Friday, August 24, 2012

Studying Collaborative Piano in France

A few weeks ago, I received an inquiry from a reader about the best places to study collaborative piano in France. Not knowing the answer to this reader's question, I emailed Geraldine Boyer-Cussac, who responded with this full-length article on the educational system in France and how you can navigate its options in order to study collaborative piano there. On an important side note, Geraldine, along with David J. Hahn, has recently created Theatre Music Directors, an online resource hub for coaches, conductors, arrangers, and music directors. 

Because French is one of the languages collaborative pianists must know, it makes sense that some of us would want to study in France at some point. The thing is that it’s not always easy to find online information for French programs, and on top of that, the schooling system is quite different there from the one we’re accustomed to. So, since I was born and musically raised there, let me start by giving you a little background information on how things work a la francaise.

French students take a wide variety of classes all year long, every year, until the end of high school. After they pass the baccalauréat, students go to the university to study the one topic of their choice- no gen ed classes. Musicians decide then between going to the university for music, or attending the conservatory. The first option consists mainly of theory and history classes with little focus on the instrument, and leads to a career as a K-12 instructor or a university professor.

The second option - the Conservatory - is the most frequently picked. What is interesting about it is that it doesn’t work by age, but by levels. Children usually join the conservatory at a young age after taking and passing the entrance audition, and take their solfege classes, instrumental lessons and ensembles there. The levels are split into “cycles,” each ending with an exam to move on to the next. They can last anywhere between two to five years, and teachers are the ones to decide which year their students can start taking the exam. This system culminates with a médaille d’or (gold medal - think diploma, not an actual medal), which is the very minimum one needs to be able to teach in any local music schools. There is an option to continue to a diplome de perfectionement, which is really a way for students to either keep on studying with their teacher a bit longer, or to figure out their next move.

What all of this means is that by the time a teenager graduates high school and decides to focus on playing, he or she will either stay at the conservatory and may be at any point in the conservatory curriculum- usually at that age, either the end of the third cycle or the médaille d’or cycle, even though it is considered to be the equivalent of the high school baccalauréat. Most conservatories do not have a collaborative track, although a few do including the one I went to in Lyon - it required at least a médaille d’or in piano or its equivalency, along with the entry audition. This is a three to four-year track, which tends to lead its students straight into the CNSM (more on that below).

Those conservatories are in any major city of France, forty-one in total. They are called “regional,” and all function under the same standard of education with the same length of studying per semester, similar levels of difficulty, and equal requirements for teacher’s certifications- they also teach theatre and dance. So what is a student supposed to do after they’re done with the “conservatoire regional?” They have a few options.

One of them is to go to the CNSM- Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique. There are two of those “superior” conservatories, one in Paris and one in Lyon. They are incredibly competitive, with an age limit for each instrument, and a maximum of three attempts to try to get in. It is not infrequent for a particular studio to not even have space available for a year or two until someone graduates. That’s where the ultra-talented go to, and there are many fourteen-year-olds around, focusing on music while they are home-schooled. For the chosen few who do make it, the program lasts four years, and ends with the acquisition of a premier prix (first prize), considered in North America as the equivalent of a Bachelor of Music. The CNSMs accept many international students every year, and as usual for France, the cost of attendance is incredibly low. The collaborative track there is fantastic, with focus on transposition, on-the-spot reductions, and sight-reading, along with ensemble playing and study of styles.

If you are still in high school and know that you want to become a collaborative pianist - and already are at an incredibly high level of playing - you can try to get into either one of the CNSM. There aren’t that many undergraduate collaborative degrees in North America, so this could be the best thing for you to do, focus on what you love right away, get your undergraduate equivalency once you’re back home, and do it without accumulating thousands of dollars in student debts. Of course, you first have to take the audition and get in. You can find more information here.

The second option after a regional conservatory is for future instrumental music teachers - who will work at conservatories, so they follow a different path from K-12 music teachers who go to the university. CEFEDEM (Centre de formation de la musique) came about only around ten years ago, are fairly competitive to get in, and last two years. They end with the acquisition of the DE - diplome d’état (state diploma), which is the minimum certificate needed (the other one is the CA, certificat d’aptitude, which is even harder to get and leads to higher paid jobs) to apply for a teaching position in conservatories and many other music schools in the country. They do have a curriculum for collaborative pianists, who can go on to accompanying positions in conservatories with their DE, rather than teaching positions. For American and Canadian students interested in studying in France, this option would only be helpful for having a career in France, and would not be of interest to anyone who wants to be in France only temporarily.

Knowing all of that, where does the prospective short-term student go? Here are your options:

1. If what you want is to spend a semester or a year in France, your best bet is to do it through your college. Ideally, you would have picked a university that offers study abroad, and if it did not, cross your fingers that your school has what you need. For exchange programs, regional conservatories will usually let you study temporarily without taking an audition. I first got to the US thanks to one of those exchange programs, one between Kalamazoo College and the Clermont-Ferrand (my hometown) universities, and I know that many of the US music students would study at the regional conservatory there.

2. For anyone who wants to get a Masters in France, the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris is the best option. I don’t know as much about it, except that my teacher in France studied there, and that he was wonderful. Here is their page for international students.

3. If you’re on your own, not affiliated to any school, and not wanting to do the masters mentioned above, you will have to audition to any regional conservatory to be able to attend. This makes most sense if you can stay there for at least a year and try to get the medaille d’or. Make sure to check on visa requirements first to know how to go about doing that. This would definitely be the hardest way to go about the whole thing.

4. Finally, the last option is to attend summer programs, usually called stage d’été, or académie d’été. Here are a couple, but there are many more (the links are mostly in French): Musique a Groix, Domaine Musiques, and the Academie Francis Poulenc.

Bon Voyage!


  1. Anonymous5:33 PM

    This is a just a tiny correction to a great article: "premier prix" would translate better as "first prize" rather than first price.

    1. Thanks for the correction!