A Report on Six European Conservatories

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During the 1966-67 academic year, I traveled in Western Europe, visiting six Conservatories of music in order to observe at first hand the professional education of European musicians.

The institutions visited were:


The European approach to formal higher education in music follows a centuries-old tradition: musicology at the University, all else at the Conservatory. Degrees are granted solely by the University, while the Conservatory is empowered to award the diploma. Although one finds some deviation in a few "maverick" institutions, generally the old schism is maintained. In the words of Dr. John Daniskas, Holland's Inspector of Musical Education, Conservatories have as their primary objective "the training of those who are musically gifted to a standard which offers them the possibility of working in one or more branches of musical life."1 Not only is this vocational orientation dominant in Dutch Conservatories, but in all European Conservatories as well.

The striking difference between the philosophy and the humanistic concept of American Universities is evident. It is also increasingly obvious that in most American institutions of higher learning, including Conservatories, a tremendous effort is being made to weld professional and academic education and, in the process, to create a stronger, more viable basis for comprehensive musicianship and scholarship.

I set out on my peregrinations conscious of many of the differences separating our educational system from Europe's, but also cognizant of the common traditions which we share. I wanted to hear young students who practiced five hours a day. I wanted to talk with these same young students and their teachers to determine the advantages and disadvantages of this limited, but intensive, involvement at an early age. And finally, I hoped to be able to reach some conclusions concerning the means by which improvement of the education of American musicians and teachers of music could best be accomplished.



The European Conservatory is, by and large, supported and regulated by one or more levels of government: federal, provincial or municipal. The degree of this support and control varies from country to country. Formulation and supervision of educational policy on a national level is either in the hands of government officers, or a committee of Conservatory directors, or is managed jointly by these two groups.

Since these institutions operate apart from Universities and other centers of learning, one would expect some degree of isolation. I was surprised, however, by the limited intellectual range at the Conservatories. This condition is due in part both to the physical and curricular isolation from broader centers of learning; but it is also due, I fear, to a lack of high intellectual capacity in the student bodies of the Conservatories. The physical isolation carries through to the students' personal lives as well, for there are no dormitory facilities available at most Conservatories. Not much true faculty-student "rapport" exists since the instructional staff consists largely of busy professional musicians who fulfill their teaching obligations in a quasi-perfunctory fashion.

In addition to the physical isolation, the curricular insularity is another manifestation of the vocational orientation that pervades these institutions. Very few non-music subjects are in the curriculum and those that do exist are viewed as diversionary by students and performance faculty alike. The more humanistic ambiance of the University attracts persons of high intellectual capacity while the Conservatory population consists of musicians who either have less than the finest intellects or whose intellectual growth has been stunted by a too-early preoccupation with instrumental training.



The Conservatories I visited, with the exception of the one in Detmold, have long since outgrown their quarters. This problem is a very difficult one, the solution of which involves much more than increased financial support. The cities in which five of these Conservatories are located—London, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels and Rome—are well aware of their historical position and are, therefore, extremely reluctant to make structural changes that will in any way diminish their importance or weaken the distinctive quality of the architecture. Acquiring additional proximate space is a practical impossibility in these large, over-crowded cities. In general, therefore, they have no practice rooms or listening facilities, poor library facilities, no dormitory accommodations and little or no space for conferences and informal meetings.



All Conservatories require an audition on the major instrument as a pre-requisite to admission. It is impossible to generalize regarding level of advancement at entrance time since the individual variation seemed almost infinite. The requirements common to all diploma programs are: 1. study of an instrument; 2. Ear training—sight-singing (solfège). Other subjects such as harmony, counterpoint, composition, orchestration, conducting, music history, secondary instrument, ensemble and non-music subjects are not uniformly required of, or available to, all students. Final examinations stress knowledge of subjects rather than individual course content. These nationally uniform examinations are formulated and administered by committees, the membership of which may be drawn from both national and foreign Conservatories. It was obvious to me that students worked earnestly in the two required subjects mentioned above while, to varying degrees, they worked less diligently in other areas.



Music performance instruction (applied music) is usually carried out in small classes of three to eight students meeting weekly for a period of three hours. The classes I observed, however, were a series of private lessons with no group participation to speak of. Some of the teaching was extremely good and a certain minimal benefit accrued from the sheer physical presence of the group, but the reciprocity of class participation was missing in these pseudonymous "master classes."

