Our son is a very serious and gifted cellist who will have to make the choice of conservatory in the next year. What schools and teachers do you think are the best, and how should he prepare for the auditions?
Your question is, of course, one that comes up all the time and confronts every aspiring young professional musician. If there were simple answers, it would not be such a complex challenge.
In our opinion, there is not one school or teacher that will satisfy all of anyone’s needs in music education. Music is a process of life-long learning that begins from even before a young person learns an instrument, and continues during their years after they have finished playing professionally. Musical and instrumental knowledge will be absorbed from many different sources. So the first advice we can give is to not put all the eggs in one conservatory basket.
That the school and teacher you choose for your son are at high levels is vital. But there are many questions to ask:
- Is your son highly motivated?
- Is he naturally competitive and aware of the world around him?
- Does your son have any specific challenges technically or musically?
- Are his love of music and determination to be a musician unquestionable?
- Is he well rounded, interested in many things?
Does he have musical friends with whom he wants to continue relationships?
- Is your family connected in any way to the world of music?
- Are professional musicians already aware of your son’s gifts?
- Does your son have any musical role models from whom he’d like to learn?
Answering these questions on your own will lead you to the following possible conclusions:
- (Motivated?). If he is highly motivated he will practice and work hard on his own and does not need regular lessons. He could see someone every few weeks and do just fine. If he needs motivation, better look for a situation where the teacher is really in residence and can keep a regular schedule.
- (Competitive?) If your son is not the competitive type, better not to put him in a highly-pressured, competitive school, but rather look for a place where students learn at their own pace. If he is naturally competitive, make sure that where he goes does not over-emphasize the importance of beating out the next guy, but rather is focused on developing the whole musician in a natural way.
- (Challenges?) Lack of a specific component of musicianship can be a real hindrance as one enters professional life. If your son needs to develop anything in particular – stronger technique, deeper musicality, better stage presence, tougher nerves – then look for someone most qualified to develop those qualities.
- (Love of music?) It’s difficult, some say impossible, to recommend pursuing a career in music to anyone who does not love it so much that they can’t imagine doing anything else. On the other hand, plenty of deserving young musicians have still not experienced that pivotal moment – it can happen in a concert, a lesson, or even at home listening to a recording – that changes their lives and commits them to music forever. So if your son is in search of that moment, we can only recommend putting him in an environment filled with inspiration: a mesmerizing, passionate teacher, and great music and great playing all around him.
- (Well-rounded?). Professional musicians these days are better off, and enjoy life more, if they have received a comprehensive liberal arts education. So if your son is already a reader, speaks some other languages, is interested in history and the visual arts, etc., then he will take care of himself. If not, it might be good to look for a double-degree program or a conservatory that has partnership possibility with a university (like Julliard and Columbia).
- (Musical friends?) If your son already has good friends who are inspiring for him, perhaps send him off to a school with them. If not, look for a school with the most high-quality students for him to bond with and learn from. He will learn as much from them as from anyone else.
- (Connections?) If you have connections to the music world, use them. Have your son play for the best cellists and other musicians he can find. Hear their recommendations for schools and teachers. If you don’t have those connections, make them somehow, and encourage your son to do it on his own. It’s always flattering, no matter how many concerts you have to play, to have a young, eager musician come up and ask to play for you. It may be impossible for many to squeeze in hearing your son, but they will at least remember him as someone serious with the courage to ask for the best.
- (Role models?) This answer ties into the previous one. Your son should try to learn from the greatest musicians in the world, whether he does so in person or through the magic of recorded sound and video. He should never hesitate to ask to play for people and get their advice. If he has some cellist whom he admires above all others, then he should do everything within his power to study with that person.
We hope these suggestions are helpful, and we look forward to hearing your son play someday. We wish him the very best of luck to him with his music.
David and Wu Han
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