Artistic occupations’ cultivation of a sense of selfless commitment make them sectors of activity in which intense personal engagement yields symbolic rather than material rewards (Sapiro 2007a). The quest for spiritual self-fulfilment appears more important than that for worldly benefits, meaning that accessing such jobs constitutes the realization of a vocation (Menger 2004; Kris & Kurz 1979). The classical music teachers examined in this paper fall within this category1. References to vocation frequently come up in the words of these ordinary artists2 employed in low-level provincial music academies (a regional—“CRR”—and a municipal—“CRC”—conservatory), far from the leading positions in the classical music field3. They report having formulated their professional aspirations at a young age: “It was crystal clear to me; ever since I was small, I’d wanted to be a professional musician;” “I knew that I would play music, play the violin, very early on.”
While we observe a consensus between musicians who believe they were “made for this” after the fact, this idea of predestination conceals all the social processes contributing to the genesis and internalization of this vocational model. “Because the inculcation process of vocation involves imposing the ignorance of its determining factors at the same time as the vocation itself” (Suaud 1978: 10), this paper sets out to shed light on the mechanisms of the inculcation of vocation in youth.
While this is a central issue which could be applied to all musicians, addressing it is not sufficient to fully understand how vocation works in this population. Considering their condition as ordinary artists, we should also examine how they maintain their vocation in adulthood. Insofar as they have few symbolic rewards due to their inferior position in the music world, we also need to research how they maintain their vocation once they have secured a teaching position.
To study the construction of vocation in youth and its subsequent maintenance, I rely on the three angles of sociological analysis of vocation identified by Vincent Dubois (2016). The first consists in analysing the social logics of professional career paths. Our understanding of the social determinants of engagement in an artistic career should go beyond formulations of such engagement as a choice or a self-evident development, often characterized by biographical illusio. This requires an examination of the objective conditions, agents, and institutions involved in instilling this sense of predestination in young instrumentalists. This analysis yields insight into the mechanisms of collective belief in talent in young musicians.
The second angle of sociological analysis of vocation focuses on the processes of commitment to a selfless relationship to work. Indeed, the revelation of a vocation also involves a conversion process whereby work is experienced as personal self-fulfilment leading to spiritual rewards, requiring young musicians to commit “body and soul” to playing an instrument. This conversion process, resulting in the adoption of ascetic behaviours, can be analysed by combining the social properties and actions of agents and institutions, beginning with family and education.
These first two features of vocation, which operate in the early stages of the construction of vocation and impact the training years of young musicians, are discussed in the first section of this paper.
The third angle is the study of how beliefs in the collective value of a job are appropriated: “Beyond the work itself and the personal rewards it may bring, vocation involves a reference to a political, aesthetic, or moral horizon; such occupations are defined in reference to universal social values and functions.” (Dubois 2016: 2). The fuzziness of this idea of collective value serves as a basis for maintaining the vocation of music teachers. Several strategies of vocational reassurance can be distinguished, from the reference to art for art’s sake through engagement in ancillary instrumental activities to its replacement by an emphasis on the ideal of cultural democratization or the educational mission. The second section of this paper analyses these strategies, observed in discourse, as well as in ways of teaching and understanding teaching.
Occupations in classical music are vocational and informed by the rationale of Beruf, a Protestant conception of an occupation that combines profession and vocation and equates work with religious duty. Two basic principles of this relationship to professional activity are found in our case: predestination, envisioned in terms of a gift, and ascetic behaviour (Weber 2010).
For musicians, the virtually mystical sense of having been “called” to pursue their career comes with the certainty of having a gift for playing an instrument. Jacques, a trumpet player, son of a rail worker and a stay-at-home mother, invokes this argument as he comments on his rapid progression:
“That’s what they call a gift. Not to get big-headed, but that’s what they call a gift. If you’d given me a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, I’d have been incapable of drawing. Even if I took five hours of private lessons every day, I’d still be incapable of drawing anything. If I had taken up the violin, maybe it wouldn’t have worked out so well. As it happens, the trumpet worked out. So I was a gifted person, and things went very fast.”
Musicians frequently make such references to innate skills. This sense of having been chosen reinforces the logic of predestination that prevails in the music world as the explanation for opportunities to access professionalization. Belief in exceptional, natural qualities maintains and strengthens vocations. Perceiving themselves as “chosen ones,” with a unique talent, instrumentalists are persuaded that their musical destiny is inevitable and that music has chosen them just as much as they have chosen it 4.
This emphasis on talent suggests several lines of sociological questioning. In light of the disciplinary imperative which promotes a certain distance from naturalistic arguments (Durkheim 1982), sociologists must determine the social construction processes leading to the emergence of what is considered to be talent. Talent does not appear magically, but only in specific social conditions conducive to activating dispositions for playing an instrument. Additionally, the very definition of musical talent has proved extremely problematic for sociologists who have examined the concept. For lack of a universal, unanimously recognized yardstick allowing the determination of objective hierarchies of musical performance and creation, objectifying and quantifying artistic talent or “genius” has always led to a dead-end (Menger 2002).
