Académie Camac 2016
June 12, 2016
A smart way to get the best out of really good people is to give them a lot of one-to-one tuition, provide them with great study conditions – and then, to leave them alone. The best universities and conservatoires have done this for centuries. It is however a method that is under ever-increasing pressure to justify itself. If you glance at it cursorily from the outside, it appears to offer little and cost a lot, and so you see classes get larger and larger, and the range of supplementary classes and courses (which students have to go to) also get larger and larger. The result is what every college professor today will tell you: there is no time. No time to practise, no time to teach through the big competition programmes, no time to work on what you’re going to do after college. No time, either, for the professors’ own work, be that performance, research or both.
Go back to the elite model, and suddenly your time is your own again. It isn’t cheaper: instead of paying for classes, you are paying for time, and time is precious. What political establishments find even harder to swallow is that you are also paying on trust. Left alone to do as you please, you might do nothing at all. But the fact that something could sometimes fail, does not necessarily mean that it should not be done. If nobody entertained the possibility of failure, it would be very difficult to do anything, and there would certainly be no music.
It is this principle that lies behind the concept of our Académie Camac. We invite five of our young clients, give them a daily lesson with a fantastic teacher, provide them with good harps and good food, and let them get on with it. For the last two years, we have gone to a beautiful place in Provence, with inspiring scenery, in a house stuffed with interesting books on all subjects. We’ve then installed the Camac office under the wisteria and students come and go, chat to us or work in peace and quiet by themselves, as they choose. We don’t do a closing concert: these can be a lot of fun, but they can also mean that you spend all week practising your piece for it, and maybe in fact you’d have got more out of discussing how to play chords and scales (as you can do for hours, with Isabelle Moretti).
On day three, Isabelle announced that private lessons would be cancelled that day, and replaced by a five-hour class for everyone on how to practise. What stood out for me throughout this invaluable afternoon was Isabelle’s focus on clear-mindedness. You need to set yourself clear expectations that are up to speed with the global level: having a piece more or less at tempo and at least half-memorised within a fortnight, for example. You also need a concrete method in order to achieve those expectations, not just sitting at the harp for hours. Music-making at its highest, most magical level is anything but vague. When you hear a great artist perform, you cannot imagine the music at that moment being any other way. This doesn’t mean there is no room for another interpretation: hear another great artist the following day, playing the piece differently, and again you cannot, in the moment of listening to it, imagine it being any other way. All fine performances are underpinned by a profound musical logic, where everything external falls away, and it is as if the instrument is speaking, is talking directly to you.
Those of us who have been lucky enough to work with great teachers recount seminal experiences. They’re usually something of an eureka! moment, where the great world atlas of music suddenly seems to unfurl in front of you, and nothing is ever the same again. This happens not so much because of a what, but rather a how. A new way of thinking and perceiving becomes clear in your mind, which you carry with you long after your work with that teacher has ended. It’s often on courses that one has these sorts of experiences, because courses invite very good teachers, bring you into contact with many different ranges of experience from your fellow students – and it is also on courses that you don’t have to do lots of other things at the same time. Elite universities forbid students from jobbing during term time. This is a position that is becoming increasingly impractical, and it is a great pity. You are not supposed to job because you are meant to be working properly and, the rest of the time, pursuing your interests: reading, acting, sport, debating, cooking, learning other languages, circus skills, or whatever will help you become an interesting and interested adult. Our last two Académie Camacs have been greatly enriched by our host Michael Frost, a polymath of unquenchable curiosity, and inspiring proof that to love music is to love many things.
We cannot run an Académie for four years: it’s not a university course. For the elite principle to survive, governments need to be clear-minded about education. Everyone thinks they know about education, because everyone went to school, and education is particularly subject to constant policy changes that are never given enough time to work. Understanding of great teaching goes much deeper, yet it is rarely talked about. A society should not privilege elitism at the expense of everyone else, but it should also celebrate the best in their field, and how they best come to be the best.
For the young artists aiming at a concert career, in an orchestra or as a soloist, there is not even any other choice. By definition, they want to perform classical music as well as they possibly can, and it is this level that holds the key to some of the purest experience of music. You can attend a concert for many reasons, but the one that will hook you is not that you can sit down and have a nice drink at the same time, or because you know the band. You will keep coming back for more, if you have an incredible experience when you go. One that expresses emotions and perceptions you previously felt alone in, or never even knew you had; one that doesn’t even have to be about you, but floors you with the beauty or the power of its message. These are the experiences that change you in some way, and that you’ll carry with you, long after the applause and flowers have died away.