Viola Studies in Germany – Rebecca Gu

As an undergraduate, I spent a semester studying abroad at a “Hochschule für Musik” (conservatory) in Germany.

I wanted to share some observations on the differences between my experiences studying the viola as an American student in Germany versus the United States. Though subjective, I hope some of these thoughts may be of interest to any violists out there thinking of studying at a German school, whether for an exchange semester or a complete degree program.

  U.S. conservatory/school of music German “Hochschule”
Time • Student schedule more structured

• Curriculum more strictly prescribed

• Generally, must be on campus Monday–Friday

• Greater flexibility  = greater independence and responsibility

• The average student will have significantly more “free” time to accord to his/her practicing needs

• There are fewer frills involved with being enrolled at an institution.

• Some students also work part-time as paid “Akademisten” – often out of town

• Can be at school as little as once/week – though most stay to practice

Teacher-student relationship Closer, from my perspective Sense of greater distance – not emotional, but in terms of authority
Cost • Tuition before any scholarship

• Cost of living more expensive (housing, groceries)

• State-funded – free or very little tuition

• Cost of living less expensive (housing, groceries, government-subsidized student meals in the “Mensa” (student cafeteria))

Academics • Heavier academic load (often, distribution/core credits; papers, exams and homework assignments)

• Greater number of courses required for degree

• Lighter academic load

• More realistic correlation of credits and actual time spent – for instance, lessons earn  approximately 7 U.S. credits


Type of academic instruction • Theory, history courses taught through lecture classes with emphasis on written work

• Scale step theory/roman numeral analysis

• Theory taught through private or semi-private lessons (groups of 2-3) with emphasis on practical application at the keyboard

• Function theory (“Funktionstheorie”)

Musical curriculum • Some emphasis on orchestral excerpts

• Chamber music tends to be a built-in part of the program, with planned performance classes and recitals

• Orchestra tends to a regularly recurring class meeting 2–3 times/week

• Chamber music is self-organized and performances are initiated by the group

• Orchestra is assigned by project, rehearsing daily/intensively over a 2-week period in between longer periods of rest

The private lesson… • … is an hour long

• tends to stay private, not observed except occasionally by friends

• … is an hour and a half

• is often observed by students from the same or other studios and visitors (and one of the most valuable learning experiences for me was traveling to listen to lessons with different teachers!!)

Sound concept – emphasizing here that this is extremely subjective! • darker timbre

• use of weight to achieve expressivity – more condensed bow

• brighter timbre

• use of full bows and bow speed to achieve expressivity

Musical opportunities • I found gigging opportunities limited as an exchange student.

• Ease of train travel for sight-seeing, out-of-town lessons, or auditions

• Stronger sense of classical music culture in community – better audience turnout and appreciation

Interaction with other violists • Studio class as performing opportunity

• More casual camaraderie

• No studio class; instead, frequent studio recitals

• More professional interaction

School social culture • Planned social events involving entire student body

• Students dress casually – usually/there is a looser dress code

• No planned events for school community

• Students tend to dress professionally – for example: most female students wear heels/nice boots to their lessons or just to practice (to be casually dressed may have been considered rude to the teacher)

Culture: beyond the conservatory walls… • “Telling culture” – generally, more information than necessary is given to you, such that you are prepared to sift out what you need when the time comes

• Ask yourself… what can I learn about my own culture? How do I contribute?

• “Asking culture” – if you need help or information, you must ask for it.

• Prepare yourself for culture shock.  If the ethnic demographic of the culture you’re visiting varies significantly from that of your own, try not to take acts of prejudice or discrimination too personally. As a non-Caucasian American in Germany, I initially interpreted acts of discrimination as personal assaults, before learning that while not correct or excusable, these acts tended more often to be a result of obliviousness than malicious intent.

• Ask yourself, what is this new culture teaching me? How do I interact with this culture while I’m a part of it?

Every school is unique. In my (limited!) experience, there are pros and cons to consider for both systems. With the chart above, I’ve sought to make some observations that might be helpful or thought-provoking to fellow violists, rather than argue that one system is better than the other.

Taking your instrument abroad and investing through your playing an environment that stimulates you can be an extremely enriching and formative experience. Beyond exposure to a new musical culture, you will improve your language skills, develop a heightened sensitivity to different perspectives, and build lifelong relationships with people from a different background who share your passions and worldview.

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