Music Study: Conservatory Instruction

Instruction in the Conservatories and other large schools is something quite peculiar to itself. It is collective teaching inasmuch as all the pupils belonging to the same class are united in the same place; it participates in the nature of private teaching, since every pupil receives his personal share of the lesson, even if it is only a few minutes, besides hearing the lesson of his fellow-students, who, likewise, hear his and can derive profit from it. It is not absolutely theoretical, since the explanation of the principles is always accompanied with practice; neither is it principally practical for the same reason ; it includes all this, and it is something more besides. Above everything else it is dogmatic, and that is its most appropriate qualification. The professor is considered there as impeccable and infallible, what he says must be accepted as an article of faith, and the example that he sets must be servility imitated. If he is a singer or instrumentalist, he teaches his pupils to sing or play like himself, in his particular manner, to breathe, to pronounce and to hold the bow as he does. He communicates to them something of his own style, and fashions them in his own image ; so that when anyone hears one of them he will say without a moment’s hesitation : that is a pupil of so-and-so. This is what is called forming a school. I do not mean to say by this that all the pupils are run into the same mold, for this would be a great mistake. When the master is a truly great artist, he knows how to leave to each what is necessary to constitute individuality, and devotes himself principally to developing the innate qualities ; but there remains, not-withstanding, a family resemblance, which, without in the least excluding originality, binds together the members of the same school and makes them recognized as surely as if they bore a trade-mark. This is not a fault, it is quite the contrary, indeed, in the case of a great master. In the matter of composition, with even greater reason, the master inculcates them with his ideas and methods of orchestration, making them share in his admirations or antipathies, while yet having the very sincere general intention of allowing them the greatest latitude, merely preventing them from straying; and, in reality, he often communicates to them, not his genius, which, alas ! is untransferable, but much of his method, his talent, his sleights of hand, or familiar formula. The latter also forms a school, certainly ; but the soils upon which his seed is scattered are so varied that in most cases their products present no apparent analogy and do not seem to spring from the same species ; so that, even when informed, the trained eye of a professional has great difficulty in recognizing their common origin. In the courses of harmony, counter-point and fugue, discussions between the scholars are strongly encouraged, each one giving practical examples of points in theory which he pleases to defend or attack, seeking the why and wherefore of the established rules and proposing exceptions or new rules, more or less revolutionary. Often three or four opinions, about equally tenable, are advanced at the same time ; the arguments accumulate on all sides, the texts of treatises are consulted, points of comparison are sought for in the scores of celebrated composers, the result generally being that no one succeeds in convincing his adversaries, who remain more deeply rooted than ever in their first point of view. Then only intervenes the professor, who has listened impartially to everything; he sums up the debate, analyzes the question, weighs the arguments, argues with the pupils in his turn, and finally announces his opinion, which all blindly accept.

This momentary deference will not prevent them later from judging their masters in their turn, rejecting or modifying certain of their doctrines, and, in a word, creating their own system, sometimes a very different one, which is strictly their right and even their duty ; for the servile imitation of one style would infallibly lead them to platitude and lack of originality. Moreover, this would be the negation of artistic evolution. It is only on the school benches that this respectful discipline is necessary ; after-wards, everyone is free to treat his masters as old fogies, which will not entail any consequences, nor annoy them in the least.

From all this friction, which can only occur in the large official schools and with which private classes, though profitable, as we have already said, cannot be compared, the pupil issues more robust and better armed for the incessant struggle that constitutes the career of a composer. He learns there something, however little, of the difficulties of the life that he has chosen. Instrumentalists and singers, on their part, generally find in these large establishments all that contributes to the development of their talent and helps them to acquire the serious qualities of a musician, from the classes in solfeggio to the ensemble classes, whether vocal or instrumental, and finally the orchestra classes in which all the divers elements are found grouped.

The intercourse with a large number of comrades studying the same specialty, the habit of judging them, the fact of following their progress and comparing it with their own, all the lessons being given in common, the facility of meeting and conversing with pupils who have embraced other branches, and belong consequently to other classes, all contribute strongly to developing in the young artist a lot of technical knowledge of which private teaching would never have given him an idea even, and which may be very profitable to him.

Many professors practise that excellent system of mutual teaching which consists in raising several of their best pupils, those of the last year, for example, to the rank of tutors, and in confiding to their care one or several of their young fellow-students, whose monitors they become, and whom they teach how to work, as they themselves have been taught by their seniors, and as their young pupils in their turn will teach those who come after them. This procedure, apart from the charming side it has in making the class a sort of artistic family of which the professor is the head, and of establishing bonds of reciprocal sympathy, gratitude and solidarity between pupils of the same master, affords the incomparable advantage of teaching the pupil how to teach, and transforms the Conservatory into a normal school of teachers. And this is not a thing to be neglected; for, to be a good teacher, it is not sufficient merely to know one’s profession as an artist perfectly and to be capable of giving good examples. One must accustom oneself to presenting things with clearness and method, not using technical terms too often, nor intermingling explanations difficult to grasp with familiar comparisons or images more within the grasp of the young pupils. One must know how to discern whether a subject should be treated exhaustively today, or whether it would be better only to graze it and return to it an-other day. One must have great firmness without allowing it to appear, for in that case it is mistaken for harshness and irritates the pupil. One must know how to let the pupil divine certain things and believe that he has discovered them for himself, sometimes spurring and sometimes restraining him. Teaching is a true art, which is not acquired in a day and into which one is never initiated so well and so quickly as by first practising as a subordinate, under the patronage and responsibility of a serious and experienced master ; and it is hard to get this kind of exercise except in a Conservatory, which seems to me the best of all ways, and renders these schools veritable nurseries for teachers, from which the latter are often recruited.

Still another very good feature of these large establishments, whatever may be their denomination—Musical Institute, Academy, whether of official or semi-official character, is that they require, as a final sanction of the studies, Examinations or Competitions at the end of the year, when the worthiest pupils carry off prizes, accessits, in fact, diplomas, under one form or another.

This of course must not be carried to abuse. How often we have seen one strong in his exercises obtain all the prizes at the College and Lycée, and then after-wards, when once launched upon his career, allow himself to be outstripped by the most obscure, by those who seemed to be of all his old comrades the least worthy of consideration. What is true everywhere else is true with us ; these prizes and diplomas do not always prove much as to the future. But if we must not overestimate their importance, neither must we scorn them.

We have said elsewhere, at the beginning of this book, that it was difficult to make any difference, with regard to special education, between the amateur and the professional artist ; later, however, we have had to establish certain lines of demarcation ; there is still another to recognize here. The practical artist must gain his means of existence from his art, in a word, the means of gaining money—the priest must live by the altar—while the amateur, for whom it is a luxury, will more often find it an occasion for spending. If, therefore, it is perfectly legitimate for him who has decided to make art at once his aim and his means of livelihood to try to gain these diplomas, which will be credentials for him and which will open doors and aid him in making a place for himself, we must regard it as a frivolous satisfaction in those who possess other financial resources. If they have any need of this stimulant, it is because they have not the real love of art, and treat it too much as a simple sport. Exception should be made for very young children who have a right to regard music as only a pleasant game of mind and skill, in which they can win or lose ; this conception is sufficient for their age. But as soon as it is a question of the higher studies, emulation seems no longer necessary, and it seems to me that encouragement or rewards arising from the contests of pupils should pass into the background and that the true satisfaction of the artist should consist solely in penetrating more and more deeply into the secrets of his art, and in the intimate consciousness that every day he takes a step nearer to perfection, and that he will mount by work and perseverance higher towards the idea of the Beautiful.