Solfège and theoretical subjects are taught either in small groups or on a "one-to-one" basis. The material dealt with is generally pedantic and traditional rather than varied and progressive. It should be pointed out, however, that in solfège the students are expected to reach a higher level of competency than is generally the case in America. Courses in music history and non-music subjects are presented mainly as lectures to rather large groups of students and seem devoid of humanistic relationships.

In the following chart, an attempt is made to summarize some of the findings of this study. Under the heading Areas of concentration will be found "majors" in which diplomas of varying types are granted. The column designated number of students contains approximate figures furnished, in most cases, by the director of the institution. If the faculty-student ratio appears utopian, it should be borne in mind that most of these faculty members are part-time employees. Both the variability of diploma requirements and the lack of space delimit the material included in the chart. The Conservatories in Amsterdam, London and Detmold have basic requirements for all majors (diploma programs). The Conservatories in Brussels, Paris and Rome, however, have no uniform requirements other than the major instrument and solfège.


NAME Areas of Concentration Number
(in years)
DETMOLD Co S P Ch Op Comp Cond SC   360 66 3-4
PARIS Co       Op Comp Cond     1000 110 2-4
BRUSSELS Co       Op Comp Cond   Dram 600 67 2-4
AMSTERDAM Co S P Ch Op Comp Cond     350 61 5
LONDON Co S     Op Comp Cond     700 140 3-4
ROME Co       Op Comp Cond     500 77 7-10


  Co: Concert Artist or Performance
  S: School Music Teacher
  Ch: Church Music
  Op: Opera
  Comp: Composition
  Cond: Conducting
  SC: Sound Controller
  Dram: Dramatic Theater

Amsterdam, Holland

Formed in Holland in 1829, the "Society for the Promotion of Music" set as one of its goals the development of good instruction in music throughout the country. The Society's music schools in Amsterdam, the Hague, Rotterdam, and Utrecht were founded at that time and modeled after the influential Conservatory in Leipzig. The work of the Society was subsumed under the Ministry of Education, Arts and Science which was organized in 1918. Since that time it has been responsible for all public musical education in Holland.

The Amsterdamsch Conservatorium is one of seven government professional schools of music in this small country of 11 million people. Approximately seventy percent of the students are performance majors while the remainder are enrolled in one of the other diploma programs. The most striking quality of this school is the well-adjusted, orderly manner in which everyone and everything functions: the instruction is always competent, the student's progress is steady and the administration proceeds efficiently and unobtrusively.

The pragmatism of the Dutch personality is everywhere in evidence. These students have endless patience for the laborious process involved in the acquisition of technical skills. The solfège classes, each having no more than six or eight students, are quite effective in ear training and sight singing. Instrumental instruction, while conservative in terms of repertory, equips each student with solid technical proficiency. Solo and ensemble performers are well-prepared and technically flawless. Of the dozens of concerts I heard in Holland, no single concert was unprepared or poorly performed. However, neither did I hear an inspiring or a memorable performance.

The students take a program somewhat similar to an American Conservatory curriculum: the usual requirements in theory, history, ensembles, recitals, major and minor instruments, etc. There is, however, an important difference: whereas American institutions favor "core courses" and maximum correlation between performance, theoretical and historical courses, the Dutch Conservatories believe in early specialization and segregation according to the major course of study. In actual practice, this means that each of the following groups of students has its own section for every required course, and furthermore, that the content of the course is determined largely by the vocational objectives of the group:

  1. composers, conductors, soloists
  2. orchestral players
  3. church musicians
  4. general music teachers (primary and secondary)
  5. teachers of instruments, solo—singing and theory


London, England

London's famed Royal Academy of Music has a prestigious history dating back to its founding in 1822. In 1823, while under the patronage of His Majesty, King George IV, the objectives of the Academy were set forth in a Charter, stated partially as follows: "to promote the cultivation of the science of music, and to afford facilities for attaining perfection in it by assisting with general instruction all persons desirous of acquiring a knowledge thereof."2 Royal patronage has continued to the present day with members of the Royal family leading the list of patrons and honorary officers.

There are two diploma programs which account for ninety percent of the students, the remaining ten percent being in special programs.

  1. Licentiate, Royal Academy of Music (L.R.A.M.)
  2. Graduate, Royal Schools of Music, London (G.R.S.M.)

The L.R.A.M. or normal curriculum is a three year program designed for the training of professional musicians. The program includes weekly classes in the major instrument, minor instrument, written work3 (harmony—counterpoint), solfège (aural training—sight singing) and history of music. Ensemble participation and additional courses are available to qualified students.

