A regular topic on classical music internet chat pages is: 'Which overseas college would you recommend?' Most answers are well-meant but unhelpful. For example, replying to a student seeking a course in music composition, one well-intentioned soul advised: 'There is reported to be a music school of some sort in New York City, Jullie [sic] something or other it is called.'
Here was a keen amateur composer, an adult, with only the vaguest idea about the world-renowned Juilliard School, other than that it was located in New York. He couldn't even get the name right, yet he rushed on to a public website with a recommendation defining the world famous Juilliard School vaguely as a 'music school of some sort'! Juilliard has been associated with many great names, from William Schuman to John Corigliano to Wynton Marsalis. As the saying goes: there aren't silly questions, only silly answers. So, beware of advice - including what I'm about to tell you. Everything changes; do your research.
To seek opinions on music colleges is important if you are about to spend three or four years of your life attending one, in preparation for a musical career. To give an informed, balanced and comprehensive answer is difficult. Hundreds of such institutions exist. No single person is likely to have experience of all of them.
Just consider how complicated it would be to decide which is the most difficult instrument to learn, or how tricky it is to say which is the hardest foreign language to master. Only those with experience of several could give an informed opinion. Such people are rare. The same goes for music colleges. Yet on the particular website that I mentioned above, some twenty people weighed in with opinions about music colleges (or Musikhochschule, conservatoires, schools or academies, the name depending on the country), based on almost no experience other than of the one or two institutions the writers themselves attended, years ago.
In more than thirty years in tertiary level music education I've visited music colleges in America, Australia, China, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Korea, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, South Africa and throughout Europe. Many (but not all) are located in the centre of big cities. Most have insufficient practice rooms - at least, if you listen to what the students say. And there seems to be an inverse correlation between the condition of the pianos and the condition of the other facilities. That is to say, the gloomiest and grubbiest colleges often have the very best pianos and the best teaching. The wrecks (the instruments, that is, not the teachers) are often found in the nicest buildings.
But this isn't always the case. Some colleges are unbelievably well-appointed. For instance, in Chengdu, in Sichuan, China, I visited a music department with five-hundred practice rooms, and five hundred pianos! But these are generalisations, arrived at after visiting only a couple of hundred colleges. I may be wrong.
The Russian pianist Natalia Strelchenko is currently Research Fellow in Performance in Oslo College of Music, in Norway. Simultaneously, throughout 2008 she is Artist in Residence at Leeds College of Music in the UK. Strelchenko is therefore in an excellent position to make international comparisons.
'I have my Bachelors from Saint Petersburg, and I have my Masters Degree from Oslo,' she explains. 'Norway is rich, with a small population. The College here in Oslo has a big, beautiful building, with every possible facility. All the teaching rooms have two grand pianos, one being a Steinway. And all student practice rooms have a grand piano. It's fantastic, really. Tuition here is free. Postgraduates can apply for a grant, a loan, which they have to pay back later.'
The Conservatory in Oslo isn't quite as international as those in Britain. In Oslo, most of the non-Norwegian students are from another Scandinavian country, rather than coming from all over the world. The Norwegian Bachelor course lasts for four years, the Masters for two years. 'British education is respected here. Everybody speaks English in Norway,' says Strelchenko. 'Individual lessons can be given in English, which is widely spoken in Norway. But group lessons can be difficult; officially, lessons such as musicology or history are usually given in Norwegian. But sometimes within a group of international students, English is the common language. Then, lessons will take place in English.' If you are considering study in Norway, there are also excellent conservatoires in Bergen and Trondheim.
Sweden, Finland and Denmark
Sweden's Royal Conservatory (Kungliga Musikhögskolan) is located in Stockholm. Other Swedish conservatoires are in Malmö, Piteå, Örebro and Gothenburg (Göteborg). In Finland, the Sibelius Academy, and the Pop Jazz Conservatory, both located in Helsinki, are well known internationally. Frequently, these two pre-eminent Finnish institutions employ eminent visiting teachers from America and elsewhere, particularly as jazz educators at the Pop Jazz Conservatory. In Denmark, the Royal Conservatory, located in Copenhagen, has a noted jazz department, progressive international links, with study agreements with China, and elsewhere.
