5 Tips for Thriving at Conservatory

May 26, 2019, 1:39 AM ·

You’re about to enter a Conservatory? Congratulations!! Your hard work has finally paid off and you are about to embark on an unforgettable journey toward your musical goals. As a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I can honestly say without a doubt that I would not be the musician or person I am today without that experience. I learned some of the most valuable things I will ever know from those two years, and wouldn’t trade them for anything.

However, the experience itself isn’t the easiest thing to go through. Of course, anyone would naturally assume this, because it’s a conservatory and with that comes the intense, scary, bleeding-at-the-piano reputation. My experience wasn’t QUITE that dramatic. It’s also intense and challenging in a very wonderful way; I had the opportunity to work with and befriend amazing people. However, I hope to share a few helpful things for those of you about to begin your conservatory experience and/or those considering one in the future.

  1. Tailor your conservatory experience for YOU

    This is kind of a tricky one, and requires some self-exploration on your part. I think one of the reasons a conservatory education is so difficult is because in order to really make it work, you have to get to know yourself and know what makes you tick, all while under severe stress and constant self-critique. Just know that you are paying to be there, that the institution is there to help better you, and that is is filled with opportunities. Know what you want to get out of your experience there, and seek every opportunity to make it happen. Our private teachers do what they can for us, but I think one way to really succeed in a conservatory setting is to embrace independence.

  2. Practice smart, not more

    Practice the amount that works for you. Just because it seems like everyone around you is always practicing doesn’t mean anything. First of all, quality > quantity. Try and develop a routine, and commit to that time every day. Figure out what time you’re generally most productive/in the mood to practice, and try to make it that time every day so you’ll be in the right mindset. Practice buddies are also a GREAT idea, and a fun way to be held accountable for practicing at the same time and for the same duration each day. Keeping a practice journal can help you stay productive and make progress with a lot of repertoire. In my opinion, becoming a good practicer is an essential part of going to a conservatory.

  3. Take care of yourself

    This one is pretty self-explanatory, but I mean this on several different levels. Of course, make smart, healthy decisions. But also know when to take a break, whether it's from the practice room, your instrument, the building, etc. For example, I would find myself going a little nuts if I realized I had been in the same building all day, so try and take a walk outside, even if it’s just for five minutes. It really makes a difference! Also, in reference to my second point: know when to take a break from your instrument. This manifests in several ways, from feeling sore to getting frustrated to just needing to take a mental break. I’ve had a rule that I’ve used since my undergrad that I take one day off a week (usually on the weekend unless something really important is happening), and I’ve found that this works wonders for me. It’s really easy to feel guilty about something like this, especially in a conservatory setting where the culture makes people feel guilty whenever they’re not in a practice room. Find what works for you and stick to it.

  4. Eat and drink

    This seems obvious. But, you may be surprised at how easy it is to get dehydrated and/or really hungry when you spend all day at a conservatory. The work we’re doing requires very high levels of focus, not to mention a large amount of physical energy. It’s important to provide our bodies with the nutrition and hydration it needs to function and feel healthy. Regular snacks are a good idea too! It’s easy to forget about stuff like this when we’re busy and stressed, but it’s essential. Planning ahead is important here too-some conservatories have little to no food.

  5. You’re enough

    One of the toughest things about conservatory is that we are all constantly comparing ourselves to everyone else. Sure, it’s human nature - we’re all working towards the same thing and all trying to succeed in a very competitive field. However, comparison doesn’t do any of us any good; in fact, it just makes us feel even more insecure. If we spent more energy thinking about our own education rather than everyone else’s, which really has no relevance to us and is something we cannot control, then that would make us that much better. I know, it’s easier said than done, but it’s something to consider.

As Jascha Heifetz said, “there is no top. There are always further heights to reach.” I’ll leave you with this final thought: make the goal improvement, not perfection. The more I continue my education, the more convinced I am that perfection doesn’t even exist. But, the important thing, especially in an educational setting, is to improve a little bit each day. Even if that means the tiniest thing-it’s still improvement and therefore it is still significant.

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May 27, 2019 at 09:10 AM · A fine article Clara with much for students to think about.

I would suggest one more point (in an admittedly crowded schedule):

Consider your post-conservatory future periodically. What do you want to achieve compared to how likely it is you will achieve that goal.

Be realistic in the way of an athlete: not everyone can make the Olympic team. Have a plan B.


May 28, 2019 at 04:52 PM · Thank you, Clara. I'll never have the conservatory experience, but you have advice in there for us, too. And I'll show it to my daughter, who is going off to college in a year.

Re: "You are enough." This is universal wisdom that most people never hear and even if they do, it takes some thought to digest in our culture. Thanks for saying it.

Re your comment on "Practice makes perfect." My husband always prefers to say "Practice makes progress", which is your point. That reminds me of something my viola teacher said recently: when she was working on her MA in Music, she spent a summer trying to achieve silent bow direction changes. I told her I had come across someone (maybe Fischer in "Basics") saying that this is impossible and she had to agree. But thinking it over, I believe there *are* things that one can become perfect at. Some of these are discussed a lot on v.com: playing in tune and consistently getting into the positions.

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