Why a music conservatoire is tougher than Cambridge

    3 September 2020

    ‘Not quite my tempo,’ says J.K. Simmons’s despotic jazz teacher in the film Whiplash — before throwing a chair at a student’s head. Later on, we see the same student plunging a bleeding fist into a bucket of ice water to soothe the sores brought on by hours of obsessive practice. The scenes are overdone, of course, but not absurdly so. I studied the violin at the Royal College of Music and can remember finding spots of dried blood on piano keys in the practice rooms. For years, I had no fingerprints on my left hand because the metal strings had worn away the healthy tissue, leaving behind shiny, hard skin. Cuts, lesions and calluses were all par for the course — even marks worn with pride.

    Having left classical music behind — I’m now studying at Cambridge after a stint in the civil service — I recognise how much of that world remains something of an enigma to those not in it. Romanticised images of poor, struggling artists, happy to survive on oxygen and a few sheets of Beethoven, do much to mystify what is essentially an industry — and an extremely competitive one at that. Another easy narrative is that of the idealistic and naive dreamer, talented and creative, but lacking the Stem skills or practical nous for a successful business career. Certain classical musicians, making public comments like ‘musicians are the garbage collectors of the soul’, don’t help dispel the notion that conservatoires produce starry-eyed creatives, not hard-nosed, rationally driven entrepreneurs and policy-makers.

    Is it any wonder, then, that music education is always the first casualty when cuts are made? As schools return for the new term, music classes, which have never been core subjects, are likely to be considered even more expendable as teachers struggle to help children catch up after months of remote learning in lockdown. The punctilious folks at Porton Down analysed droplet projections from various instruments to help the government decide that ensemble singing, wind or brass playing should all be ditched as classes reopen. The dangers of group sports can apparently be sufficiently mitigated.

    My own personal axe to grind is the lack of appreciation of the skills and character traits that a conservatoire-trained musician is likely to have developed. Whenever I entered ‘mainstream’ workplaces, the assumption was always that I was starting from scratch. Lacking the meaningless requirement of ‘office experience’, my applications for secretarial jobs and other pen-pusher roles were met with silence. Among acquaintances, meanwhile, ignorance sometimes mixed with superiority to produce disdain. One management consultant friend with a PhD in chemistry from Oxford told me that he would never allow his child to study music. It appears that classical music has an image problem.

    The reality is that conservatoire education is immensely technically, mentally and personally demanding. In my experience, it is tougher than a degree at Cambridge: the pursuit of technical perfection is relentless, criticism is constant and compliments scarce. Teachers are often harsh, students even harsher. For sheer fear factor, a 45-minute final recital is worse than a three-hour written exam; a performance class, in which peers critique one’s playing, worse than a supervision. Above all, it demands a formidable work ethic and first-rate analytical ability to identify problems, figure out solutions, experiment and, if necessary, return to the drawing board. It was where I discovered the most crucial lesson of all, the one I hadn’t acquired while churning out template A-level and GCSE answers: how to learn.

    If my management consultant friend is worried about his child’s career prospects, he might like to know that the most recent data available from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed 100 per cent of the Royal College of Music’s 2016/2017 graduates were in employment or further education (compare this with 93 per cent for Cambridge and Oxford). Admittedly, most of these jobs are likely to be relatively poorly paid or involve freelance work, so perhaps anecdotal evidence will be more persuasive. I know conservatoire musicians who have become high-flying civil servants, senior partners at Deloitte, and top of their class at coding school. I am certain that the skills and behaviours I developed at music conservatoire have fed directly into my own ability to navigate the intellectual challenges at Cambridge. And even before this, having ‘only’ played and taught the violin was no impediment to me learning the skills to support a minister’s digital and data portfolio at the Department of Health and Social Care.

    My championing of music education is unashamedly elitist: it’s the position that pursuing excellence is an inherently worthwhile thing to do that develops tenacious, problem-solving, resilient individuals. It’s also the position — ambitious parents take note — that doing this in one activity, rather than spreading oneself too thinly across Mandarin, fencing and chess, is more likely to develop the kind of passion for learning that fosters excellence and expertise.

    Most of all, it’s the argument — mindful of the current mood music — that science doesn’t have a monopoly on competence. There’s much more to ‘the arts’ than romantic creativity. The reason classical music education isn’t just an indulgent extra isn’t only because music is ‘food for the soul’, but because it nurtures high-achieving individuals.