Many of the remarks already made relation to Norway, particularly regarding the high standard of spoken English one encounters, will also apply to Sweden, Denmark and Finland.
Much useful desk research can be done online. One can make e-mail enquiries direct to the colleges. Also, in the Scandinavian countries, the Music Information Centres can be recommended for helpful and up-to-date advice and information.
One can also study on the Southern Baltic coast in Latvia (Music Academy of Latvia), Lithuania (Lithuanian Academy of Music), or Estonia. The latter claims to have one of the best and most modern conservatoire buildings in the world, in the beautiful and historic waterfront city of Tallinn, just a hydrofoil ride across the Baltic from Helsinki.
In the Netherlands, the Royal Conservatory in The Hague is prestigious, while Amsterdam Conservatory claims to be the largest and most diverse conservatory. If you are hoping to travel between Holland and the UK frequently, Amsterdam has the advantage of possessing one of Europe's international hub airports, with good connections to many provincial British cities. Mention must be made of the progressive and highly regarded Rotterdam Conservatory, which was one of the first Europeans conservatories have a Gamelan when such things were fashionable, and one of the first to employ visiting Americans - the jazz composer Bob Brookmeyer being a famous incumbent during the 1990s. English is spoken widely and well.
To spend four years as a student in a foreign country inevitably means acquiring some ability at the language. In this respect, spending time studying (and maybe working) in Germany will give you a knowledge of the German language, historically the language of many of the greatest European composers and musicians.
In Germany's larger cities - Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, and Cologne - it's clear that the size of the city offers a high quality of musical life to its citizens. Here, as in any country, the bigger cities are more likely to have a professional symphony orchestra, broadcasting studios, maybe film and television companies, even an opera company and record company, than the smaller towns. All spell employment for musicians. In turn, the presence of working musicians attracts music retailers, instrument repairers, bookshops, retailers of sheet music and even publishers. There will more classical music and jazz concerts than in a small town, and a better choice of instrumental teachers, with an increased number of opportunities for playing work for advanced students - for you.
However, don't assume that the biggest city is automatically better for everything. For instance, the pianist Evgenia Rubinova, who won a Silver Medal in the 2003 Leeds International Piano Competition, has this year completed her college course in Frankfurt. A world-class player from Russia, she chose Frankfurt, and not Berlin or Munich, because of the piano teacher there, Lev Natochenny. Rubinova's strategy is a perfect example of the importance of doing thorough research, and knowing exactly what you want.
When considering study in Germany, Finland or Poland, familiarise yourself with the concept of the Abitur exam, being the set of final exams that young adults (aged 18, 19 or 20) take at the end of their secondary education, usually after 12 or 13 years of schooling. Abitur is comparable either to A level or International Baccalaureate.
Be prepared for a slightly different approach to campus life if you go to study in Germany. I was astounded to see German students in Berlin taking their pet dogs (not working dogs) into university lecture halls. Yes…if only they could talk!
Switzerland and Austria
While writing this article I spent time in southern Germany, at Lake Constanz (the Bodensee), close to the four-border corner of Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein. The annual Bregenzer Festspiele is a world-famous festival which takes place on and around a stage built out onto the lake. Also in a beautiful location is Geneva Conservatory of Music, which features a large concert hall where many famous musicians, including Jaques-Dalcroze, Ernest Bloch and Ernest Ansermet, have appeared.
Yet all is not concentrated on the past. For the academic year 2008/9 the Conservatory of Lugano has announced a new cello class under the guidance of the internationally known Johannes Goritzki.
The language skills of Austrian students have impressed me ever since I noticed that my Austrian students here in Britain had higher standards of English spelling and grammar than many native English speakers of the same age! So, have no worries about being misunderstood. Naturally, in Austria, Vienna is pre-eminent, but don't overlook the conservatory at Linz, or the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Consider, also, the delightful town of Graz, Austria's second largest city, with six universities and 44,000 students. Here was given the 1906 première of Richard Strauss's Salome. Graz is yet another lovely place in which to spend one's student years.
We musicians are lucky to live in Europe, the main challenge being that the choice of places to study is bewildering. Much careful research is required.
Web links to Conservatories: