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

Oh, the conservatoires! The average music lover’s knowledge of the mysterious CNSMs (French National Conservatoires) is generally limited to the image of the large greyish building opposite the famous Paris Philharmonie. As well as, more recently and less happily, a number of tirades, often badly argued, about the recent appointment of Émilie Delorme as its head. Still, if one takes the trouble to peer beneath the surface of these institutions, one finds a great deal that’s worthy of note.

But to digress for a moment: in the last column in this series, I was telling you of a nerve-jangling trip to Berlin for an exceptional musical encounter. What happened? Sadly, the current conditions have forced me to postpone the trip to next month. I had anticipated a wide series of meetings with different people in the German music teaching world. Alas, Covid-19 has done the rounds there. More or less every German music student has the right to an additional semester of study to compensate for the time lost last year (a similar system exists in France, but done in a more unofficial and customised way). As a result, German conservatoires are seriously short of available places and several teachers have simply stopped seeing new students. That’s one of the best hidden secrets of the damage wrought by Covid-19: since January 2020, the younger generation of musicians (the ones who are aiming at a musical higher education) are now stuck for a year or more, which can be a catastrophe when one considers the age limits to entry imposed by some institutions (the Paris Conservatoire, for example, has a limit of 21 years old for violin students). The same situation persists, in my case, for the famous orchestral academies, entry to which is essential for anyone planning a career in the major German orchestras. The cancellation of most competitions and the lack of adjustment of the age limits (usually 25-26) forces me – along with anyone else unfortunate enough to be born in 1994/95 – to give up on any projects across the Rhine.

A Covid-compatible violinist in action © Pierre Liscia
A Covid-compatible violinist in action
© Pierre Liscia

So for now, let’s stay in Gallic lands, since there’s plenty enough spice to enliven any discussion of teaching in the National Conservatoires, especially now when restrictions and schedules blow to and fro in the wind of government decisions. Of course, the anti-infection measures are a story in themselves when it comes to music! So yesterday, there was the first of a series of rehearsals for an orchestral project I’m involved in, which includes the particularly challenging Bartók Divertimento. Here we are in the demonic finale, with fierce rhythms and incisive leaps. But suddenly, all the violins fall silent. Is there a rest marked in the score? Certainly not. But normally, one of the two players on each desk is given the job of turning the page, allowing the other to keep the sound going (the words “are you turning or am I turning” being usually the first communication between two new desk partners), here, in our one-per-desk Covid-compatible formation, there’s no choice but for everyone to stop at the same time to turn the page. With the concert date looming and our professional competence eviscerated by this unprecedented situation, we hope to hear your cunning plans in the comments...

And what can I say about individual lessons – whose continued existence seems something of a miracle. Admittedly, different instruments are affected differently, and one does one’s best to adjust. Playing violin in a mask is unpleasant but feasible – not a word you can use for the oboe, which explains the perspex screens that have sprouted in various rehearsal rooms. Social distancing beings a new angle to the notorious arguments on the subject physical contact between teacher and student. A couple of weeks ago, a teacher tried out the violin of one of his students, only to learn, a few hours later, that he had come into contact with someone infected. Result: fearing that he had contaminated the violin, he banned the student from touching his violin for fifteen days! Which, let’s be clear, is a somewhat unusual admonition, coming from a conservatoire teacher...

View from a hall at the Lyon National Conservatoire © Pierre Liscia
View from a hall at the Lyon National Conservatoire
© Pierre Liscia

There’s more. For a while, now, the National Conservatoires have entered the modern world and the students have seen the arrival of a new and even more fearsome enemy: the computerised reservation system for rehearsal rooms. The rules are simple but merciless: each student has the right to four hours of work per day in the Conservatoire’s halls. Reservations are opened six days in advance, with the next day’s batch being opened up on the stroke of midnight. At the moment, with Coronavirus, a number of the rooms are unavailable or reserved for teachers for reasons of anti-infection measures. So you can imagine the results: at 11:59pm,  an army of musicians unsheathe their phones, much in the way of Ed Sheeran fans when the box office opens for his next concert, ready to grab the precious treasure at the expense of others. Anything goes: forcing a tardy pianist to accept a tiny room with a miserable piano (never have the notorious Conservatoire “boxes” so deserved their name) while one requisitions the room with the magnificent Steinway (totally unnecessary to violinists), or pretending not to have heard the next student banging on the door in order to eke out ten minutes more practise time.

The suspense is never ending: one night, when I had succeeded in booking for the next day one of the loveliest of the Conservatoire’s halls, spacious and with a sublime view of the CNSM’s cloister, with enough desks and strategically placed near the coffee machine, my booking was savagely cancelled by a viola teacher who had decided to conduct some extra classes. Most often, as a result, students go for voluntary self-isolation in their room and do their practice there, so long as they have the kind permission of their neighbours. Which, by the way, allows one to wear the most comfortable loungewear, ready to prepare for those socially distanced concerts which, alas, we must expect once more.

The spectre of a new lockdown haunts the National Conservatoires. If it happens, that will mean that a graduating student will have spent nearly half his course behind a computer. On the one hand, that would make a mockery of the huge efforts made by the administration to limit the spread of the epidemic. And can we really be considered as complete musicians if we’ve never learned the cohesion of an orchestral desk, when we haven't spent hours refining, as a group, the last bars of a Beethoven quartet? There’s a reason why the Lyon Conservatoire, for example, programmes over 400 public performances in a normal season: it’s because, to quote its director Mathieu Ferey, “appearing on stage, subject to the disciplines of live performance, is an integral part of training”. It’s in contact with others that a young artist learns to control his relationship to the stage, to grow both as a musician and a human being.

The life of a conservatoire student should be a life of constant meetings, placed only under the banner of otherness, even if it means descending into comical situations and childish pranks. A number of former students were more celebrated for having marched on the establishment’s roof than for their international prize wins (allegedly in homage to Fiddler on the Roof). In these troubled times, it’s worth remembering that conservatoires are not just providers of training, but also a place for the creation of extremely strong connections between human beings, connections to which it should be possible to return many years later, one’s eyes replete with memories.


Translated from French by David Karlin