News from Holland

Chamber music teaching at the Royal Conservatoire the Hague

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Chamber music practise is the basis of every skill a classical musician needs: listening, reacting, colouring, toning, styling, communicating – and of course it is not just a way to learn all this, but a goal in itself.

At the Royal Conservatoire The Hague, The Netherlands, chamber music is placed in the Bachelor II and III curriculum. Of course students play chamber music during all their studies (a chamber music piece is obligatory for the Bachelor final exam), but this part of the curriculum is organised by the school.

It starts with the freedom for students to choose their own ensemble, in the last period of the first study year. They form their own groups and choose the pieces they want to study. Of course there is some control: students are encouraged to go for the basic ensembles (string quartet, piano trio, wind and brass quintet) and also for mixed ensembles (for harp, accordion, guitar, percussion). Besides there is a check on the pieces: a new string quartet will of course play op. 18, not op. 59! These ensembles work together for at least one academic year. When the ensembles have been formed (with some help of a theory teacher who coordinates the program, knows all the students and does a lot of canteen broker work), and when the choice of pieces have been approved of, there is a decision on the specific teacher for each ensemble: usually two main subject teachers work, each for a period of 10 weeks, with an ensemble. String Quartets have one teacher. The lessons are being scheduled, and start in the new study year.

Having the students choose their own fellows and repertoire has its advantages: motivation is optimal, and not seldom ensembles stay together after this start. The conditions for approval are quite clear to them. It is nice to see that sometimes ensembles with students of different level (Master students participate voluntary) function best. Of course the element of organisation is Achilles’ heel: students not getting their ensemble going, cancelling lessons, failing to rehearse sufficiently. Actually I feel this is one of the learning goals connected to chamber music playing as well: every musician starting a chamber music ensemble knows that organising is as essential as playing well…

After the work with the main subject teachers has been done each ensemble works with a theory teacher. These teachers of the subject Harmony/Analysis deepen the insight in the major works the ensembles have studied.

The exams are organised as concerts, and when teachers state the work has been done students can not fail – otherwise students have to re-do one full year of the program. The exams are public, and placed in the large concert hall.

This Chamber Music Festival of one week, in March, hosting about 50 student ensemble exams, has a joyous character because of the concerts we add: each day starts with a lunch concert and ends with an evening concert. Please find the program for this year’s Chamber Music Festival in the flyer.

We have started some interesting new program at the Royal Conservatoire which shows in the Chamber Music Festival program: teachers playing, not only for students but also with them. Last school year violin teacher Kees Hülsmann coached Mendelssohn Octet, not from a stand in the lesson room but from the fourth violin place. Impressive concerts, and I will remember the look in the eyes of the two cello students after the first rehearsal: excited, inspired! This school year a series of ‘master/apprentice’ concerts started in two major concert halls in The Netherlands: teachers and Royal Conservatoire students present themselves and play together – it does evoke a very special atmosphere in the concert hall, and it is a very instructive setting. From this series: Vera Beths playing Schubert and Mozart and Alexei Ogrintchouk playing Beethoven and Dvorak.

Trying to make theory classes connect with the main subject progression and the work in projects, we have, as I described, theory teachers involved in the chamber music program. In the Festival each concert will open with a short lecture, by theory teachers, composers, specialists from other departments, on the program of the concert.

Another new initiative is getting a string quartet going, from teachers Philippe Graffin, Janet Krause, Vladimir Mendelssohn and Michel Strauss – proving that chamber music playing, even as a string quartet, is one of the many goals connected to becoming a musician able to create his own work nowadays. The teachers string quartet studies a program for itself, in a week with concentrated training for student string quartets.

Now, how to measure whether our efforts and new approach function? Whether the vivid spirit of chamber music that we start to notice in our school also affects our students’ qualities of playing?

It is tempting to use the classic notion of the ‘once in a lifetime event’; the one teacher in high school who opened your eyes to science/literature/politics caused a major change in you growing up. And organising these moments is absolutely one of the goals in our education – besides, the cellist’s eyes have not only been noticed by me, so these moments are not just private experiences but they will spread in a community like our school.

Another factor (introducing high level of playing in school as close as possible to the students) is effective as well probably: students should form a strong notion of quality during their studies, needed for the life long guarding their own level. It shows in concerts when one sees teachers and students joining in transposing their nerves into joy, and students performing on an unexpected level.

For sure the upcoming second edition of our Chamber Music Festival is an event to look forward to (take a look at the brochure). And hopefully it is a display of true enthousiasm for chamber music playing, for both teachers and students, for the audience and music itself.

If I may add a bit of personal background: I played Schönberg String Trio on my final exam, with fellow students with whom I had already won several international competitions. After I graduated my teacher Ferdinand Erblich invited me to join his Orlando Quartet to play all Mozart Quintets. (My last Mozart Quintets were g minor and E flat major, with Prazak Quartet, a year before I quit playing…)


Susanne van Els
Head of the Classical Music Department
Royal Conservatoire The Hague, The Netherlands