Thinking about studying at music college? This guest post by Madelaine Jones, a third-year student at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, will give you a flavour of student life at a top London conservatoire…..

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance in Greenwich

“So where do you study, then? What subject?”

“Oh, I’m a piano student. I study at a conservatoire.”

Cue either the hostile look of ‘that’s not actually a degree, is it?’ (unfortunately, I have experienced this), the confusion at the fact that I attend an alien type of institution that sounds shockingly similar to something you grow plants in (amusingly, I have also experienced this), or the look of sheer terror at the fact that I clearly must spend 14 hours a day chained to a piano and have no shred of a life away from a keyboard. To fellow musicians who’ve never experienced conservatoire life, there is this strange misconception that conservatoire musicians are work-machines who never do anything but practice, practice, practice – and while I’m sure there are some music students out there whose lives resemble something of the sort, the vast majority of conservatoire students have far more varied and interesting lives than you’d ever given them credit for.

Over the last three years of college, I have met people who work consistently throughout the year, putting a few hours in every day, come rain or shine. I have also met people who won’t touch a piano for weeks at a time and will wing their exams after cramming furiously at the last minute. Similarly, I’ve met people who study avidly, listening and reading as much as they possibly can. I’ve also met people who haven’t touched a book since they left school and who would far rather go to a Lady Gaga concert than a Wigmore Hall recital any day of the week. The spectrum of people, abilities and ambitions at a music college is simply staggering, and to cast a blanket over the average conservatoire student and their experience of college life would be absolutely impossible.

Personally speaking, the most important part of any conservatoire education is Principal Study time (or, to scrap the jargon, one-to-one instrumental lessons with a teacher). During your time at college, your teacher is your mentor and probably the biggest influence you’re going to have musically – I do even know some people who picked their college solely for their instrumental teacher. As with scary practice myths, there seems to be this misconception that all teachers at conservatoires are incredibly hard taskmasters who crack the whip incessantly and have ridiculous expectations. True, there are some teachers like that – and generally it’s the pupils who want to be pushed who opt for those teachers. But equally, there are plenty of empathetic teachers out there. My Principal Study teacher is quite simply one of the most understanding and patient teachers I have ever had (given my somewhat temperamental disposition, she’s got the patience of a saint!), and the lack of pushiness doesn’t in any way deter me or make me want to work less. If anything, it inspires me to work harder so that I can try and repay her for her kindness and understanding by becoming a better pianist. But there are some people I know who would hate to have a teacher that, frankly, didn’t kick them up the backside every five minutes, else they’d get complacent.

The freedom to do what you want at a conservatoire is, without any shadow of a doubt, both a blessing and a curse. In terms of timetabled activities, I don’t actually have a lot of classes: there are a few academic classes every week, a few optional ensemble classes, a performance tutorial, but in terms of compulsory lectures to attend, there’s really not much to pin your day around. This can be a blessing if you’re motivated enough to use it wisely: you can practice, read about music (or anything else), go to concerts, widen your view on the world, and still have time to get all your work for college done. You can also fill your time with extra-curricular projects and performances. Over the past two years, I’ve taken harpsichord lessons and occasionally participated in Early Music projects, which has been a great experience. Other people I know have signed up for various orchestral projects or completely saturated their timetable with chamber music. So, for people who really want to get involved, having a sparse timetable with access to practice facilities and a whole range of optional classes is a blessing. However, the question of motivation is always an issue. Let’s face it, if you had nothing but a couple of hours of classes on your timetable every day, wouldn’t you be tempted to sneak more than the odd lie-in too? Wouldn’t that picnic in the park, mid-June and gorgeously sunny, sound more appealing than a day in a sweaty practice room to you? Where there is freedom, there is always the temptation to stray off the path of hard work. It’s just up to the individual how much they want to let themselves stray.

So when people ask me what a conservatoire is like, as you can see, there’s such a giant scope of different experiences that it’s difficult to pin down a single explanation. It will vary from person to person, conservatoire to conservatoire (experiences in other colleges may be different – those of you who attend ridiculously competitive institutions, berate me if you wish). To sum up the average experience, given those I know and see on a day-to-day basis, I would say this: a conservatoire is strange little bubble of a world where everybody talks about Schumann like they know him personally, drinks coffee incessantly, finds it normal to spend more than 10 hours in college and only have spent half of them actually practising and fills the rest of the time either frittering away their life in the café, avoiding work, or, if they’re one of the blessedly motivated few, reading and listening and broadening their mind. It really is a truly wonderful – if a little surreal – place to study, and even in the stressy exam periods, I am very happy to say I chose to come to a conservatoire and have enjoyed my time immensely so far (sadly, I’m now halfway through my degree). To me, the best part of it all is that since everyone is studying the same subject, and college is so small, there’s a great sense of camaraderie in a conservatoire which you don’t get in your average university. Everyone has a shared love, and everyone’s in the same boat – a boat which, with any luck, would have good sound-proofing.