However, the impossibility of measuring or comparing talent does not constitute a hindrance to sociological analysis. Sociology is not concerned with establishing whether or not talent exists, or with comparing the respective talents of instrumentalists. Rather, its task is to examine the process leading to the recognition of talent in musicians by themselves and others. Like the concept of charisma conceptualized by Max Weber (2013), talent is based on a belief in the exceptional nature of a person’s qualities, shared by that person and those who recognize such talent in them. It is a relational property that is only activated when recognized by agents other than the individual. What matters in that sense is not the actual validity of talent or charisma, but the process through which collective belief in that quality works.
Studying the concept of musical talent or gift thus requires us to look into the social construction of shared belief in talent. This section evidences the social mechanisms of the external and internal recognition of the instrumentalist’s gift.
Understanding the social logics of the construction of gifts requires us to ponder initial inequalities in musical legacy. The family’s varying proximity to the music world is a key factor in the modalities of production of the instrumentalist’s talent (Augustins 1991). Indeed, belonging to a family of amateur or, even more so, professional musicians induces a socialization in listening to and practice of music from infancy. This early initiation contributes to masking the learning process: music is seen as a “natural practice,” and practitioners often struggle to say when they began, such as in the case of Jeanne, a cellist whose mother is professional pianist.
“I have to say, I took up music because I was born into music. I was almost born in my mother’s music class, so I was born into music. I was basked in music in the womb and afterwards, all the time. At the time, there was no maternity leave, she would breastfeed me in between two students. So I was really immersed in music from my earliest childhood days. And naturally, the cello came very easily. I must have been fairly gifted, because I wasn’t doing any work and things would progress on their own…
AP. – So at what age did you take up music yourself?
– Well, I have no idea. Too young. I started music theory and piano with my mother when I was very small. […] I think that as soon as I had a finger that was strong enough to touch the piano, I took up the piano. […] But I knew the key of G and the key of F when I was really small. By the age of five, I knew all the keys. So I don’t know when I began. It came naturally.”
In addition to this “natural” relationship to playing an instrument, socialization in childhood enables the early activation of dispositions. Having developed a very early awareness of music, young inheritors logically have a technical mastery that far exceeds that of their peers. Projecting the image of young musicians for whom it is apparently easy to handle their instrument and perform pieces that are inaccessible to other children in their age group, inheritors appear to showcase exceptional musical skill. They conform to an idealized image that has been widely promoted in the classical music world—that of the child prodigy. This mythical figure, best embodied by the young Mozart5, depicts precocity as a determining factor of talent. Conforming to this representation conveyed within the musical sphere, these young musicians are presented in a way that contributes to upholding a naturalistic vision of gift and to concealing the social factors involved in the talent of inheritors.
Family legacy thus constitutes a crucial element in the social construction of talent. By promoting the bodily internalization of the rules of music, musical families lead the child to develop a “practical sense” of playing an instrument. This practical sense is internalized to a degree that it obscures the learning process and appears under the guise of innateness (expressed by a phrase I heard on several occasions in interviews: “It runs in the genes”).
But musical families do not only pass on the social conditions for producing talent; they also operate as the first sites of its legitimization. Parental judgment is not merely sentimental; it is in this case also the judgment of individuals considered to be musically legitimate. The qualities that are praised within the family sphere can thus in part be transposed to the musical sphere. Of course, the objective nature of parental judgment can be debated. However, what matters is not to establish whether parents are objective or not, but to assess the effects of the so-called objective opinion of parents regarding their children’s talent on the children themselves. The children of musicians tend to believe their parents’ opinion cannot be challenged. For that reason, the recognition of talent in the family contributes to making them internalize at a very young age the certainty that they have innate qualities. The parental stance acts as a confirmation of their having been chosen. This initial certainty results in a sense of predestination and vocation appearing in the early years of musical inheritors.
Family, it must be said, is not the only site of production of belief in the gift. The recognition of talent is also constructed within music education institutions.
Thomas Morinière (2007: 73) noted that “a gift can be recognized by an institution (educational, artistic, or market-oriented) that has at its disposal a certain amount of symbolic capital to loan out, which determines the legitimacy of the operation of certification and its chances of producing belief in the value of the gift.” Where musical institutions are concerned, the production of belief in the gift resides in the very organization of the curriculum. As students progress through their curriculum, their professional future is subject to various forms of selection which aim to distinguish them from the rest of their peers. The annual exams granting access to the upper levels, the class auditions allowing the practical comparison of student performances6, and the institutional decision to direct students towards specialized courses at the end of high school are opportunities for evaluation and selection. Each of those junctures acts as a rite of passage conferring legitimacy and recognition on students who make it to the next step. Aspiring musicians may then see success in these screening stages as a sign of having been chosen. For the instrumentalists who come from a musical background, these successes reinforce their certainty about their talent; for the others, they work as mounting evidence which progressively brings them round to belief in their gift.
