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Conservatoires – Your questions answered!

Daniel Moult needs little introduction. He is a renowned concert organist, recording artist and film presenter, is known as “one of the finest organists of our time” (The Organ). Famed for his virtuosic, intelligent and engaging performances, his musicianship has been praised as “exhilarating” (Gramophone), “dazzling” (The Organ), and “formidable” (Organists’ Review). Daniel is director of the highly acclaimed organ department at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Alongside his colleagues Henry Fairs, Martin Schmeding (Visiting Professor) and Nathan Laube (International Consultant), the department offers educational excellence to aspiring professional musicians. He is one of the consultants for three significant new organs at the Conservatoire, commencing with the recently commissioned Flentrop organ in the style of Schnitger & Hinsz.

I’ve heard a number of myths over the years about Conservatoires (also referred to as a conservatorium, conservatory, music college or academy, incase you were wondering). These vary from ‘you have to be a wunderkind to even consider applying’, ‘all that matters is how you play at the audition’, through to ‘only people who can’t get into university apply’. I hope here to demystify the audition, the application process, and aspects of the Conservatoire experience! If there is anything (big or small) which remains unanswered or which you are itching to know, then do drop an email to the conservatoire/music college in question – they’ll be very happy to help!

CONSERVATOIRE OR UNIVERSITY?

This is probably the most frequently asked question from younger musicians. Of course, it doesn’t always come down to an either/or choice. Most conservatoires offer an organ gap year course, or equivalent, before university (ideal for those who feel that their practical skills set needs more focus or refinement). Many university graduates now continue their organ studies at a Conservatoire, enjoying the space and time as a postgraduate to concentrate on their playing. University organ scholarships can be very time-consuming, so increasing numbers of scholars feel that postgraduate Conservatoire work is vital for their practical musicianship. Some even decide to do a postgraduate course at a UK conservatoire, followed by further study at an institution in Europe or USA. Whether this will still be an easy and inexpensive option after Brexit remains to be seen, as we await the fate of the Erasmus programme. 

Should you decide to apply to a Conservatoire, whether as an undergraduate or postgraduate, there is often a good choice of different courses on offer, and some degree of flexibility over issues such as part-time versus full-time commitments, distance learning, and the like. I suspect that this will become increasingly the case in the aftermath of Covid-19.

I think it is fair to say that the Conservatoire route in the UK seems to be more popular than ever, with an increasing percentage of top-flight musicians having chosen it over a university music faculty. Of course, it might not suit everyone’s strengths or temperament, but a Conservatoire is not an exclusive club for the precocious (high though the standards should be), nor a refuge for idiots savants! This route allows you to have a really special four years working at the highest level on music that you love, whilst preparing you thoroughly for the next part of your life.

HERE’s THE IMPORTANT BIT!

If you are considering applying to a Conservatoire (whether as an undergraduate, postgraduate, young professional or gap year student), I strongly suggest booking an initial consultation lesson with the principal tutor of your choice. This can often be done via the Conservatoire website, or through direct contact with the head of department. A consultation will give you the chance to get feedback on your playing (ideally well ahead of the auditions). More importantly, it should put you in a better position to gauge whether the musical and personal chemistry is right between you and the tutor and institution. You might be committing four years of your life to the place (as an undergrad), so it’s best to find the right fit beforehand!

When the time comes to apply, applications are processed – as for universities – through UCAS (www.ucas.com and follow the conservatoire link). Although dealing with such matters is as exciting as watching paint dry, it is worth familiarising yourself with the necessary admin well ahead of time. If anything is unclear, do drop a line to the Conservatoire(s) to which you’re applying.

AUDITIONS & INTERVIEWS

The audition day has arrived. Hopefully, you have all the info that you need and were told what to prepare on receipt of your application – again, a quick email or phone call is all that is needed if there are loose ends or any questions. I can only describe how we conduct auditions at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire: some of the specifics will obviously vary amongst our colleagues elsewhere, but I trust that this will give you a useful overview. I’ll restrict my comments to undergraduate (BMus 1) entry.

First, we will do everything that we can to put you at ease before we start the audition! Don’t be alarmed to find three staff on the panel. This is not designed to intimidate you, but rather it allows for a fair and balanced assessment of your application. We are listening for what you can do, not what you can’t yet do! With this in mind, and given the necessarily limited practice time available beforehand, I would suggest that you pick music which you can adapt quickly and comfortably to different organs. Pieces which avoid fiddly registration changes or considerable “console management” are best. We’re listening to you as a musician, not judging you on virtuosic piston pressing! As with a concert or exam, pieces which you have lived with and which have marinated (like a nice casserole) will show you off best.

We realise that – when applying for undergraduate entry – you are at the foothills of your musical journey. Talent, potential and attitude are as important here as what you have achieved by the modest age of 18 or so. Hopefully the pieces you have chosen will be comfortably within your technical control, and very fluent. Nonetheless, performing your pieces with conviction is much more important than worrying over the odd wrong note or blemish. Whilst developing a calm and ergonomic technique is important for all young musicians, we do not expect the finished product. Time should be spent, from the first week of a Conservatoire course onwards, refining technique on sensitive instruments.

After your recital, you’ll be given short tests in sight-reading and transposition (both around Grade 8 level). These give us a flavour of how you process music, but are not “deal breakers” by any means! At RBC, we teach keyboard skills in a systematic way from the first term onwards (with many of our students gaining ARCO and FRCO before graduating).

And finally – the interview.  Interviews should be two-way processes; you need to work out if the tuition and institution are the right fit for you. From our point of view, we are looking for someone with the raw ability to succeed on quite a demanding course, the passion to be the best musician that you can, along with an open, questing mind.

AND FINALLY….

Perhaps this is the time to dispel a final myth! Conservatoires, so the cliché goes, are purely interested in instrumental ability, and not in any academic prowess.  Conservatoires do place a good deal of emphasis on practical music-making, and university courses do tend to have a larger academic content. Nonetheless, Conservatoires take disciplines such as history, harmony & counterpoint, and music philosophy seriously – and teach it well. These topics are an important part in making you a well-rounded, informed, confident musician, who can pursue your specific interests and strengths. Conservatoire graduates can be found in all areas of the music profession – performers, church and cathedral musicians, teachers and examiners, musicologists, and, increasingly, portfolio career musicians who combine different elements. A handful of graduates over the years decide that, on reflection, they wish to pursue related or even entirely different careers. Your degree and intensive training at a Conservatoire, with the focus on performing excellence and musical breadth, stands you in good stead in many professions, and can be ‘traded in’ as with a university arts degree.

Whichever route you choose to take, do consider all the options and do observe or experience the teaching at first hand before committing to an application. I wish you every success and happiness on your musical journey!

© Daniel Moult

(August 2020)

With thanks to my colleague, Nicholas Wearne, for his help in preparing this article.

If you would like to write a ‘Monthly Feature’, do please get in touch. It can be about anything to do with the organ. Perhaps your experience on a course you’ve attended, buying a new organ, the day in the life of an organ builder, my favourite organ. I’d love to hear from you!

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