Boris. 2000. Notes from the Pianist’s Bench (New Haven: Yale University Press).
[3] Constantijn Koopman, Nico Smit, Adri de Vugt, Paul Deneer & Jeannette den Ouden (2007) Focus on practice-relationships between lessons on the primary instrument and individual practice in conservatoire education, Music Education Research, 9:3, 373-397.
[4] ‘…there is a reluctance among teachers to participate in studies of teaching. … to expose their behavior to the scrutiny of an observer may seem to involve an element of risk.’ Karlsson, Jessika & Juslin, Patrik. 2008. Musical Expression: An Observational Study of Instrumental Teaching. Psychology of Music 36:3, 309-334 at 310–11. One recalls Christopher Small’s comment, using the symphony concert as a model, that ‘I cannot help wondering if those who show such resistance to asking questions of a symphony concert might not themselves be a little afraid that they will uncover meanings they would rather not know about’ (Small 1998, 14–15).
[5] Wise, Karen, James, Mirjam, and Rink, John (2017). Performers in the Practice Room. In ed. John Rink, Helena Gaunt and Aaron Williamon, Musicians in the Making: Pathways to Creative Performance (New York: Oxford University Press), 143–63, esp. 153.
[6] James, Mirjam, Wise, Karen, & Rink, John (2010). Exploring creativity in musical performance through lesson observation with video-recall interviews. Scientia Paedagogica Experimentalis, 47:2, 219-250. As the journal is unusually difficult to access, page references are to the typescript at
[7] Volioti, Georgia, and Aaron Williamon. Recordings as Learning and Practising Resources for Performance: Exploring Attitudes and Behaviours of Music Students and Professionals. Musicae Scientiae 21:4, 499–523 at 513 and 523.
[8] Nettl, Bruno. 1995. Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
[9] Richardson, Carol P. 2007. Engaging the World: Music Education and the Big Ideas. Music Education Research 9:2, 205-14 at 205.
[10] Liley, Katharine. 2019. The Feeble Fingers of Every Unregenerate Son of Adam: Cultural Values in Pianists’ Health and Skill-Development (PhD thesis, Royal College of Music, London), sect.
[11] Very similar conclusions are reached independently in Barton, David. 2019. The Autonomy of Private Instrumental Teachers: Its Effect on Valid Knowledge Construction, Curriculum Design, and Quality of Teaching and Learning (PhD thesis, Royal College of Music, London), esp. ch. 8. ‘I would argue that the dominance of technique, which is often cited as necessary on safety grounds, is a means by which teachers can exert their control.’ (186) … ‘Teachers felt responsible to cover everything that was ‘needed’. As there are no agreed definitions of what is ‘needed’, we might interpret that by consequence, teachers teach that which is needed to conform to the system.’ (187) … ‘teachers seem to see knowledge as something which is passed on, rather than something which is constructed, and which evolves through negotiation, partnership, social interaction and community.’ (191) Also 208–9.


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