Studying at a German Conservatory



Let me fast-forward to the bottom line. My postgraduate degree at Germany’s oldest conservatory of music cost me a grand total of 400€. That’s right. A four with two zeros. Most Americans spend that on books alone in the first week of freshman year. Even the most prestigious German conservatories cost pennies on the dollar when compared with similar institutions in the US. If that grabs your attention, then read on…


Language

You do not have to be fluent in German to audition in Germany, but you will be required to demonstrate proficiency in the language by the time you start your course of study.


Semesters

Germans count courses of study in semesters, not years. A bachelor’s degree takes 6–8 semesters. Instead of fall and spring semesters, they have winter and summer semesters, each followed by about six weeks off. The winter (first) semester begins in October and ends in February. The summer (second) semester begins in March and ends in July. Your application will be due in February or March, and auditions take place in May or June.


Degrees

It used to be a mess to get a degree abroad because each country had different names for degrees and different lengths of study. Your four-year American bachelor’s might not have been recognized anywhere in Germany, while no other country in the world could figure out what a Künstlerisches Diplom was. But Germany has spent the last 20 years undergoing the so-called Bologna Process, by which all European nations adopt the same standards of higher education. Now most German conservatories offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees (yes, you can get a bachelor’s in conducting here!), but some of the graduate programs retain their old-fashioned names: Aufbaustudium, Konzertexamen, Bühnenexamen, Meisterklassenstudium. Don’t let the big words scare you off. Conservatory websites always have detailed descriptions of each course of study in German and in English so that you can find the one that suits your needs. Many of these advanced degree programs emphasize the practical side of things like an American artist diploma and require no classes and no thesis. (There is no German equivalent of a DMA.) Your (post)graduate course of study will include:


  • conducting in private lessons, group lessons, masterclasses, and concerts

  • assisting your professor in rehearsals and recording sessions

  • serving as your professor’s TA or teaching students of your own


During my studies in Leipzig, one of the other graduate conducting students served as the professor’s TA, coordinating schedules with professional orchestras and offering weekly group lessons that focused on technique. During one epic session, we worked on perfecting every single upbeat in every single movement of Beethoven 1–9. For the teaching requirement of my own degree, I taught conducting in the music education department and organized their lab orchestra. The upshot is that advanced degrees leave you lots and lots of time for gigs and study. I had never spent so much time with my head in a score in my life.


Music Theory

If you are applying for a bachelor’s degree, you will be tested in aural skills and music theory at some point. BEWARE! German music theory/analysis is not what you studied in America. Chords have completely different names and symbols, and they are read from bottom to top (four-six chord) instead of from top to bottom (six-four chord). It will make your head spin a little at first, but the concepts and the sounds themselves are ultimately the same. The little handbook that helped me reprogram my brain is called Harmonielehre by Diether de la Motte.


Group Lessons

German group lessons are a curious thing. Because conducting professors travel frequently, reside in other cities, or have orchestras/opera houses of their own, many conservatories don’t offer regular one-on-one lessons. When the prof is in town, there might be a week of marathon group lessons every evening. When the prof is out of town, the TA or assistant professor might be in charge for a month. Six-hour group lessons are not uncommon. It is not expected that every student stay from start to finish; the extended timeframe makes room for students of various degree programs to come and go as they need. Some may have to leave the lesson early to dash off to rehearsal, while others come late because of music theory class or a chamber music coaching. It is a revolving door.


Conducting studios are equipped with large mirrors and two grand pianos, as well as a few stray uprights off to the side and a whole library of standard repertoire in four-hand piano arrangements. Everybody who is not on the podium plays and sings: four hands, eight hands, violin, clarinet, Fritz’s pearly tenor. Let’s call it a joyful noise.


Although individual lessons are the exception, the professor will be happy to oblige if you are preparing for a competition or an audition. He will also make extra time for you if you have landed your own full opera production and need more focused, detailed guidance than you can receive in the group.


Conservatory Orchestras

Most conservatory instrumentalists don’t have any illusions about becoming the next world-famous soloist; rather they are passionate about joining Germany’s extensive network of orchestras and opera houses. This makes the atmosphere in a conservatory orchestra breathtaking. Conservatories typically plan two performances for each rehearsal phase. The professor is in charge, and the conducting students assist and cover. He conducts the first performance and divides the pieces among his students for the second performance. Sometimes they jump in with no rehearsal; sometimes they have a single run-through with the orchestra or at least five minutes to try out a few tricky transitions before the concert. The students, of course, spend lots of time practicing this repertoire in group lessons.