Madelaine Jones is currently a student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, studying piano and harpsichord with Penelope Roskell and James Johnstone respectively. She was the winner of the Gladys Puttick Improvisation Competition 2012 with duo partner and dancer, Adam Russell. Her ensemble experience as a pianist has included working alongside the BBC Singers, the Medway Singers and the Walderslade Primary School Choir, and she has performed as a harpsichordist and chamber organist in the Greenwich International Early Music Festival alongside Trinity Laban’s various Early Music Ensembles. Madelaine is a previous recipient of an LCM London Music Schools and Teachers Award, and is also a keen writer in her spare time. She reviews for international concert and opera listings site Bachtrack,  and is a regular guest contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog.

For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/madelaineclarajones

Recent guest blog posts

Transposing – a dying art?

Lohen-Behold: the piano music of Richard Wagner

Composers – but not as we know them

Music conservatoires in the UK

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance

Royal Academy of Music

Royal College of Music

Royal Northern College of Music

Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

As Debussy enters his 150th anniversary, some of the most innovative names in music have teamed up to give DJs the chance to remix an entire orchestra.

Known for challenging classical conventions, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) have released rare recordings of Sir Simon Rattle conducting a rehearsal of Debussy’s La Mer. Judged by French electronic artist and BBC Radio 6 music favourite Chapelier Fou, the Dubussy Remix contest is aimed at giving new artists the chance to have as much fun as they like with a well known classical piece.

Dubussy is the OAE’s way of exploring how a structural pioneer like Debussy, inspired experimental DJs like Chapelier Fou and Flying Lotus and what comes out when these genre’s are thrown together.

“Structural things are useless in Debussy’s music…and it’s just for the love of sound…it’s almost something that you can touch.  I wasn’t interested in classical music until I discovered Debussy”

Chapelier Fou

All entries must be in by 30 October 2012 with each track being between 3 and 5 minutes long.

3)  You can download the audio files here

4)  …and upload your completed remixes here

1st Prize (to be chosen by Chapelier Fou) will receive four free tickets to The Night Shift – the OAE’s relaxed, rules free classical night on 22 November:  www.oae.co.uk/thenightshift ; a bag of The Night Shift and Chapelier Fou goodies and the opportunity to be name-checked on all OAE and Chapelier Fou social media sites, as well as having your track premiered by our Night Shift DJ at a future gig.

2nd Prize (As voted for by the public) will receive two free tickets to the Night Shift and a selection of OAE and Night Shift prizes.

For more information please contact Matthew Grindon, Press Assistant, The OAE, on 0207 239 9373 or email matthew.grindon@oae.co.uk

Stephen Reck, guitarist

Who or what inspired you to take up the classical guitar, and make it your career?

The rage to master happened after hearing a recording of the Concierto De Aranjuez during my teenage years. There were no classical guitar teachers in my native town of Donegal in the Northwest of Ireland so I had to travel an 8 hour roundtrip to Dublin every other weekend to study to renowned Irish classical guitarist John Feeley. Up to this point I had played electric guitar.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?

Andres Segovia, John Williams, Johann Sebastian Bach. My influential teachers were John Feeley, Carlos Bonell and Ricardo Iznaola

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Adapting to the many skills that are required of the musician today.

Which performances are you most proud of?

Performances that were against the odds when either the material or the emotional state proceeding the performance has been challenging

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

National Concert Hall, Dublin

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Chaconne BWV 1004 Johann Sebastian Bach, Scarlatti Sonatas, music of Albeniz, Granados,

Who are your favourite musicians?

Those who manage to transcend the technique and make each phrase sound loved. Segovia, Benedetti, Rheinhardt, Gould, Horowitz, Pollini

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Nigel North playing BWV 1004 on the lute

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Practice smart not hard, enjoy the challenges and take risks.

What are you working on at the moment?

Various new compositions by French composer Colette Mourey and a second CD

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A good equilibrium between teaching and performing goals

Irish born classical guitarist Stephen Reck is regarded as one of the foremost players of a new generation of artists emerging from Ireland. Born in Dublin, Stephen grew up in a small town called Donegal in the northwest of Ireland. He holds a Bachelor in Music Performance from Trinity College, Dublin and a Masters Music from the London College of Music. Initially he studied with Irish virtuoso John Feeley before leaving Ireland to study in London with Carlos Bonell. Stephen also did advanced guitar studies over two years with Cuban guitarist Ricardo Iznaola in at the University of Denver, USA who said of Stephen’s playing “Great technique and beautiful sound”.

Based in London, Stephen has performed in Ireland, UK, France and America. He has made regular appearances at the John Field Recital Room of the National Concert Hall in Dublin and venues throughout the UK and has also performed and taught at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, Maine, USA performing such contemporary works as Mundis Canis by George Crumb and Tan Dun’s as part of the Gamper Music festival.

He has recently premiered two works written for him by renowned French composer Colette Mourey in Paris. Colette who recently won first prize in the 20th International Competition for Instrumentalists and Composers 2012 said “Stephen Reck is a complete, very sensitive, marvellous musician, with a great quality of inspiration in all the pieces he interprets; beautiful sound, very varied colours…and a great concentration in all his musical and guitaristic effects”.