The internalization of belief does not, however, solely operate through the organization of the curriculum. It also has a more individual dimension, as special relationships develop between students and their teachers. The informal recognition of the teaching body adds up to the institutional recognition of the gift7. By praising and encouraging them, teachers contribute to building up belief in their students’ individual qualities.
The judgment of teachers is particularly important to the non-inheritors among the young musicians. As they cannot find individuals with the legitimacy to confirm the existence of their talent in their family circles, for them the opinion of teachers constitutes the first manifestation of a belief in their gift. The teacher’s evaluation of their instrumental skills acts as a revelation of their musical skills, sowing the seed of belief that they have a professional future. The encounter with the first teacher to have detected potential in the young musician acts as a catalyst for aspirations and vocation, and is subsequently presented as a decisive instant which conditioned their social and professional career. They consider that teacher as their mentor, and struggle to find words complimentary enough to describe them and characterize their relationship: “As I was saying earlier, I was lucky enough to cross paths with an exceptional human being, an exceptional oboe player, an exceptional teacher.”
Belief in the gift is a process of collective recognition that unfolds in two sites: in the family and at music education institutions. However, the process takes on different forms depending on the degree of musical awareness of the future musician’s family. Only inheritors can enjoy recognition of their talent within the family sphere. To them, institutional recognition is a confirmation of their parents’ judgment. As they were born into music and, so to speak, notified of their talent at a very young age, they can project themselves into a professional future that appears to them as the natural course of things at a very early stage. Conversely, instrumentalists whose backgrounds are far removed from the music world are dependent on recognition in the conservatories. They derive their sense of being chosen from the structure of the curriculum and the judgment of their teachers. Belief in their gift, and subsequently in their vocation, results from a progressive conversion orchestrated by the institution8.
However, belief in the gift is not sufficient to determine the birth of a vocation in a young instrumentalist. For the instrumentalist to be in a position to appropriate vocational discourse, belief in individual skills is needed; but it must be combined with boundless commitment to the musical activity. Indeed, as Charles Suaud puts it (1974: 75), vocation is the “realization of an exceptional destiny, founded on the recognition of individual abilities and requiring the individual’s total commitment.” It should be noted that the instrumentalists in my sample actively subscribe to this definition. All claim that committing one’s “body and soul” to playing an instrument is indispensable to accessing professionalization, and by doing so confirm their vocation. Gift is a necessary condition but not a sufficient one9; it needs to come with a work ethic to allow talent to express itself10—as explained here by Mary, a flautist, the daughter of a bank employee and a special needs teacher:
“I think you need to have a certain aptitude to begin with. But then, you have to be able to really work at it, to have the ability to work a lot. I have often seen cases of children who were initially less gifted than others, but who managed to get degrees and sometimes make careers by working tirelessly. On the other hand, I’ve seen students who had greater aptitude but who rested on their laurels; they didn’t progress and they had more hardworking students do better than they did.”
This work ethic materializes with the adoption of ascetic behaviours that take root during music education. Young musicians practise their instrument on a daily basis; the minimum duration of this practice increases with time and level. The daily twenty minutes recommended to beginners soon become an hour when students reach secondary school (often around the age of ten), and then an hour and a half to two hours in adolescence. The constraints imposed by such daily practice are sometimes detrimental to the sociability of adolescent musicians, as Franck, a cellist and the son of two bakers, relates:
“Anyway, we were used to a fairly rigorous schedule. Make no mistake, it was a bit hard to work while my mates were out playing … I’d go and play for a while and then I’d hear: ‘Franck!’ So my mates would take the piss, they’d say: ‘Hey, Franck, what about your cello!’ So they made fun of it a little.”
As they devote more and more time to their instrument, young musicians progressively drift away from their friends outside of the music sphere, especially since they follow a distinct curriculum with an adapted schedule at school (CHAM) 11. Work also cuts them off from their older friendships, as they have to spend weekends and some of their holidays working on music. The intensification of music practice leads young musicians to increasingly remove themselves from the profane world and give up the “pleasures” of teenage sociability—in the words of Louis, a violin player and the son of a serviceman and a stay-at-home mother:
“When you’re all alone in your room, your imagination starts to work. And spending two weeks of the Easter holidays playing violin eight hours a day really is more interesting than going outside.”
