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Reflections on the music conservatories (Suonare News, 9/2014)

The professional training of a musician is a highly serious and delicate matter, but full of stimuli and gratifications. The relation that is created between the teacher and pupil is often very deep: it involves our emotional awareness and capacity to recognize, express and share states of mind, just the same as actors. Like actors and athletes, musicians that study to become professionals must undertake total control of their physical form (musculature, breathing, sense of touch), which requires constant dedication and discipline. Viewed in this sense, the serious study of music leads to a growth at various levels, and provides students with the means to manage their relationship with others, their internal and external listening, and their control over emotions and anxiety; all of which are skills and awarenesses that benefit our everyday lives in many ways.

So where do you learn to become a professional musician in Italy? In the public sphere, the state institutions dedicated to advanced music education are the conservatories and the ex "Istituti Musicali Pareggiati", today called "Istituti Superiori di Studi Musicali". The reform enacted by Law 508 of 1999 stipulates that you can only enter these establishments after obtaining a high school diploma. But at the age of 18 you are either already a trained musician, or else it is surely too late to begin. Today in the conservatories we find children aged 8 or 9, enrolled in the so-called foundation courses and, for the most part, pupils that are attending either middle or high schools, enrolled in the pre-academic courses.

This is the natural consequence of a reform that was carried out only on paper, without foreseeing a path for the training of very young musicians, that today is still provided by conservatories, but should be entrusted to the music sections of middle schools and Music high schools: which, however, are still too uncommon, also due to lack of funding from the Ministry. The outcome is that today Italian conservatories are, in many cases, music schools where young and very young pupils begin their study of an instrument. 

Despite the theoretic equivalence of conservatories and universities, also the salaries and methods of recruitment and of managing the teachers are much more similar to those of primary and secondary schools, which is confirmed by the recent tendency to not take into account the artistic qualifications of candidates in the selection of teachers: the new ranking system for jobs with a permanent contract, issued by the Minister of Education Stefania Giannini on 30 June last year, classifies teachers exclusively on the basis of their academic qualifications and their years of service (which must be at least three: I myself fall into this category, but many established musicians are unjustly excluded), without minimally considering their artistic activity and even less so the results of their service.

It is of course true that it is not enough to know how to play an instrument in order to teach it, but, for this very reason, it would be better to select teachers by making all candidates face exams, in which they give tangible proof of their teaching skills, both in terms of professional and relational qualities. This happens, in fact, in all the German Musikhochschule, where each vacant post is filled by an in loco examination judged by a commission made up of professors and a student representative. The winner, after a trial period (in which he/she has proved to be a balanced and honest person, able to integrate with colleagues and abide by the rules of the establishment), is given a permanent contract and cannot transfer to another institution without undergoing another selection process in the new place.

In Italy, instead, conservatory students are not guaranteed their sacrosanct right to didactic continuity. And there are unfortunately many classes which for years are taught by supply teachers, who through no choice of their own are often moved, due to the system of transfers, utilization and annual appointments that each year redistributes many teachers to different places. The natural outcome is that the best precarious teachers tend, sooner or later, to abandon teaching or to accept a post in prestigious foreign conservatories, and the same is true for some of the best students, who are tired of changing their teacher each year and opt to study in private academies or abroad.

A similar situation is reflected in the poor link between Italian conservatories and the world of work, which often remains a mirage for most of the students. Vice versa, many professional musicians are excluded from teaching due to the Boniver law, which forbids those who have a permanent contract with an orchestra from teaching regularly in conservatories: exactly the opposite of what happened in Leipzig in 1843. In that year, when Felix Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Conservatory (now the Hochschule für Musik und Theater), he decided to associate it with the Gewandhaus orchestra, so as to facilitate a profitable and reciprocal exchange between training and musical production. The best players of the orchestra taught at the conservatory, alongside other teachers invited by Mendelssohn himself, and certainly not taking into account their number of years of service. These, among others, included Robert and Clara Schumann, Moscheles, and Ferdinand David. 

So what can be done today to improve the situation and make our conservatories more competitive at an international level? Certainly we could go back to selecting teachers through calls and examinations, as foreseen by the Law 508 of 1999. But the last call for teachers dates back to 1990. Today, a national call for teachers proves complex and costly to organize, to the extent that till now the Ministry has preferred to avoid the issue, and to continue using rankings and postponements.

A concrete solution is the one proposed by the Conference of Music Conservatory Directors, in the letter that its current president, Paolo Troncon, wrote on 4 July last year to the Minister Giannini: «to select teachers on the basis of an assessment of their artistic capacity, their artistic curriculum, their professional profile, and of their proven teaching skills». The new teachers should therefore be selected in loco through examinations in which also take into account their competences and specific experiences in relation to the needs of each single institution. These words are echoed by those of Tommaso Donatucci, president of the National Council of Conservatory Students, who declared: «The conservatory is of the students and for the students; we therefore need a teaching staff that is appropriately qualified, selected through examinations within the conservatory and not through twenty-year-old ranking lists; it is also necessary for the academic courses to guarantee an adequate preparation for the world of work, both that of teaching and of musical activity». The notion that students have the right to be taught by teachers selected on the basis of excellence and on courses with a more direct relation with the world of work, should be the founding principle for forthcoming decisions on music training in Italy. After all, the future of music and of our cultural identity is the hands of the 49,000 students attending our conservatories.             
Roberto Prosseda