The G.R.S.M. diploma, more comprehensive than the L.R.A.M., is awarded to successful candidates after an examination held jointly with the Royal College of Music. (This latter institution is likewise under Royal patronage and furnishes strong competition to the Academy.) This three year program is designed primarily for future teachers and is most often followed by a subsequent year of study at a University Department of Education. During this additional year, particular emphasis is placed on the study of teaching methods and their practical application.

Very few Conservatory students here and in other European cities enroll in a teacher-training program unless they desire a career in this field. A young person thinking of a performance career will choose the L.R.A.M. (or its counterpart in other countries) in order to have a minimum of five hours of instrumental study and practice per day.

Generally, there is little attempt made here to section classes by specialty as in Amsterdam. The music history lectures are attended by about seventy five students per class on a rather casual basis, since L.R.A.M. candidates are not required to take an examination in this subject! Although solfège is important here, it is not the sine qua non for future course work that it is on the continent. Instrumental instruction, in terms of repertory, was more interesting than in Amsterdam, but not so thorough in terms of technical mastery. There are no facilities for record listening and the library is in a sad state of neglect. Student practice hours are limited to 6:00-8:45 P.M., but the demand for practice hours far exceeds the supply. In my talks with both students and faculty, the inadequacy of practice, library and listening facilities was scored time and time again. The lack of financial support was overwhelmingly apparent. Many of Britain's finest musicians have refused positions here because of inadequate remuneration and poor facilities.


Detmold, Germany (West)

This Staatliche Hochschule (National College) is the only one of the twelve German institutions of this type located in a small city, the others being in large cities such as Munich and West Berlin. It was founded in 1946 and is the newest in the West German system, which also includes thirty less-comprehensive conservatories and seventeen church music schools. Facilities in Detmold are good and future plans call for continued growth. West Germany more adequately supports its musical institutions than any other country I visited.

Two features impressed me as being distinctive:

  1. Tonmeister (Sound-controller) diploma program
  2. Awareness of scholarship

Because of the extensive recording, film, radio, and television enterprises in this country, several Conservatories have set up special programs in combined musical and technological areas. Only superior students are allowed to take this program, which is usually of at least three years duration and includes an additional six month laboratory apprenticeship. As well as the required courses in performance, theory, and history, the Tonmeister program requires seven courses directly related to the science and technology of music.

The second distinctive feature mentioned above manifested itself in all the classes which I visited. In the instrumental classes, for instance, the students and the teachers knew the literature for their instruments and were able to discuss style and form. In my conversation with the director, Professor Martin Stephani, I was told that the formal education of their students is complete only when they possess a good general education, a broad musical education and a specific musical area in which they have true expertise.

The most impressive class I attended was the third year music history class for Tonmeister majors taught by Dr. Karl H. Wörner. One of the students read an excellent paper on Heinrich Schütz's Passions. This was followed by a stimulating class discussion led by Dr. Wörner.

Once again, I noticed little contemporary music in evidence, either in recitals or in lessons. It did seem that more music of the Baroque and earlier periods was being played and studied here than in other Conservatories, however.

In private talks with students, a curious point gradually emerged: these students embrace the musical dictates of their teachers and hold to them tenaciously, whereas in other countries the students struggle to develop their own musical tastes, accepting or rejecting the teacher's ideas as suits their own emerging musical personality.

Approximately thirty percent of these students are preparing for careers as school music teachers. This is a larger proportion than in other countries. There seem to be several reasons for this:

  1. Music in the schools is a subject for serious study and occupies a position equal to the traditional academic subjects.
  2. Education and serious scholarship have an exalted position in Germany.
  3. Well-trained music teachers are in demand, receiving good pay and enjoying a rather high social position.


Brussels, Belgium

Largely due to the untiring efforts of the first director, Francois Joseph Fétis, this Conservatory achieved European recognition shortly after the granting of a Royal Charter in 1832. Fétis soon thereafter engaged Victor Mahillon as curator of the instrumental collection. It has flourished ever since and stands today as one of the world's finest and most comprehensive museums of its type. In 1871, Francois-Auguste Gevaert, an eminent musicologist, succeeded Fétis and was largely responsible for the distinguished collection of Franco-Flemish manuscripts and other extensive holdings of this library.