This ascetic quality is also expressed in the very nature of the musicians’ personal work. First, the work causes them physical suffering: back pain, arm cramps, numb fingers, and headaches are routine manifestations of the strain resulting from such hard work. In this sense, the intensity of the daily work of young musicians constitutes a form of socialization in effort and suffering (Alford & Szanto 1995) 12. This daily labour is not only intensive, it is also dull and repetitive. Every day, students must subject themselves to a number of regularly scheduled, painstaking exercises. A typical example of the litany of everyday work is scales practice, which consists in repeating a musical phrase many times using the required fingerings—an unavoidable staple of any musician’s routine throughout their entire education. Like boxers who are training and only authorized to enter the ring after having performed many repetitive, solitary drills (Wacquant 2003), young musicians must submit to this ascetic work before achieving the reward of being allowed to perform a piece.
To understand the necessity of such austere repetition in work, we should not forget that learning an instrument is first and foremost a process of the bodily internalization of practical skill13. Technical mastery of the instrument inevitably involves mastery of the body in action14. This bodily mastery, leading the musician to instantaneously, almost mechanically produce an appropriate response to an instrumental challenge, is acquired by performing repetitive, compulsory exercises that progressively shape and educate the body to the demands of playing an instrument. The main objective of the study of scales is to physically anchor, through repetition, the suitable fingering for each situation, which in the words of Bourdieu (1977) quoted by Loïc Wacquant (2003: 60), leads to the replacement of the “savage body … with a ‘body habituated,’—that is, temporally structured.”
The young musicians’ absolute commitment to practising their instrument, measured by the amount of personal work to which they subject themselves, is thus embodied in ascetic behaviours. Cutting ties with the profane world, overcoming physical pain and learning through repetition are ascetic practices that function like the negative rites evidenced by Durkheim (2008). These negative rites, which all future professionals must observe, distinguish young musicians as extraordinary individuals. As they successfully conform to ascetic practices which are in essence binding and coercive—and as such filter out a number of aspirants—future professionals reinforce their belief and the belief of others in the authenticity of their vocation.
The conditions in which this discipline of the body and mind appears require analysis. Again, the factors identified here conflict with indigenous views. Indeed, common wisdom in music attributes ascetic behaviours to a passionate relationship to music and to the instrument. The argument is that musicians give up on the outside world and seek perfection through hard work because they “fall in love” with music at a very early stage in their practice. Instead of an obligation, their work is presented as the fulfilment of a passion, as Jacques, the aforementioned trumpet player, explains:
“I really liked it very much. Before that, I wanted to study medicine. But if my mother was still here, she’d tell you that right after finishing my yoghurt I would go downstairs and practise my trumpet. I wasn’t working; I was playing. I was playing, working on things beyond my teacher’s homework. I’d play Telemann, Handel, Tartini, etc. I had fun. I used to play quite a lot, really. … And then I’m telling you, once I put this here [he points to his trumpet, and then to his lips], and played, I went: ‘Well, that’s what it’s going to be. Not medicine.’”
This passionate discourse, equating work with pleasure15—as is shown by the indifferent use of “playing” and “working”—presents the adoption of ascetic practices as the consequence of a personal conversion motivated by individual desire. According to this view, the musician’s total commitment to practice is dictated by the almost magical encounter between an instrument and an individual made to play it, who subsequently develops a passionate relationship to music activity and puts all their energy into improving16. While I do not question the agents’ belief in this model, it is important to demonstrate that ascetic practices are not as self-evident as they are thought to be. The cult of effort and the sense of work are jointly inculcated by family members and teachers.
The pedagogic work of the professors thus contributes to progressively instilling a work discipline in young musicians. From the early stages of their education, they are issued with recommendations by teachers pertaining to the volume and nature of individual practice. They are given homework each week, in the form of pieces or scales to practise. Teachers strongly emphasize the necessity of doing this individual practice, without which young musicians cannot improve and advance in the curriculum. They check at the beginning of each class whether homework has been done. Each class begins with the repetition of a scale and the study of a piece sight-read at home. Children who do not meet the teachers’ demands face scathing reprimands. In addition to the injunctions to do homework, discipline is also drilled in class. Teachers favour learning through repetition. A short passage may be examined painstakingly for several minutes and replayed multiple times until the student’s performance proves satisfactory. Such teaching methods, laying emphasis on repetition and meticulous action, drive home the idea that instrumental technique can only be perfected through hard work.
This gives a sense of the dullness of music education. Students do not associate classes with enjoyment or self-fulfilment; they are phases of intensive, repetitive work where they learn to suffer—both in the form of the physical toll on their bodies and of moral dissatisfaction in the face of their struggles with the instrument. Each class is an opportunity to inculcate ascetic behaviours, reinforced by the teachers’ demands regarding homework. Student-teacher relationships also contribute to reinforcing adherence to this work discipline. The search for approval and praise from a teacher they consider to be a “master” (Wagner 2004) is part of what drives young musicians to commit to such hard work.
