Over the summer I reviewed the bowed string elements of two prominent musical institutions’ end-of-term student showcases. The first concert was by the students of a top conservatoire, and during the performance I’d felt there were few moments when the music really sang; there was a slightly sober, ‘better make this count’ exam air to proceedings, and the hall itself was by no means full.

The second concert was from the more youthful pupils of a prestigious music school, and in contrast to the previous week I had arrived slightly in the throes of a ‘wolf among lambs’ guilt trip. Were these teenagers a bit young for the critic’s pen, I worried? But I was in for a glorious surprise because, apart from the overall standard matching that of the conservatoire, the whole evening was an entirely different kettle of musical fish; a tale of poised, chuck-the-pen-away-and-listen joyful excellence from first to last note, with the hall itself so packed with cheering and whooping non-performing schoolmates that it was standing room only at the back.

So, how did what was effectively a school concert manage to trump the clearly talented stars of a conservatoire’s string department? I put it down to atmosphere, because a striking differentiator between those two nights was the school pupils’ palpable generosity and collective celebration of their peers’ talents. Assuming this was the case, the follow-up question was whether that conservatoire concert atmosphere in any way reflected conservatoire culture in general. I next conducted an informal straw poll among some recent and less recent conservatoire graduates. Hardly rigorous scientific research, I’ll admit, but the picture that emerged nevertheless confirmed my theory: being part of a large department where not everyone can be involved in performances; where you think less of supporting your peers than of fighting for a spot for yourself; turning up to hear friends’ final recitals in halls that were never very full; and overall a climate of auditions, masterclasses and competitions – all of which contribute to feelings of worried inadequacy.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Music conservatoires are the competitive stepping stones to an even more competitive post-conservatoire performing world, and if they’re not making plain the level of brilliance and emotional resilience required from anyone wishing to carve a career from their instrument, then they’re not doing their job. Competition can breed excellence and focus – and what is going to make you strive harder for musical perfection, and make it your business to be known by the people who can help you, if not the awareness of scores of equally or more talented peers all wanting their own bites of the same cherry?

Yet, as those two concerts demonstrated, there is more to on-stage magic than playing well. When I emerge from hearing a young artist for the first time, matters of technique and tone are not my sole concerns. An exciting young artist will also have pushed my gut-instinct buttons through a combination of assurance and the impression of having given themselves over to their music and its psychological world – qualities that an environment of collaboration, mutual generosity and admiration can foster, but which worry and paranoia will snuff out.

So, the question for conservatoires is: are they actively pushing a mindset of collective admiration and celebration? Consider how the string world is full of major international soloists who raise their musical game through collaborating with their contemporaries. They’ve already fought to gain their place on the concert platform – but is a player more likely to get to that stage if they can view their peers with similar excitement and generosity, and in doing so hold on tight to the delight in music making that brought them to college in the first place?

Photo: ©Jorge Royan/www.royan.com.ar/CC BY-SA 3.0