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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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