This ascetic relationship to playing an instrument does not solely operate in conservatories. Families are also part of the process, as they encourage in more or less explicit terms these young musicians to comply with teachers’ demands (Burland & Davidson 2004). In musicians’ families, the inculcation of ascetic practices involves the transmission of a musical ethos—a “moral sense” of playing an instrument17. Parents, persuaded of the necessity and merit of total commitment to the instrumental activity, having experienced it themselves, cannot conceive of their child’s instrumental education other than from the angle of asceticism. Hence, they consider intensive individual practice to be a moral obligation for their offspring. This transmission can take on relatively soft forms, based on imitation, but it can also be much more coercive, as in the case of Jeanne the cellist:
“There were days when my mother would lock me inside because she thought I wasn’t practising enough … She’d constantly yell at me: ‘Go and practise!’, ‘Go and practise!’”
Musicians’ families, it should be noted, do not have a monopoly on the inculcation of ascetic practices. This relationship to asceticism is not specific to the music ethos. One finds it in the petit-bourgeois work ethic (Bourdieu 2013) that also characterizes individuals with aspirations of upward mobility18. Thus, families with no musical background may pass on a “moral sense” of work that ties in with the demands of music education. Perceiving the rigour of music education and the imperatives of total commitment to playing an instrument as a “moral education founded on the virtue of a commitment to work” (Laillier 2011: 79), parents encourage the adoption of ascetic practices. Without necessarily dreaming of a professional future for their children, but anticipating the benefits of a socialization that emphasizes effort, such parents, inspired by the petit-bourgeois ethic, offer a framework that is conducive to the bodily internalization of ascetic practices.
Total commitment to playing an instrument should therefore be interpreted as the activation of inherited dispositions that support representations of professional activity in terms of self-sacrifice. Families also provide some of the conditions for activating these dispositions. Indeed, the material and symbolic investments made during music education encourage young instrumentalists to offer their families symbolic compensation—the minimal form of which being total commitment to learning the instrument. The purchase of the instrument and sheet music, enrolment in a conservatory and on internships, and help and demonstrations of support at auditions and concerts are all family gifts that work as a condition of a counter-gift from young musicians, which necessarily involves the demonstration of their investment in playing an instrument (Mauss 2011). As the domestic economy operates according to a specific logic based on exchanging symbolic goods (Bourdieu 1998), young musicians are bound by a form of moral obligation to respond to family investments by adopting a personal work discipline.
Like belief in the gift, ascetic behaviours are the outcome of a collective socialization process jointly involving families and music education institutions. Talent and asceticism come to form an inseparable pairing that is a core component of the instrumentalist’s vocation: without belief in talent, there is no ascetic investment and no virtuosity. We should therefore refrain from setting the “illusion of the gift” against “the realism of work, as this realism ignores the force of illusion19,” and confers a naturalizing dimension on the sense of vocation.
At this stage in the analysis, I have examined the principles of the early construction of a sense of vocation in future musicians. Pursuing this analysis further requires investigation into how this vocation materializes in the labour market and—more specifically when it comes to the population under study—in the form of teaching careers. This brings me to note the diversity of the paths which lead to a career in teaching. The stages at which the young musicians turn away from the most prestigious performing positions (as full-time orchestra members or international soloists) and progressively turn to teaching do not happen at the same points in the interviewees’ trajectories.
Part of the population (one in five musicians) renounces the “great occupations” of music (Zunigo 2010) during the course of their training, and as a result does not take the entrance exam to access the top national music conservatories (hereafter CNSM). Having been persuaded by their teachers and the very organization of the education system that they will be unable to reach instrumental excellence, these musicians internalize a “sense of musical limitations20” at a very early point, making teaching the only possible outcome of their training. This shows how effective the music education system is. Not only does it produce instrumentalists who go on to hold the highest positions, but it also turns out musicians that are destined to hold lower positions which they can be content with21. Being based on continual differentiation according to the innate musical skills or the “talent” of instrumentalists, this training system is able to impose a particular form of ranking on musicians that appears all the more legitimate to them as it is constructed on a naturalistic model that all instrumentalists subscribe to. As the ideology of the gift is crucial to their being chosen, these young instrumentalists are bound to support a naturalistic ranking system even as it steers them towards the lower levels of the music hierarchy before they have completed their training. This early awareness leads to a form of self-exclusion; they curb their ambitions and develop a positive perception of teaching work.