The French "prize" system is in effect here. This means that students must receive a "first prize" on their major instrument in order to receive the certificate and/or diploma.4 Also, in order to take theoretical subjects beyond solfège, a first prize in the following sequence of courses must be received: solfège (1, 2, 3) harmony (1, 2, 3) counterpoint, fugue.

There is no teacher-training program at the Conservatory. This lacuna and the paucity of positions in Belgium professional music are matters of deep concern to student and faculty alike. The other major problem facing the Conservatory and all of Belgium is the dichotomous nature of its population. Each of the two factions—Walloon and Flemish—insist upon separate but equal treatment, especially regarding the use of French or Flemish language. Instrumental instruction here is also done in classes in which each student has an individual lesson in front of the group. I noticed a great emphasis on technique, especially memorized rapid scales and arpeggios. The choice of solo literature, with the possible exception of piano and string instruments, was quite poor. This music is selected from the required list for the "prize" competition. During the 1965-66 competition not one of the sixteen required compositions (encompassing all instruments) was from the pen of a major composer! It is small wonder then that so many European musicians and educators are displeased with the "prize" system.

The concentrated work in solfège, which includes the use of seven clefs, enables these students to perform amazing feats of virtuosity. It does not, however, by some kind of mystical power, produce more musical results in performance.

Even though the splendid library and instrumental museum are housed within the Conservatory, few students take advantage of these available resources.


Paris, France

This venerable institution was founded in the fifth year of the Republic, 1799, and has had a profound influence (not always benign) on musical education.

Its most eminent directors were Cherubini, Auber, Thomas, Dubois, and Fauré. Almost from the beginning, the Conservatory set out to train very young musicians, admitting students as young as ten years of age. This was done because of the realization that technical mastery of an instrument and aural training (solfège) are best accomplished before maturity.

The most striking feature of the Paris Conservatory is the utter conservatism of the instruction. The "prize" system, the poor quality of required repertory for the competitions, the outdated material and methods of instruction, and the lack of a "core" of basic courses point up the fact that time has stood still for this institution. I wish to point out, however, that here and in all other conservatories visited, there are dedicated and, in many cases, brilliant teachers. When study is undertaken with this type of teacher, instruction is as good as anywhere in the world.

One other surprising feature of the "prize" system as practiced here has to do with the duration of major instrument study. When a student has received a first prize on his major instrument, for all practical purposes, his conservatory training in this area is finished; he is not permitted to continue study in this area, even though he may be only fifteen years of age! The more ambitious students take work in several areas and in this way secure for themselves a fairly broad musical education. For instance, the present director of the institution, Raymond Gallois Montbrun, during his student days received the first prize in violin, harmony, fugue, counterpoint, and composition. These honors being followed by the coveted Grand Prix de Rome and Prix de la Ville de Paris.

The French solfège system, with various modifications, has served as a model in many countries of the western world. Basically, it is a technical approach to the acquisition of aural skills, placing great emphasis upon sight reading and aural recognition of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic patterns in all clefs. Stringent regulations are applied to the final examination: a student must pass it within his first two years at the school and before his twentieth birthday, or he is dismissed from the Conservatory.

The level of excellence in solfège is higher than I observed in Brussels or, for that matter, in any other Conservatory I visited. Most of these students are able to perform complex rhythmic and melodic exercises at sight. This skill, however, does not seem to help in the development of a discriminating taste or stylistic sensitivity.

In my visits to instrumental classes and orchestra rehearsals, I noticed a distinct lack of sensitivity to musical style, the hallmark of musical maturity. The emphasis on technical dexterity (which is certainly impressive) results here in a de-emphasis on style, intonation and blend, so that student ensembles had an unusually coarse sound. The teaching material and solo literature employed is mainly drawn from the nineteenth century.


Rome, Italy

This institution, started by Palestrina and his pupil Nanino, in 1966 celebrated the fourth centenary of its founding. It was not until the early part of this century, however, that the recently united Italy was able to nationalize fourteen of the country's leading Conservatories. Although foreign students were in evidence in every city I visited, Italy seems to attract the largest numbers. There are some twenty-four educational programs (year-abroad, etc.) in Italy sponsored by American Universities and Colleges. The Santa Cecilia offers several "special" programs for foreigners, most of whom come to study some phase of opera.

The most striking feature of instruction here is the great irregularity in the quality of the faculty. I observed first-rate instruction in the flute class of Severino Gazzeloni and in the conducting class of Franco Ferrara. But, on the other hand, in certain instrumental, harmony, and choral classes, I was appalled to find such poor instruction.