Professional Orchestras

The greatest advantage to studying in Germany is the constant contact with professional orchestras. Kurt Masur pioneered contracts between conservatories and orchestras when he was professor of conducting in Leipzig. I worked regularly with three different professional orchestras while I was studying, plus four others for gigs and competitions. There is no replacement for cutting your chops on ensembles that play behind the beat and know the repertoire inside and out. Some teachers will let you run the entire rehearsal yourself with no interruptions. (Make sure you know the piece well!) Others stand right next to the podium and stop you frequently to offer feedback. Some of these orchestras are in other cities or even in other countries—Europe’s cozy—in which case the class travels together and stays for several days. Students are responsible for their own travel and lodging (add that to the 400€ bill), although the prof or TA may have access to a van from the conservatory.


A word about playing behind the beat: Even very small German orchestras (6.5.4.3.2 etc.) play with the lateness and weight we tend to associate with much bigger groups. This is due in part to Germany’s extraordinary operatic tradition. Point to any random spot on a map of the country and you will find an opera house within an hour’s drive in any direction. This means that virtually all German orchestra musicians play opera, even if their full-time gig is with a symphony orchestra. And opera only works if the orchestra plays behind the beat in order to stay in sync with the stage. The singers are much farther away from the conductor, and they need time to breathe when you cue them. If the musicians were to play right with the conductor’s beat, then the orchestra would perpetually be a split-second ahead of the singers on stage, no matter how small the pit is. I cannot tell you how grateful I feel for this time lag when I give an upbeat for Manon, who is standing so far to the back of the stage that I can only see the top of her head!


Scholarships

The cheaper conservatories cost around 100€ in fees per semester, while the most expensive ones charge non-EU citizens 1,000€–2,000€ per semester, which includes things like a student ticket for public transit. The price has nothing to do with the conservatory’s prestige or the quality of education. These are all public institutions funded by the government, but each region calculates the necessary fees in a different way. Although you pay no tuition in the American sense, you can still apply for various scholarships to help cover fees and living expenses. Conservatories award modest scholarships to a small number of students each semester, and the German government offers interest-free loans called BAföG to internationals who intend to stay in Germany long-term after completing their studies. You can only apply for these once you have moved to Germany.


The Fulbright Program offers very attractive scholarships that cover virtually every expense you can imagine, including travel. The application process is intense; get started 18 months before you hope to move/matriculate. Every American university has a Fulbright coordinator on campus who can advise you and provide you with the appropriate application materials. The DAAD, which is the German counterpart to the Fulbright Program and the largest organization of its kind in the world, also welcomes students from abroad to apply. Only go for Fulbright or DAAD if you have at least some German language skills.


Although it’s not a scholarship per se, the Dirigentenforum or “Conductors Forum” is the holy grail for young orchestral/operatic and choral conductors up to 28 years of age living in Germany. If you are accepted into this program, you will receive 4 years of masterclasses, concerts, professional development seminars, and job offers, as well as the chance to participate in the most prestigious German conducting competition, the Deutscher Dirigentenpreis. This program is designed for conductors who are studying or working full-time. Events take place about once per month in various German cities, and participants choose which events to attend based on their theater/conservatory schedules. By the end of the program, you will have conducted 15 or 20 different professional orchestras and networked with dozens of Europe’s finest conductors and conducting teachers. Only apply after you have moved to Germany.


Teaching Style

German conducting professors often come off as strict and inflexible. I can’t tell you how many times I asked my professor, “But what if I conduct it like this instead?” only to have him interrupt with, “No! That’s not how it’s done!” This is not because the professors here are narrow-minded but rather because the normal career path of a German conductor starts in the opera pit. This is true of all of the German giants: Nikisch, Weingartner, Klemperer, Furtwängler, Karajan, Masur, Dohnányi, etc. Conducting opera is not about trying out your latest brilliant new ideas. It is first and foremost about keeping things together. If you are willing to learn “the way it’s done,” you will be able to step into any orchestra pit in the country and nail the performance of any standard repertoire with no rehearsal. “The way it’s done” works. Eventually you may have an opera house of your own where you can experiment. Until then, just do what the professors say, and do it well. Their advice will serve you for your entire career.


German conducting professors are incredibly well-networked, and they teach at each other’s conservatories as guests with great frequency. They are usually very generous when it comes to letting people sit in on their classes—meaning that you, too, could visit a six-hour group lesson before deciding where to apply!


May 16, 2020


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