The CNSM entrance exam is a second milestone in the differentiation of instrumentalists’ trajectories. It introduces selection between those who pass, for whom professionalization is now a given22, and who may continue to aspire to excellence, and those who fail, whose access to musical occupations is uncertain and who only have a clear future in teaching. In this sense, this exam works as an act of institution that “creates differences of all or nothing” (Bourdieu 1982: 120). For the unsuccessful candidates (a third of the population), failure is brutal. They lose their illusions regarding their dreams of musical grandeur, and have to deal with their inability to meet the expectations of their families and teachers. Indeed, the project of enrolling in a CNSM requires support from teachers, in the form of a recommendation allowing access to a preparatory course for the exam, and support from family—both financial, to pay for the costs of preparation23 and moral, as the student’s objective is by nature uncertain24. Being the consequence of a failure, their change of trajectory towards teaching is perceived as relegation in the music world.
The third model of trajectory leading to teaching concerns half of the population under study—those who have been to a CNSM. For these instrumentalists who have the highest possible training in classical music, the challenge posed by the structure of the labour market is the reason for pursuing a teaching career, since studying at a CNSM is an almost mandatory condition (Lehmann 2005) but does not guarantee access to the most prized positions. The low number of international soloists and the fierce competition in exams for full-time positions in orchestras (Ravet 2007) steer many a CNSM graduate towards teaching. The logics of such trajectories reflect the social inequalities that structure the music labour market. To understand them, we must recall that there is a division between the families of string instruments—with a predominance of women and high social backgrounds—and wind instruments—where men with lower social backgrounds prevail (Coulangeon 2004; Lehmann 2005). This social divide is reflected in inequalities in the labour market. Wind players have a more restricted set of professional opportunities, particularly in the field of performance, than the more socially “noble” string players (Pégourdie 2015a); they more often have to make do with a teaching position. This instrumental and social inequality in the labour market comes with gender inequality. Within the feminized group of string players, we observe a vertical gender segregation mechanism that makes access to dominant positions difficult for women (Coulangeon & Ravet 2003). Wind players and female string players thus tend to turn to teaching. They must then cope with these instrumental and social inequalities and reconcile teaching with their high-level training25.
Having been persuaded of their gift and used to an ascetic vision of music practice during their training, classical instrumentalists must face the reality of their condition as a teacher as they enter the professional world. They have failed to reach the leading positions in the classical music field and their associated symbolic rewards. Having renounced their aspirations of excellence, they also face a possible challenge to the very foundations of their vocations. To deal with such disillusion and maintain their vocations, they must reassess teaching and grant it symbolic value. This involves turning to a variety of reassurance strategies focusing on the supposed social functions of music education. They maintain their vocation by resorting to interpretations of teaching, the mechanisms of which differ according to past trajectory and current position.
The first form of reassessment of teaching is found among the most educated fraction of the teaching staff in the regional conservatory (CRR) under study: the professors. The institution, whose position is intermediate in the pyramid structure of French music education (the second of five levels), employs instrumentalists who hold prestigious music qualification: a CNSM degree and a certificate of aptitude (CA) to work as a professor of music26. Owing to the gap between their initial aspirations and the reality of their current condition, this population adopts an original discourse on teaching. These professors, who have studied at a CNSM and therefore generally envisaged a career as a performer, have a specific way of teaching and of perceiving teaching which attempts to reconcile instrumental excellence with pedagogy at a mid-level conservatory.
Their modes of perception and practice of pedagogy emphasize the close link and the complementarity between teaching and performance. In this sense, they tend to consider that the function of teaching is to enrich their artistic activity. They are adamant about the importance of the teacher’s artistic abilities and the need for he or she to play their instrument and perform in public in order to be a good teacher. Instrumental performance is conceived as a central point of pedagogic practice, thereby replacing the artistic dimension at the heart of the professional activity. All of this is summed up by the phrase: “To be a good teacher, you have to play.” Dominique, a horn teacher, explains this in the following terms:
“The only problem is that a teacher who never plays, ultimately, they’re not going to work on their instrument in class three hours a day for nothing. It’s human. … When you have ‘top students’ coming in, you have to play a score. You have to show them. It’s not like a football or swimming trainer with their stopwatch, who says ‘you should do this better,’ but without demonstrating. We play for the student; we show them. A teacher who doesn’t demonstrate anything has no class. Make no mistake, once students have spent five/six years with a teacher, they get to 14 or 15, and they can be critical. If the teacher doesn’t play or their playing is flawed, things aren’t going to work out. But if a teacher can really show the difference between what a ‘top student’ does and what they do themselves, then that’s fine. A teacher who leaves their instrument in the box and shows up without their instrument at the conservatory isn’t going to cut it.”
