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Why it makes sense to study music in a conservatory

Véronique Riou, who taught the violin at a conservatory in France for 35 years, chatted with BrainGain Magazine about music education in her country
BY Uma Asher |   16-03-2016

Veronique Riou, Violin teacher, Conservatory of Lyon, France
Véronique Riou at the Delhi School of Music

Since she retired four years ago, violinist Véronique Riou has been volunteering through a retirees’ association to work with underprivileged kids in Lyon, France. Someone in Paris heard about her, and one day, out of the blue, she got a call from there, asking if she would spend time with teachers and students of music in India. So for the past few weeks, she has been interacting with teachers and students at the Delhi School of Music.

France’s most famous music school is the Paris Conservatory, founded in 1795. Among its distinguished alumni is the Bombay-born Vanraj Bhatia, who has composed music for many Indian TV shows and films. But besides Paris, France has several regional-level conservatories, in cities such as Lyon, Grenoble, Toulouse, and Strasbourg. Their network facilitates joint concerts, faculty and student exchanges, and other inter-school programmes.

Ms. Riou taught at the Conservatoire de Lyon, founded in 1872. It has 250 teachers and 2,500 students who study music, dance, and theatre. She says the violin curriculum includes classes in theory, music culture, orchestra, and of course, violin technique. Advanced students learn harmony, composition, music history, and aesthetics.

Student orchestras are rare in India, due to the lack of space and time for large groups to practice together. Also, most students learn with just one teacher. This makes it difficult to pick up the skills learned by performing in large groups – precise pitch and timing, following the conductor, and even simple things like entering and exiting the stage in an orderly manner.

“The conservatory’s students are 6 to 25 years old,” says Ms. Riou. Anyone can enrol, and music lessons can be combined with other studies. “For example,” says Ms. Riou, “some children attend regular classes in the morning and music classes in the afternoon.” The conservatory has accepted international students, too, from countries such as Japan, Malta, Turkey, and the US.

Studying at the conservatory is not free, but nor is it as expensive as in the US, says Ms. Riou, who lived in America for a couple of years. “In Lyon, students pay around €200 a year as fees,” she says. “Those who are from outside Lyon have to pay more, but it’s not much.” By contrast, tuition for full-time study at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, was about $32,780 (nearly €30,000) in 2015.

Small children enter the conservatory with no prior musical training. Many are not even from musical families (Ms. Riou herself is an example). “However, children seeking admission to the conservatory must pass some basic tests,” she says. “For example, we check whether they have an ear for pitch.” She says the conservatory divides musical training into three “cycles”, which correspond roughly to the age groups of 6-12 years, 13-15 years, and 14-20 years. Expectations of prior training depend on the level at which one seeks to enter. 

Besides the violin, the Lyon conservatory offers instruction in other strings – baroque violin, viola, baroque viola, cello and bass – and also wind instruments (including the accordion), brass, piano, classical percussion, world percussion, conducting, and jazz. That explains the large teaching staff.

Ms. Riou headed the conservatory’s string department for 15 years. She retired at age 65, but remains involved as a consultant. “Teachers are government employees,” she says. She explains that most music education in France is government-funded. “Conservatories are funded by regional and city governments,” she adds.

“When I was teaching, roughly 90% of the cost was for salaries, and only 10% was for pianos and other things,” she says. According to the conservatory website, about 80% of its 2015 budget of €11.25 million came from local governments. Since it runs on taxpayer money, students are expected to maintain high standards. Most of them complete their studies, says Ms. Riou.  “But if you don’t practice, you can get fired,” she adds.

She says all her students have got jobs. “Some of them are now around 50 years old. Some taught with me at the conservatory, and we also play music together.” She says teaching jobs in private and public schools are easier to get than orchestra jobs, but one needs specific qualifications to be a music teacher. The Lyon conservatory offers these qualifications, as do other major music schools.

“Orchestra jobs are harder to get,” says Ms. Riou. “For that, you must clear three levels of very tough exams. The city owns the orchestra, and pays for the musicians’ salaries, social security and retirement. It costs the city a lot, so the standards to join are very high.”

In 2008, Ms. Riou and her colleagues formed an all-women ensemble called Las Tangueras, which specialises in – you guessed it – tango music. She also continues to perform in orchestras. Here’s Las Tangueras' interpretation of “Tanguera”, a well-known 1955 composition by Argentinian musician Mariano Mores. Ms. Riou is third from the left:


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