Same Language, Different People


When you go study in another country, it’s respectable to learn the styles and traditions of their culture. In England, that’s the orchestral world: but my primary career interests aren’t centered in orchestral playing. As a craft it’s something I respect highly: a level of technical excellence and musicality we all strive for in our practice. However, my personal career goals don’t involve a full-time job in an orchestra. So, I didn’t immerse myself in it.

What’s the point? This made me quite foreign.

So why did I go there? The connection came through my mentors and friends: Tim and Jason of Maraca2. Once I met the Head of Percussion, that sealed the deal: Aidy Spillett is the most brilliant percussionist, and fantastic person, you may not have heard of. I from Aidy that in Birmingham, you could do anything and everything. For example: the training in Afro-Cuban styles was incredible. You didn’t just learn to play, you really dug into the styles and had to immerse yourself in listening, transcription and context to do well.

Orchestral music was the same. It was never enough to play the excerpts. With a list of over a hundred excerpts, and a very busy schedule outside orchestral practice, it’s nearly impossible to ascertain that knowledge at a deep level over just 7 or 8 months. That’s why a passing mark (grade) is only 50. The equivalent of an A (called a “first,” or “first-class”) is 70. We didn’t all get 70s. It didn’t matter if the teacher/examiner knew you and believed in you and understood your work ethic. The mark you got on the day was a direct reflection of your playing that day. It made you work damn hard. The 60s are good. Students should feel confident if they’re averaging in the 60s and above. After working my butt off for a 64 I learned how much more devotion I had to put in to break the 70s… it’s not a ploy to force us to work harder, it’s an honest reflection of where we’re at.

A few points stood out to me in the variations in approach between the US and the UK. If you have a few more minutes:

Individual-Focused Learning Environment

There was a significant emphasis on confidence and in individual learning. If you wanted to do anything, and do it well, you had to do a huge portion of the work with little guidance. We got information on how exams would be marked, but had to determine our own topics, programming, and really go the extra mile in thoughtfulness, research, and aesthetic decisions. If we wanted help it was available, but we had to take the initiative to seek it out. We usually asked out peers for feedback, I still do it a lot. This really built strength of character and work ethic.

Studio Community

PAS has a very small following in the UK. Mostly because they don’t need it – we rely on a lot of business and market funding in the US, and most European countries have great governmental support. I have mixed feelings about PAS and have been fairly vocal about them, but one thing I admire is what an exceptional community it is. If you join your local running club, you get fit, learn new local routes, and make new friends. Joining PAS has the equivalent effect for a percussionist. Conservatoires would put on their own days of percussion independently of the PAS UK/Ireland chapter. Consequently, there was a general lack of interest in joining the organization. That’s fair enough: it doesn’t have the same benefits as in the US, unless you have a reason (and funds) to fly to PASIC.

The studio (department) did not follow the same etiquettes many do in the US. There was no rule requiring us to help each other move gear. However, in contrast to my previous experience, there were SO many concerts amongst all of us, in widespread locations, that it would have been impossible to keep up. On the down side, it went so far as when you had “your own thing,” people occasionally didn’t even get up off the sofa to roll a timpano down the corridor. When it came to attending each others’ concerts, we usually went to the big ones, but it was totally up to the individual.

British Terms…

They’re CLASH cymbals, and the E in crotales isn’t pronounced (this one’s correct). Natural sticking is called “hand to hand,” although I’m still unsure whether that means purely alternated sticking regardless of rhythm, or the same way we define it. A storage room was called a “store,” e.g. the percussion store. Regular stores are shops. Here’s what was the biggest kicker for me:

In my first Symphony Orchestra rehearsal, the conductor began discussing how to interpret a particular semi-quaver in the bar… four crochets in a bar, eight quavers, sixteen semi-quavers, thirty-two demi-semi-quavers, sixty-four hemi-semi… Yes. It’s real. I thought it was only in old textbooks, a forgotten language, blissfully unaware that another English-speaking country could speak about music in an entirely different language. So I had to learn it, which took a lot of conscious effort, pausing every time before I spoke about a rhythm. It’s not easy to have to rewire, even for a small change. However, it’s nice being able to switch between both now.

Fast Music-Learning & Excellent Sight-Reading Required

Brits are amazing orchestral musicians. They learn music fast, they rehearse very little, and the level is very high. I was always blown away by how perfect the CBSO was.

The same was expected of the students. We rehearsed for projects as they came up – e.g. you’d have orchestra for two weeks leading up to the concert, otherwise not at all. Music was thrown at us in large quantities and constantly… truly pushing our limits.

Drinking Culture: Work Hard, Play Hard

It would be very odd to come across a European Conservatoire without a bar. We even had our own brew, “Conservatoire Ale” by Wye Valley Brewing, on tap. As exciting as a brand new building with five state-of-the-art performance venues was, I don’t remember being more excited about anything as I was about us having our own beer. With the lower drinking age, we went out a lot with everybody, teachers and underclassmen alike. There were regulations about our tutors adding us as friends on Facebook, but they could buy us beer – I’d like to take a moment now to thank these people publicly and dearly.

Musicians Make Art, Not Science, and the culture values it

Supporting the arts is embedded in the culture, although funding is always scarce or difficult to come by, the government and community do support it. This made Conservatoire life particularly glamorous; the Royal status gave us access to extra funding, and we’d get an occasionally lush donation. Student life benefitted: we didn’t need to set up our own chairs and stands for rehearsal. Sheet music and copies were always provided, and the library bought our scores – including solos, so long as they were being used within our course.

With this budget, it felt like there were few restrictions: bass chimes for Janáček? Done. Two octaves of boobams for the chamber orchestra? Hired. Recording projects? Students in the Technology Department were available for projects, and it benefited everyone involved, including the use of top professional quality resources.

Lessons were about music, rarely technique. Sound guided everything, first and foremost. I noticed that timing was not as metronomical, but often more musically communicative – particularly in orchestral playing. I loved the majority of my lessons because of how deep we dove into the music.

I’ll leave with the above thoughts… although a lot, that’s not all of it. Again, this is a reflection of my experience, and mine alone. Some of these differences may be closer to distinctions between music in University and music in a Conservatory, yet they were noticeable nonetheless.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this, any at all. Comment below.

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