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

So here we are. The sword of Damocles hovering over the heads of conservatoires has dropped at last – or nearly. The French national conservatoires enjoy a privilege status amongst institutions of higher education: group activities have been suspended, but some individual classes continue. What's less widely known is that this decision has caused an unprecedented schism, with the majority of teachers refusing to give courses in person, sometimes from fear but more often from a wish to respect government advice as fully as possible: some have to come from half way across France to teach, which greatly increases the amount of what one can't necessarily describe as "essential travel".

I, for one, have attempted to take advantage of classes going digital to hop on a train in the direction of Germany, which may have closed its concert halls but has left the schools open. It's a chance for me to move forward with my project to meet teachers, an essential enterprise if one has designs on a German school. In fact, for the prospective student, the entry procedure for the two French CNSMs and the 24 German Hochshule für Musik could not be more different. In France, just about everything happens in the much-feared entry competition, with its set piece in the first round and its hard line age limits (21 for piano or violin entry to the Paris and Lyon CNSMs) Even if things are gradually changing, a definite hierarchy is firmly in place whereby the regional "Pôles Supérieurs", which allow one to reach a level equivalent to a Bachelor's degree, struggle to exist within a system as elitist as it is centralised.

In Germany, in contrast, the diversity of music schools permit a student the luxury of considering several different institutions in search of the teacher who will suit them best. Some schools are more prestigious than others (the two in Berlin, the one in Munich or the Leipzig Hochschule, the oldest music school in Europe), but more often, students give more importance to the reputation of the teacher than to the place of study. For example, the great David Grimal teaches in the small town of Saarbrücken, whereas German violin legend Tobias Feldmann, winner of multiple international prizes, has just been appointed to teach in Würzburg (population 120,000), which at one time had one of the best brass classes in the world.

The very comfortable working rooms in the Dresden Hochschule © Pierre Liscia / Bachtrack
The very comfortable working rooms in the Dresden Hochschule
© Pierre Liscia / Bachtrack

For sure, this multiplicity of major music centres results somewhat from Germany's federal structure, which encourages each Land to equip itself with several places of cultural strength. It's also a result of the strong links between orchestras and schools (Felix Mendelssohn, founder of the Leipzig Conservatoire, was also musical director of the Gewandhausorchester). Most teachers in German conservatoires also play in their city's orchestra. The task of meeting the teachers ahead of time is therefore indispensable, because the German system of co-opting is pervasive, right through to the orchestras, where a candidate cannot receive an audition without first having been invited to take part. In France, that kind of behaviour would raise the hackles of a goodly number of musicians, but perhaps that just shows that there exists a particularly French version of meritocracy. Anyway, after sending out a barrage of emails to the teachers whom I'm hoping to meet, I take up residence in a small Dresden apartment.

Some days later, when I'm already beginning to worry about a lack of replies from the venerable teachers, worse news comes to trouble my Germanic retreat. In a brief note about as legible as a prescription from an elderly doctor and written in language far from amicable, my neighbours warn me that their ears don't appreciate Mozart as much as mine and that I will be needing to revise my working hours downwards. My head fills with the urban legends that musicians whisper to each other, tales of neighbours' nefarious attempts to silence them, ranging from a simple call to the police through to doorstep attacks, with the help of bag or rubbish or a particularly zealous canine. Discretion being the better part of valour, I decide to unsheath my secret weapon: the lead mute. This XXL version of the small orchestral mute is placed similarly on the violin's bridge and reduces the volume of vibrations to next to nothing. With, that is, the secondary effect of imparting the sonority of a plastic toy violin (or a viola, as the wags say) at the same time as creating a subtle change in the instrument's intonation (the correct location for your fingers shifts). Other secondary effects include headaches, ringing in the ears, loss of motivation and a tendency to envy the career of André Rieu (to be fair, that one's relatively infrequent). In order to resist the urge to fling the accursed object out of the window, I try to think positive: after all, didn't Tchaikovsky specify con sordino at the start of the slow movement of his concerto, to play on the soft and floating sonorities that can be created?

And behold: it's the day of my first meeting! My salvos of emails have only elicited a few responses. Whether from the lack of room in schools, the difficulty of bringing foreign elements into the building, or perhaps fear of infection, most teachers declined. But among the replies is a teacher in Berlin who suggests that I come to hear three of her classes, before giving her a rendition of my own playing. That doesn't come as a surprise: it's a process employed as often in France as it is in Germany. But there's a difference: in this case, we're talking about the top flight Hochshule Hanns Eisler, so that means spending three hours listening to the best violin students in Europe before attempting to match them without the chance to warm up, and then to submit to the awful comparison. As a cruel twist, the three students in question are working on almost exactly the same repertoire as me. Next, there's embarrassment when the teacher expounds at length on why one should not execute some passage with a particular bowing – the precise bowing on which I have been working so diligently. Do I change everything at the last minute? Suggest a different passage? Run from the room shouting that my cat has caught coronavirus?

Suddenly, I hear it: "unpack your violin". It's me she's addressing, warmly: "what do you have to play for me?"

"Er, Mozart, Chausson... and Prokofiev," I reply in a small voice, the pirouetting flights of the Prokofiev scherzo not being ideally suited to fingers dulled by hours of rest.

"Perfect! Let's hear the Prokofiev, then."

We will draw a respectable veil over the following minutes. From cold, this scherzo of the First Concerto is even more diabolical than usual. And yet I'd worked so hard on it! I cast the teacher a pleading look – will she give me a second chance?

"So... have you worked on the first movement?"

My stomach tightens into a knot. For sure, I've worked on it a lot, but that was in the summer. So I acquiesce, but with extreme timidity, warning that I haven't played it since September.

"So go for it!"

There are things in a musician's life doomed to remain a mystery. Why did I completely wipe out in the scherzo I'd worked so hard on? In contrast, why was I more than happy with the first movement, which had lain dormant for months? This divine intervention, this Prokofiev ex machina, if you like, has saved my Berlin expedition from disaster. I think my esteemed listener was even enthusiastic.

The Hochschule Hanns Eisler in Berlin. Warning: it's an absolute labyrinth © Beek100 / licensed with CC BY-SA 3.0 – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0
The Hochschule Hanns Eisler in Berlin. Warning: it's an absolute labyrinth
© Beek100 / licensed with CC BY-SA 3.0 – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0

But my relief is short-lived: I've been urgently recalled to Lyon where, a little at a time, collective courses will restart, most notably in an important orchestral series: lots of Mozart and Stravinsky's Pulcinella. Next month, perhaps, you will learn how to come up to speed on that kind of programme in record time, while seated in a railway carriage. And why? Because I've just received the score this morning, on point of departure, and the first rehearsal is tomorrow!


Translated from French by David Karlin