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The Conservatoire Populaire, Geneva, opens a second harp class

Germany has a fantastic tradition of not only big national orchestras, but also smaller local ones at the heart of their communities. There are so many orchestras, that they are categorised from “A” to “D”, and I used to have a job in a “D”. Apart from this grade always reminding me uncomfortably of my French homework, it also meant that the orchestra was small, and under financial pressure.

When I was due to leave and go and and work for Camac, the musical director summoned me to his office and announced that he thought it would be a clever money-saver if he dissolved the harp job. I could have first dibs on the freelancing if I supported the idea, ‘cos it had to be approved by the orchestra at the annual meeting. A big fight an animated discussion ensued. I philosophized that binning a job would be short-sighted: the smaller your ensemble, the easier it is for someone to cut your funding. Instead, said I, warming to my theme, he should do more community and outreach projects to build audiences – more than zero outreach projects, the current number – and also stop musicians calling in sick when they weren’t ill, on which the theatre haemorrhaged money. I then was thrown swept nobly out of the office and told all my colleagues to vote against.

The upshot of it all was that the harp job survived. Its hours were even increased. It is part of a general trend: more jobs, like additional strings, have been created, there is an active programme of outreach work, and the orchestra is now a grade C and getting better all the time. This is more than can ever have been said for my French homework.

It is heart-warming when a musical centre grows and develops. In Geneva, the Conservatoire Populaire has taken the perspicacious decision to build on the excellent work of Isabelle Martin-Achard. They have found themselves with so many keen students that, on Isabelle’s retirement, two new professors have been appointed. Céline Gay Des Combes and Blandine Pigaglio are now both teaching at the conservatoire, with the aim of building up two substantial harp classes once again.

Conservatoire populaire de Genève

“I’m very inspired by the open-mindedness and forward-thinking of this conservatoire”, Céline explains. “The professors are given a lot of freedom in how they structure their teaching, and the school welcomes unusual and creative projects. There are also big dance and theatre classes, which give us a lot of opportunity to put on multidisciplinary shows. This is an aspect of teaching both Blandine and I value very much. We have both done several such shows before – for example, the Conte de Jakata show I organised with Marielle Nordmann and Elodie Wuillens. Next winter, we’re hoping to put on a show Blandine has created based on Deborah Henson-Conant‘s Baroque Flamenco.”

“My pupils and I have written a story to go with Baroque Flamenco”, says Blandine. “It starts in the court of Marie Antoinette, and then continues with other Baroque and Spanish pieces along the way. I hope we can also get some flamenco dancers, from the flamenco class at the Conservatoire…it’s great to be able to develop shows like this, it puts the music into context for the students and gives them a large-scale project to get their teeth into.”

Another field vulnerable both to cuts, but also to short-sighted cuts is music education. It’s sometimes forgotten that music education is not only about being able to get your fingers round some pieces on an instrument. It is about, for example, learning to stick at something and work steadily to achieve something special; emotional development and self-expression; teamwork and handling pressure. The Conservatoire Populaire has just launched a fantastic outreach project, in which Céline and Blandine’s harp departments are taking part. We have sponsored it by providing three lever harps for the music lessons, and three lever harps for the students to practise on at home.

“This project began last September, in a school in a more challenging areas of Geneva”, says Céline. “It’s for twenty-one eight-year-olds, who would otherwise have no access to music lessons. The children are brought to the Conservatoire for two hours of music lessons on Monday mornings – eight professors are involved, so the children study instruments in groups of three, three pianists, three guitarists, three harpists and so on. On Thursdays, the class has general musical education all morning – solfège, rhythmique, etc. The best thing about the project is that it is going to last for four years, so it is not like one of these projects where middle-class classical musicians come in, do a workshop for an hour, and then disappear. The children are going to have had a substantial amount of real music training by the time they have finished. For the duration of the project, they are full members of the Conservatoire Populaire, with full library rights, access to all general classes, and everything else.

Their class teacher has already been surprised by how well some of the children have reacted to the music lessons. It is something special they can learn to do if they work at it. That is hugely motivating and confidence-building, because it’s their achievement and nobody else’s. I’ve already seen the results of this sort of motivation, even just regarding the harps. In order that the students could learn to take care of the instruments lent to them, and to tune them and have this sort of basic independence, I taught everyone for three months before they were allowed to take their harps home with them. When that time came, it was in itself an achievement. The students were delighted, and even glad to be assigned work to practise at home!”


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