The central role granted to the teacher’s artistic skills in the process of transmission of musical knowledge leads teachers to reassess their teaching practice entirely and consider it as a complement to playing an instrument. Good teaching requires assiduous practice from the teacher, but teaching also allows them to improve their practice. Instead of being a one-sided relationship whereby the student simply receives the teacher’s knowledge, teaching becomes a bilateral construction in which the student’s learning process also benefits the teacher27. As teachers face the challenges of musical practice and offer solutions to overcome them, they keep perfecting their own instrumental technique. Elizabeth, a concert flute teacher, points to the complementarity between teaching and performance:
“I consider them to be two complementary jobs. To be able to teach kids what you need to do with an instrument, the way to play a given piece, the way you convey emotions, you need to be able to do it yourself. That’s why you need to keep playing, and to play in front of an audience, too, so that you always understand what to teach. Teaching is the same. It allows you to spot some mistakes in students and correct them, and then to ask yourself whether you’re not making the same mistakes as well. At times, you come to realize that you’re not playing a particular passage right. And then you correct it and you get better when you play in an orchestra.”
By redefining teaching as a space for research and reflection on the musician’s artistic practice, teachers internalize the model of the artist who is ceaselessly striving towards aesthetic perfection28. However, such a redefinition of teaching is only conceivable with students who have reached a sufficient level of instrumental maturity—not with beginners. In effect, the variable used by teachers to assess their practice is the number of students who have secured professional status or enrolled in a CNSM. Teachers rely on the professional careers subsequently followed by students to value the quality of their work and consider themselves to be talented musicians. Everything happens as if the students’ musical skills where the reflection of the teachers’ own dispositions. Students thus come to fulfil a disembodied function as symbolic goods, and indirectly contribute to the redefinition of their teachers as pedagogues and artists. Teaching promising young instrumentalists becomes an object of struggle among music teachers. The necessity of grooming “top students” is illustrated here by Yves, a saxophone teacher:
“The thing is, I was trained at the Paris CNSM, I have a Certificate of Aptitude, which is a nationally recognized teaching degree; except I’m asked to teach and to sort of forget about these degrees I received. That’s where the trouble lies and that’s where the job loses value—they’re forcing a curriculum and a new training on you that no longer matches my job description. To me, that means we’re no longer going to focus on the same people. It doesn’t mean I was only supposed to work with pre-professionals, because they make up a very small fraction of students in a conservatory. But I had hopes of having some of those students. And that’s what’s happening today. I have students who are applying for Paris [CNSM]; one of them got into an international jazz school.”
This redefinition of teaching as an activity that is intrinsically linked to and complements instrumental performance actually ties with the very nature of the work done by several of the teachers I met for this research. Unlike other structures, the provincial CRR under study encourages the pursuit of both teaching and performance. Thus, a number of teachers are both part-time members of a symphonic orchestra and holders of a position at the CRR. In such cases, the complementarity between teaching and performance is made tangible by the coexistence of their two statuses: their discourse connecting teaching and performance is perfectly adjusted to their practice. As this model of redefinition of teaching fits the concrete reality of their professional activity, they have a positive approach to teaching, which they include in their global artistic practice. The fit between the process of the reassessment of teaching and the nature of their activities is, however, not so evident for teachers who do not play in an orchestra. To avoid becoming disenchanted with teaching, they have to find ways to nurture their unfulfilled ambitions in occasional performances as soloists and/or in chamber music ensembles.
The second model of reassessment of teaching is also found in the CRR under study, in teachers with lower positions—namely, the assistants. They are holders of a state diploma (DE) and did not graduate from a CNSM. Yet most envisaged, upon reaching adulthood, enrolling in such a prestigious conservatory. Unfortunately, repeated failures at the entrance exam closed the door on elite training, and barred them from accessing the dominant positions in the classical music field. Left to cope with the brutal end of their dreams of musical grandeur, they are forced to embrace a teaching career in a lower position, as obtaining a CA is strongly correlated with studying at a CNSM. This career shift can, however, does not come without its cost. They cannot entertain the prospect of practising at a low-level conservatory because it would be too wide a gap between their initial aspirations and their current activity, and etch in stone an extreme form of music relegation which they were not prepared to consider. Thus, as soon as they complete their musical education, they do everything in their power to secure a job at a mid-level institution, meaning that they mainly apply for work at CRRs.
This overwhelming preference for regional conservatories implicitly points to the sense of downclassing that often threatens these assistants and fuels their traditionalist concepts of teaching29. They readily criticize the laxness of teachers in small conservatories and present themselves as guarantors of a high-level teaching that contributes to the reproduction of the musical corps. Their perception of music education is a rigorist one, which closely mirrors the model to which they have been subjected during their own training. They focus on passing on classical aesthetic canons and techniques, on training “quality” young musicians—meaning musicians with a perfect command of classical instrumental technique. In the pursuit of this ideal, any attempt at playing down the most manifest aspects of the inculcation of ascetic practice will be rejected for failing to comply with the traditional model. They expect daily personal work on the instrument from the very beginning of the musician’s education, seeing it as the only way to improve. This causes some students who are unable or unwilling to meet such demands to drop out early. Although we will see that these early defections are perceived as a problem by teachers in the CRC, this is not the case at the CRR. CRR assistants believe that is normal for students who do not meet the demands of music education to give up or even be pushed out—as is related here by Catherine, a violin teacher:
“At the higher levels, students drop out more often, because things get hard. There are also those who might be a little bit less gifted than others, or they don’t work. Already at the end of the first cycle, you have a selection that’s being made. Some of them can’t go beyond the first cycle and some won’t even pass their first cycle exam, and then unfortunately they’ll be out. Well, I say ‘unfortunately,’ but we can’t keep every student, anyway.”