Distributed by Con Brio recordings, his first album of recorded work “Saudade” was released early in 2007, and has been featured on many radio stations including RTE Lyric FM and WNYC radio New York. According to Jeremy Nicholas of Classic FM Magazine said “An imaginative choice of 12 works sensitively played, intimately recorded and nicely presented ” (June 2008), and American Record Guide “Clean pleasant tone….. his best work is the most challenging piece, Dodgson’s ‘Fantasy Divisions’, which he navigates with involvement and imagination…”

In addition to his solo work Stephen has collaborated for several years with the highly regarded flautist David Cuthbert as part of the group Flautarra and Gina Kruger as part of the Kruger-Reck Piano Guitar Duo

Detail from Richard Hamilton’s ‘Portrait of a Woman as an Artist’, 2007, oil on inkjet on canvas, 100cm x 123cm. Photograph: courtesy of the estate of Richard Hamilton

In a remarkable exhibition at the National Gallery, the late Richard Hamilton, doyen of the Pop Art movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and a leading British artist with an international following, has left a beautiful and startling legacy in an exquisitely executed visual study of the fundamentals of the artist’s craft.

Read my full review here

Stephen, one of the students on the course

Another excellent weekend on Penelope Roskell’s Advanced Piano course – my fifth course run by my teacher. Three friends were there, including Stephen Gott, who I met nearly three years ago on the first course we both attended. (Stephen has just entered his second year at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.) With a total of just six students, instead of the more usual eight, there was plenty of time for discussion and appreciation of the repertoire we all brought to the course, to play and to share: it was supportive and inspiring. The standard of playing is usually pretty high, which means we get to enjoy quality music, every day.

I have blogged before about how useful I find my teacher’s courses: the small number of students (a maximum of eight to allow plenty of participation), the intimate setting (the course takes place in the spacious sitting room of Penelope’s home) and the (reasonably) relaxed end of course concert on the Sunday afternoon make for an atmosphere that is both stimulating, challenging and friendly. By Sunday, when we’ve all got to know each other better, the atmosphere is relaxed and we often spend the time simply playing music for one another. Sometimes all we need as pianists is to play for others. Helen Burford, a pianist based in Brighton, whom I’ve met a couple of times on these courses, and I even played a suite of tiny duets for beginner students, bringing a touch of elan to each miniature, to the accompaniment of laughter from our fellow students.

By the third day, people are transformed by the experience and someone who may have said at the outset that there is no way they are playing in the concert, feels secure enough to perform. And this, for me, is the major benefit of the course, to give confidence to nervous or shy performers, and to bring out the very best in people through gentle yet focused tutoring.
The course is organised as a series of masterclasses, and begins each morning with yoga-based exercises especially devised for pianists to help loosen shoulders and back, and warm up arms and hands, legs and feet. Everyone gets the chance to play at least once every day, and students can select when in the day they would like to play – some people prefer to play early on “to get it over with” and then sit back and enjoy others playing through the day. We take our lunch in the garden if the weather is fine, or in the conservatory, our musical conversations accompanied by the squeaking of the pet guinea pigs!

I took Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca and Mozart’s Rondo in A minor to the course. Both pieces form part of my LTCL Recital programme and I really just wanted to put them before a small audience for some feedback. The Mozart in particular was very well-received, which was most gratifying since I’ve spent such a long time with this piece – playing it, studying it and reading about it. I also played it in the end of course concert.

Another lovely aspect of these courses is the great variety of repertoire one can encounter. Helen always brings interesting pieces, this time ranging from Bach to Chick Corea. On Saturday afternoon, at the very end of the day, she played the evocative Lotus Land by Cyril Scott, a piece we had both, coincidentally, heard, and liked, on the Radio Three recently. It has echoes of Delius, Debussy and Satie. We also enjoyed music by Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy, Haydn, Schumann, Shostakovich, Brubeck, and Vask. Hear a selection of the music we played here:

Autumn Piano Course (a Spotify playlist)

Live performances:

For more information about Penelope Roskell’s advanced piano courses and workshops for pianists and piano teachers, please visit http://www.peneloperoskell.co.uk/

I’m flagging up this interesting collaboration on behalf of trumpeter Simon Desbruslais, a recent Meet the Artist interviewee……

On Monday 8th October, Simon will be performing with the Ligeti Quartet at Holywell Music Room, Oxford, in two works for the unusual combination of trumpet and string quartet. Both pieces are new commissions, and receive their world premiere on Monday evening: Quintet for Trumpet and Strings (2009) by Robert Keeley, and Simultaneously Sovereign and Invaded (2011) by his student, Steve Hicks. Completing the cycle, music by Keeley’s former composition teacher, Franco Donatoni, will also feature with works for solo trumpet and viola.

The concert will also feature music by Gyorgy Ligeti, including his Poeme Symphonique (1962) for 100 clockwork metronomes. If you have a clockwork metronome, the Ligeti Quartet would love to hear from you. Go along to the concert, and in exchange for the loan of your metronome, you will receive a free ticket.

This promises to be fascinating and unusual evening of music. Further information about the concert here

My Meet the Artist interview with Simon Desbruslais