A World of Difference: Instrumental Music Education in France

Mike Lawson • Commentary • October 4, 2017

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Last summer, I had the pleasure of participating in the European University of Saxophone in Gap, France.

Now in its 28th year, this event gathers student and young professional saxophonists from all over the world for intensive study with the Paris Conservatory’s Claude Delangle, Arno Bornkamp of the Amsterdam Conservatory, and many other saxophone luminaries from throughout Europe and beyond. It was an excellent venue to hear new works, to learn from master musicians, and to build bridges with other saxophonists.

Through the course of the event, I had the opportunity to build friendships with saxophonists from France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Japan, Germany, Spain, and many other nations. Several surprising conversations resulted.

As the husband of a high school band director, I was discussing my upcoming activities in helping with marching band camp, as were many of the other Americans present. Of course, many of the Europeans present had never had any experience in marching bands of any sort, and were intrigued!

It is easy to forget that we in the United States and Canada have a unique approach to instrumental study. Most of the time, it is included in the curriculum of nearly every public school. Almost every student who wishes can learn an instrument, oftentimes at little or no cost, besides the instrument itself. In addition, most of our instruction through grade school focuses on group learning through bands and orchestras. While this has proven to be a very effective model through the years, very few other countries utilize it. In the interest of curiosity, perhaps it would be instructive to look at instrumental music education in another world-leader in instrumental education: France.

The differences in musical education between France and the United States are evident from the earliest grade-levels.

While the United States has no universal policy regarding music education in elementary schools, a certified music teacher is found in most of our well-funded school systems. Students can expect anywhere from one to five days a week of musical instruction. In France, there are very few (although some) elementary music teachers in the public schools. Instead, primary classroom teachers receive instruction in elementary music, and are expected to teach musical subjects approximately one hour per week.

These differences continue into the middle-school years. I n the United States, again, in well-funded systems, there is often instruction both in vocal and instrumental music once the pupil reaches the 5th, 6th, or 7th grade, depending on the area. They can choose to sing in a choir, begin to learn an instrument, or both. In France, instruction in the public school remains rather limited; still isolated to around an hour a week, music history and simple vocal music are usually covered.

At this stage, a professional music educator of some kind is usually employed by the school.

For those wishing to pursue instrumental or more intensive vocal study, there are a myriad of options in France, usually centering around a local public or private conservatory. Here, a student can receive individual instruction on their chosen instrument, as well as receive music theory and sight-singing instruction from the start. Tuition is usually charged (a relatively small amount). While orchestras are quite common in larger conservatories, bands usually are not, and most instruction is individual in nature.

In almost every high school in the United States, students can choose to participate in bands and (unfortunately, less frequently) in orchestras. With the exception of fees for instrument rental, trips, etc., participation is usually free. All of these ensembles play a large role in the cultural life of American municipalities, and countless millions of Americans have had some sort of participation in a school ensemble.

In France, as in the U.S., participation in music is entirely voluntary at the Lycee level (the French equivalent of our high school). If a student wishes to take music classes in high school, they will receive a few hours of instruction a week, again in music history, theory, and vocal music. If they wish, they can continue to study applied music at a local conservatory.

In the United States, those wishing to major in music at a university at met with a wide range of options and possibilities. At the undergraduate level, degrees are available in music education, performance, music therapy, theory, history, and many other sub-disciplines.

Due to the existence of so many primary and secondary school music positions, many young people choose to pursue degrees in music education. At the graduate level, even more options are available, leading to the Master of Music, the Doctor of Musical Arts in applied areas, and the Ph.D. in research-based fields of music.

In France, too, there are many options for those wishing to pursue musical training after leaving the Lycee. For professional training as a music educator in the public schools, a pupil can seek an education at a teacher-training institute. However, if a future as a performer or private teacher is desired, a pupil will usually first seek training at a regional conservatory. This is a very popular option, due to the prevalence of conservatories, and the relative lack of public school jobs.

At the regional conservatories, students can receive advanced instrumental or vocal training, as well as advanced study in music theory, history, and composition, among other subjects, if they pass entrance examinations. Here, they can receive the equivalent of bachelors and masters degrees in their chosen fields. However, these degrees do not directly enable their holders to teach at a conservatory. An additional teaching certificate must be earned for those wishing to continue their careers in this manner.

Many students will complete their entire training at one of the regional conservatories. Many, however, will try to gain admission to one of the two premier music schools in France, the national superior conservatories, located in Paris and Lyon. Here, they can pursue the same degrees and certificates, but at a more prestigious, nationally and internationally- recognized institution.

It should be noted through all of this one of the great differences in pedagogical approach. In the United States, beginners are normally taught through the medium of the ensemble. Gradually, promising students take private lessons, and, by the time a student is enrolled in a university music degree program, they are pursuing private lessons, academic classes, and ensembles (large and small) as part of their education. Meanwhile, the French system is based on the private approach from the beginning. While chamber music and larger ensembles are eventually introduced, some instrumentalists (especially saxophonists) may spend very little time in larger groups.

As a music educator, I find it fascinating to look at the practices of other countries, especially those that are our friends and allies. While I am a great believer in the American system of music education, it is interesting to note our differences, and wonder if these have contributed to musical and cultural differences. At any rate, the more we know, the better we can refine our own approaches and better serve our own students.

Andrew J. Allen is an assistant professor of music at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. Dr. Allen has premiered nearly twenty works for saxophone and has performed throughout the world. His debut album with saxophone/percussion duo Rogue Two is forthcoming on Equilibrium Records. He holds degrees from Tennessee Technological University, Central Michigan University, and the University of South Carolina where he studied with Phil Barham, John Nichol, and Clifford Leaman. He has undertaken additional study with Joseph Lulloff, Claude Delangle, Arno Bornkamp, and Vincent David. Dr. Allen is a Conn-Selmer Artist-Clinician and performs exclusively on Selmer Paris saxophones and Vandoren mouthpieces, ligatures, and reeds.

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