On Conservatories

Commencement at the San Francisco Conservatory looms. Presently I'll don my academic togs and sit in communal majesty onstage while beaming approvingly at our student/survivors who are receiving degrees, post-graduate diplomas, or artist's certificates. Life's recurring ceremonials offer nothing more inspiring than this annual reassurance that it will all continue rolling on.

As a teenager I had only the vaguest notion of life in a conservatory; I only knew that it was where I wanted to be. The trick was getting into one of the majors. I managed it and in September 1972 entered Peabody as the world's most insecure freshman.

Thirty-seven years later and I'm about as old-hand of a grizzled conservatory vet as you'll find.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music, on Oak Street

But just what is a conservatory, anyway?

Is it a professional training school, focused on producing highly-qualified performers and composers? Or is it a college that provides a reasonable semblance of a rounded education while emphasizing performance and musical scholarship? Some blend of both? Neither?

By way of illustration, allow me to invent a fictional freshman violin major named Vern. He has played the violin since childhood, practicing long hours and studying with good teachers. He was accepted at SFCM right out of high school, and his placement exams put him at the basic starting point for most freshmen -- bang-on average, in other words, for a conservatory freshman.

It is now the end of Vern's first year. Here's what he would have been doing for the past nine months:

  • Vern would have taken some 30-odd private hourlong lessons with his violin teacher.
  • Vern would have practiced as much as he could, seven days a week.
  • Vern would have attended his violin teacher's "studio class" on a weekly basis, hearing other students play and sometimes playing himself.
  • Vern would have likely participated in at least one departmental or teacher-studio recital, in which he was one of a group of students trotting out onstage one after another to play a piece or two.
  • Vern would have prepared a "jury" for the end of the spring semester, in which he played a program of pieces before the combined teachers of the string department and received a grade and written comments in return. Poor performance on that jury could jeopardize Vern's continued residence at SFCM.
  • Vern would have played in the SFCM orchestra -- rehearsals three afternoons per week, sectionals, practice time to learn his parts, and of course concerts.
  • Vern would have attended quite a few concerts and recitals -- his fellow students, faculty members, ensembles, visiting artists. He would also have been to the San Francisco Symphony as often as possible (students get cheap or free tickets), chamber concerts, and the like.
  • Vern would have attended some master classes, listening to guest artists teaching students the fine points of their craft. Perhaps Vern might have played for one of those guest teachers.
  • Vern would have taken two semesters of eartraining classes -- four hours class time per week, with at least that much time spent in preparation -- with another two semesters minimum yet to go.
  • Vern would have taken two semesters of basic theory classes -- two hours class time per week, with probably four hours spent in preparation -- with another four semesters minimum yet to go.
  • Vern would have taken a two semesters of keyboard training -- one hour class time per week, with probably two to three hours spent in preparation.
  • Vern would have spent two semesters in the "Introduction to Western Civilization" course -- four hours class time per week, with at least that much time spent in preparation.
  • Depending on Vern's level of ambition (or lack of common sense) he might have been playing in various ensembles, although as a freshman he would be strongly advised to keep that sort of thing to a minimum.

In short, Vern would have been one seriously busy guy. Consider the possibility of Vern's needing a violin-technique overhaul, or having serious difficulty with theory or eartraining. (Such have been known to happen.) Perhaps he had given up on the piano years ago, and in collegiate reprise it's still kicking his butt.

And then there's that paper due next week on the underlying causes of the Second Punic War...and because he spent so many of his K-12 years playing the violin, he only scraped by academically and is hard pressed to cough up something approximating college-level research and prose.

Vern's challenges are familiar to any conservatory student the world over; he's at SFCM to acquire violin mastery, but he can't do that without becoming a competent musician -- and that means theory, eartraining, music history and literature, and a thousand other skills. His mind requires development and maturation, right along with every other eighteen-year-old since the beginning of time. The great Western tradition of furthering that development with the humanities is just as applicable to Vern as any other student in any discipline. He needs to read, write, think, and discuss the ideas that inform our culture. He needs to have his assumptions challenged, his applecarts upset, his horizons widened.

He needs to make a paradigm shift, from schooling that ended weekday afternoons about 3:00, to schooling that goes on 24/7.

Vern is likely to be a long way from home, and on his own for the first time. He's a rookie at taking appropriate care of himself. Perhaps he hopes for an occasional glimpse of a social life, but he accepts the need to place most of that on indefinite hold. You can't party your way to musical mastery.

Thus at year's end he stands one big step closer towards achieving his dream of a life spent in music. The journey ahead remains substantial, to be sure -- but like the old joke about the guy falling off a cliff, so far so good. For the past nine months Vern has been living in a community in which he has his own role -- novice, to be sure, but he most definitely belongs. The Conservatory, acting as a microcosm of the larger musical world, allows Vern and his elders -- they who pursue their own musical dreams in addition to teaching -- a chance to determine whether he's fit to stick around for the long run. Along the way the community will assist him with the inescapable challenges of growing up, musically, intellectually, and emotionally. It will serve as home, school, parent, friend, lover, clubhouse, fraternity, proving ground, battlefield, and occasionally valley of despair.

My own definition of a conservatory runs as follows: an institution designed explicitly for the care and feeding of musicians. It's a hothouse of sorts, one that tries as best it can to provide a nurturing environment for musicians of all stripes and degrees of experience, whether tribal elder, revered master, or bumbling neophyte. So really the distinction between 'college' and 'training school' turns out to be moot. A conservatory is not so much a school as it is an enclave, an environment, a monastery.

It's not just a place where you go to become a professional musician.

For a musician, it's somewhere you go.