Pierre Liscia has one foot in violin playing and the other in music journalism. Every month, Pierre invites you to the other side of the curtain, to discover the daily life of a young professional musician doing the rounds of rehearsal rooms and auditions as well as meeting the great musicians of our time.

Pierre Liscia © Julien Hanck
Pierre Liscia
© Julien Hanck

June 2020. We’re now in full on exit from lockdown. Paradoxically, there’s a minority which is keeping silent: with a few notable exceptions, musicians won’t be returning to the concert trail. The restart of musical activity can’t be done except in the intimate atmosphere of workplaces and production studios: in short, far from eyes and ears. For musicians like me, who find ourselves in mid air in the leap from conservatoire to the professional world, the notorious audition season is postponed to the autumn.

Here’s the rub: how to find balance and proper motivation for the difficult exercise of competitive auditions, after several months of work with no ears to judge my performance except my own? The holiday season is approaching, and in spite of experience gleaned in the last few months from violin classes conducted over Zoom – let’s be honest, of dubious merit – there was no option available other than to turn to summer academies.

At this point in the story, the musician reading this is undoubtedly sporting a gentle smile, aware that I am preparing to open Pandora’s box. Because the “stages” (as young French musicians call these) may be an essential part of an artist’s training, but for now, they are below the radar of the general public. The concept is simple enough: a small group of teachers comes together for ten days or so to dispense intensive courses to a selection of students. The lessons, along the lines of those in the conservatoires, are individual and public (the infamous “master classes”), with collective exercise sessions for all the students in a given class sometimes tacked on for good measure. On which point it’s worth noting that a number of teachers, who shall remain nameless, take mischievous pleasure in setting up sessions of scales at 7am, preceded by a muscular jogging session; done that way, musical training gains a decidedly military feel.

Agenda for the course, including decryption of violin jargon © Pierre Liscia / Bachtrack
Agenda for the course, including decryption of violin jargon
© Pierre Liscia / Bachtrack

Still, one can’t deny the multiple advantages for the students: in addition to the obvious effects of the concentrated nature of the number of students on these improvised campuses and the sheer number of classes (5 hours a day for 10 days, on average, compared to once a week normally), it’s often a chance to meet the prestigious teachers from regional and national conservatoires, into whose classes the students will be hoping to enrol. The purely teaching aspect of the course is therefore somewhat distorted, since the student will not be ignoring the opportunity to engage in a seduction operation to prove to the teacher that they deserve a place in the teacher’s class. Which brings us onto a sensitive point in musical instruction: the cohabitation is often an awkward one between the meritocratic pretensions of the system of conservatoire entrance exams and the tradition, pervasive in the music world, of co-opting its students. For the good of the student, their personality and that of the teacher should interact positively, hence the indispensable nature of these kinds of meetings, but taking part in these kinds of courses isn’t financially open to everyone (the average cost is 1,000€ for a ten day course) and some students, lacking the means, are forced to bid adieu to the pursuit of their dreams.

How to resist playing the themes of the <i>Alpensinfonie</i>, lost in the mountains? © Pierre Liscia / Bachtrack
How to resist playing the themes of the Alpensinfonie, lost in the mountains?
© Pierre Liscia / Bachtrack

But let’s be honest, the summer course wants to be a human adventure above all else, and the links are woven well beyond the classroom. An astutely sited ping pong table or deck of cards can transform a rigid campus dedicated to musical excellence into a joyous holiday camp. Especially when the teachers join in the game: I have an amusingly moving memory of a famous teacher from the Paris Conservatoire, a famous concert artist to whom the young student that I was would never have dared address a word, had heard me discussing cooking and came to see me at dinner to declare in solemn tones “if you’re capable of saying that at your age, I’ll have to give you my grandmother’s recipe for prawn risotto”.

The summer academy comes in various subspecies, so one notes the distinction between the small structures of half a dozen teachers with fifty or so pupils and the teeming musician factories with a hundred or so teachers covering the whole summer with a series of multiple sessions. In both types, the business model often relies in large part on a festival whose duration coincides with that of the academy, as well as on the subsidies from the locality – it’s not an accident that almost all of the great ski resorts, which are normally deserted in summer, have their own festival academy.

So there I am, on arrival at the hotel, hearing the strains of cellos, clarinets and horns in the other rooms. In a summer academy, it’s tempting to lock oneself into one’s hotel room to spend ten hours a day practising. But knowing how to put down the violin and pick up a pencil for a “desktop” work session is often a saving grace. It works out well for me: Prokofiev, whose Concerto no.1 I am studying, is a composer who lends himself readily to classical construction, and teasing these out of the welter of colours and textures helps to clarify one’s thought and structure one’s interpretation. Take that famous first phrase of the first movement. At first sight, there’s nothing too hard instrumentally, and yet! I had spent hours on every note, every motion of the left hand  without understanding why my hands kept on stumbling on this simple melody which could have come from a nursery rhyme. In the course of academy, the solution came from analysis of those little four beat sequences that structure the musical phrase. From there, I was able to organise not just its melodic essence but also everything that flows from it: the range of nuances to be explored, the bowings to be employed.

Desktop work: the violin and the metronome are never far © Pierre Liscia / Bachtrack
Desktop work: the violin and the metronome are never far
© Pierre Liscia / Bachtrack

So right through the length of the course, my teacher and I proceeded to search for musical solutions to instrumental problems. That’s a search which, for some educators, passes by unorthodox methods: so on one occasion, I had the curious experience, having attended a cello course about a Bach piece, to dance the sarabande with the teacher in question, to the rhythm of their student’s playing. The rhythmic understanding imparted by the dance answers in the simplest terms a great number of musical questions, although it also provoked immoderate fits of the giggles in the student, such that the teacher was compelled to interrupt the lesson!

With half the class complete, it was time to begin readings with a piano. That’s another game altogether: one is now working with anticipation, the ability to refocus rapidly in case of error, and most of all, one see what works and what doesn’t work. Here, where the detailed work is based on observation and minutiae, the quality of these readings only improves after repetition, in front of audiences and in various rooms. Inevitably, the success of these readings is in proportion to the work put in, as in the redoubtable central scherzo that my teacher made my work on, from the first lesson, “with instrumental gestures, which you have to know how to unleash at exactly the right time”. For example, to know how to modulate left hand flexibility from one note to the next, as a function of the hand positions on the instrument, even if the character of the overall piece is not being changed. Of course, this kind of reflex can’t be acquired in the course of a day or two, and that’s why, after the information bulimia ingested during the close-up lessons, a period of digestion is required. As the years have passed, I’ve picked up a habit: do no more than the necessary during the academy itself (thus taking more time to enjoy the enchanting mountain setting) and do a lot of the hard work later.

I come out of my summer academy with a replenished educational toolbox, with thoughts restructured and an overflowing desire to do more of them, because if the intensive teaching has allowed me to go and question the musical text in its tiniest details, my synthesis of all this can only be made in the exact conditions in which my work started: on my own.

Translated from French by David Karlin