The operational procedure here differs more from an American norm than that of any other school I visited. For example, I could not get any accurate information concerning the number of students and teachers, nor when and where student recitals and concerts take place. Students do not have advisors, do not know what courses are required, do not know how many years of study their program entails. The Italian students seem only mildly interested in getting answers to these questions, while the Americans there were on tenterhooks concerning requirements, examinations, etc.

The instrumental classes suffer from the lack of uniformly good faculty and an improper grouping of students. As an example of the latter, I observed one class of six students who ranged in age from thirteen to twenty-three years of age and, in proficiency, from beginning to advanced.

The solfège instruction seemed rather good. Major emphasis is placed upon rhythmic reading. The curious feature of this training is that it is accomplished with the extraneous use of solfège syllables and changing clefs; that is, the exercises consist of melodies in complex rhythmic patterns of which the student is required to reproduce only the rhythm and correct solfège syllables. He intones the entire exercise as a quasi-monotone, with no attention paid to the pitches.5

Instruction in other theoretical subjects is uneven, due to the factors already mentioned and the lack of a piano requirement. Just as in Brussels and Paris, a student in Rome can take a course in harmony (and pass it) without ever knowing how his harmony exercises sound!

The advantages of large amounts of daily practice were in evidence in student performances. The lyrical style, not only of the vocalists but of all instrumentalists, was very impressive.

It is undoubtedly the long tradition of lyric theater with its emphasis on melody that accounts for such wonders as Italy's fine opera companies and service bands. Not only Rome's famed "Carabinieri" ensemble, but many municipal wind groups throughout the country as well, play with a refinement and blend unknown in America. This phenomenon is all the more surprising when one realizes that bands do not exist in educational institutions anywhere in Europe, while in America they are the nexus of many music programs!



The superiority of European Conservatory training over American musical education is a thing of the past. The more comprehensive nature of American College and University degree programs is better suited to our needs and aspirations. The proper balance between and fusion of music history, theory, performance, and general education is our goal. After my visits to European Conservatories, I am convinced that this ideal is the one most worthy of pursuit. The peril of dilettantism, however, is ever-present within our broad approach. A fear of dilettantism makes untenable to European educators the concept of a unified program in which serious professional training and liberal arts education are joined.

Here are the features of the Conservatory which we might incorporate to good advantage.

A. Instrumental study
  1. Mastering the technical aspects of a musical instrument at an early age, thus laying the foundation for all future musical growth
  2. Adequate practice time in the schedule
B. Solfège
  1. Early, intensive instruction
  2. Must be passed before further theoretical courses may be taken

We must discover real musical talent in youngsters long before high school age. This talent must be nurtured and cultivated so that by college age, a deep penetration into the field and a broad general education can be pursued side by side.

Regardless of the age at which the study of music is begun, instrumental lessons should embrace the following:

A. Musical compositions of high quality must receive the major emphasis.
B. All music should be studied in not only technical terms, but also regarding form, harmony, counterpoint, melody, rhythm, instrumentation, etc.

When "A" and "B" above are the rules rather than the exceptions, music itself instead of instrumental techniques will be at the center of music-in-performance instruction.

Musical education, whether in America or Europe, must adopt a philosophical viewpoint in which the study of the semantics of music, in terms of tradition, is a live, inductive process and not a trivial, peripheral activity. If score study and analysis formed the central focus of the musician's education, then he would become selective, critical, and familiar with the age-old problems of musical structure. He would no longer need to mimic the artist's interpretation, to become "addicted" to the coach's studio and to attend annual "refresher" classes. These and other "mystagogical" rites that belie musical maturity would be unnecessary. On the contrary, his musical maturity would be manifested by the ability to understand the composer's intentions; to deal with tradition and interpretation in relationship to present day music as well as music of the past; and finally, to assimilate the elements of his education into a meaningful whole. Our ideal would then be realized—a complete musician.

1John Daniskas, Musical Education, translated by Ian F. Finlay (Amsterdam, 1960), p. 11.

2"Annual Prospectus," Royal Academy of Music, September, 1966, p. 5.

3A quaint "Anglicism" which, to Americans, has a pejorative connotation.

4Although similar to the diploma, the certificate has no requirements. It simply lists the courses taken and the grade (prize) received.

5See Delachi, Lezione di Solfeggio, 3 Corso, Vol. 1 (Milan: G. Ricordi), pp. 1-55.

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