I have a theory that we should spend c25 years living with our music, studying it, absorbing it, and then only perform it when we are in our 40s or 50s; unfortunately, this is not an ideal scenario in which to forge a career as a performer, and few professional musicians would ever have the luxury of being able to work in this way, but it’s an interesting thought nonetheless.

Music – like wine – needs to mature. We need to spend time with it, understand it, allow its flavour, depth, and narrative to develop. We need to live with the music to find out what makes it special, study its style and contextual background which provide invaluable insights into the way it should be interpreted, listen around the work, endlessly strive to find the emotional or spiritual meaning of a work, its subtleties and balance of structure, and how to communicate all of this to an audience as if telling the story for the very first time.

To do this, we should never study and learn music solely in the isolation of the practise room. The 8-hour practise regime I know some musicians pursue is harmful in so many ways, beyond the merely physical. And note-bashing (which is what practise becomes beyond a certain time-frame), is no substitute for life experience: fall in love, fall out of love, embrace art, literature, poetry, theatre, film, go to concerts, meet friends, eat, drink – all these things feed into the artistic imagination and help shape one’s response to music. Because, fundamentally, composers are just like us – sentient, thinking, emotional human beings who drew on their own life experience to create their music.

I know my own musical maturity has come from physical maturity and life experience, and from spending a great deal of time “in music”, by which I mean attending concerts, in my capacity as a concert reviewer and for the sheer pleasure and enjoyment of live music (which I adore); interacting with other musicians, primarily through the Meet the Artist interview series on this blog, and encounters with musicians at concerts and other events; teaching and interacting with students and other teachers; reading and listening. In addition,  I continue to study with master teachers, whose own studies with some of the great pianist-teachers of the twentieth-century (including Nina Svetlanova, Andras Schiff, Vlado Perlemuter, Phyllis Sellick, Guido Agosti and Maria Curcio) offer unique insights and act as connectors to earlier teachers and mentors, and, most importantly, to the music.

In more practical terms, I believe that our music matures through detailed and careful learning, a deep understanding of the piece, and a solid grounding in the technical and stylistic aspects of piano playing, together with an awareness of cultural and historical contexts. Learning a work and then putting it aside for a few months can also be hugely beneficial, for on returning to that work, one often discovers new things about it, while also deepening one’s understanding of and response to the music. Performing regularly helps shape our response to our music and allows interesting new ideas to develop which can be reviewed and pursued after a performance. The work is never static: it is always evolving, developing, and on this basis one can never truly say a work is “finished”.

Observing young professional artists in concerts, it strikes me that many young people, and even some more established or senior artists, feel they must learn a lot of repertoire very quickly. They are under pressure to have the big warhorse concertos – a Rach, a Tchaik, a Beethoven – in the fingers, together with other “holy grails” of mainstream concert repertoire, such as Chopin’s Études, Ballades, Sonatas and Scherzi, Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, Beethoven’s most well-known and well-loved Piano Sonatas. Young artists are under tremendous pressure in this competitive world of classical music to demonstrate that they can handle these great works (competitions and superior-quality recordings don’t help this situation either), but sometimes their performances seem to lack depth: technically assured but not always as insightful or thoughtful as one might like, their sound becomes a bland synthesis, as if they are striving for that perfect sound of a top-quality recording, instead of allowing emotion and life experience and the excitement and risk of the one-off live performance to enter their music. One hopes that such artists will give their music time to develop and mature.

The late great Glenn Gould was obviously aware of the differences in one’s playing and response to the music which develop over time when he re-recorded the Golberg Variations in 1981. Compare this with his youthful recording, and one hears more breathing space and thoughtfulness in the music. It is perhaps this insight and profundity that one seeks in going to hear performers such as John Lill, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Maria Joao Pires and Radu Lupu, all now “senior” musicians who have spent a lifetime in music. But of course now and then one comes across a young performer whose playing leaves one utterly awestruck and keen for more: one such performer is Daniil Trifonov, who at only 23 already displays an extraordinarily mature approach, combined with superb technique and musical understanding. One can only hope that these fine aspects of his pianistic persona go on developing as he matures.

Glenn Gould – Aria from the 1955 Goldberg Variations recording

Glenn Gould – Aria from the 1981 Goldberg Variations recording

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