These teachers do not question the effectiveness of this traditional model of teaching. They argue that students drop out or are excluded not because the model is inadequate, but because it is increasingly difficult for children who are more and more reluctant to work in their own time to accept its demands. In this sense, the assistants fit the model of members of declining social categories who, in the words of Pierre Bourdieu (2013: 347), manifest “in all their preferences regressive dispositions which are no doubt the source of their repressive inclinations, particularly visible in their reactions to every sign of departure from the old order, not least of course, the behaviour of young people.” Anne-Marie, a piano teacher, regrets a lack of commitment from her students:
“They work a lot less, anyway. And that’s an issue, and one that’s quite widespread. They’re a generation who tend to be channel-hoppers. And to come back to the word ‘constraint’ which I used earlier, when they have too many constraints, they give up. They have less grit than we used to, really. And that’s the issue, I have to say.”
In response to this perceived dilettantism, assistants hammer away at their students to instil a rigorous work ethic in them. In this sense, they reframe music education within a broader effort to put youth to work30. Music teaching is given a social function that extends beyond instrumental education and helps to create a sense of discipline among students, and an awareness that hard work is the condition of excellence—again in the words of Anne-Marie:
“As soon as they’ve got a constraint, especially when they understand that there’s a constraint to work, that you have to work every day, well that can be a little bit unsettling for them, and they struggle with it quite often. So our role is to make them understand that it’s training. I take examples from everyday life to try to make them understand that working every day is hugely important… I guarantee rigour and quality. It’s almost a shame that there aren’t enough music schools that work in the same way as we do at the conservatory. Anyway, you can’t be a swimming champion if you don’t train five times a week. You can’t be one of the greats. I mean, it is with work that you get quality.”
The third form of redefinition of teaching is found in the teachers of the most modest conservatory: the CRC. These teachers are characterized by their fit with their function. They are less educated (holders of a DE or non-graduates) and have not studied at a CNSM. In fact, the overwhelming majority (around 75% at the CRC studied) have never taken the CNSM entrance exam. Having had to curb their ambitions, they find positions in low-level conservatories located in their region of origin thanks to their networks in local musical circles. These teachers have a distinct perception of their pedagogic practice. As they are quite familiar with the structure of the French music education system, of which they are products, they are well aware that in lower-level institutions, much of the work is devoted to beginners or students who have not progressed far, as the highest-achieving students attend more prestigious institutions. They have been prepared to deal with these students and it creates a specific relationship to teaching.
In light of this, the main concern of these teachers lies in channelling the “love of music,” a phrase that reflects their will to stick with their young students as long as possible. They are intent on making sure that students do not drop out and reach a decent level on their instrument. Their preoccupation consists in training amateurs to good standards, so that once they leave the CRC, they are able to “manage” musically and to “enjoy themselves” when they play. To achieve this, they focus all their efforts on the need to refrain from “putting students off” playing an instrument. This ambition leads these teachers to adopt a special pedagogic model. First, they strive to create a close relationship with their students. Breaking with the master/pupil dichotomy, they seek to forge a bond with students to make them invest in playing an instrument. Then, they make an effort to listen to the children’s wishes when it comes to practice pieces. This leads them to make frequent excursions out of the classical repertoire and into contemporary music, jazz, and pop. This is illustrated by Delphine, a piano teacher:
“I really do try to choose pieces depending on the student’s character. It’s nicer, let’s say, as students are more eager to work on a piece that you’ve chosen according to their personality. Considering the repertoire we have on the piano, I think it’d be a bit of a shame to force them to do pieces they don’t like when there are so many different things to choose from … Once in a while, one of them’ll bring me their pop collection, and even if I’m not into the singer, I’ll give them some of their stuff to work on because that’s the type of thing that’ll motivate them.”
This open-minded approach to other music genres reflects these teachers’ own practice. Unlike the other previously studied teachers, they have no qualms about venturing beyond the confines of classical music in their (rare) jobs as performers. As their sense of their own limitations makes them shy away from tackling the classical repertoire, they mainly turn to jazz and world music in their instrumental output, as they believe those genres to be better suited to their skills. Although they bring other genres of music into their teaching, the CRC teachers remain keen to channel the classical repertoire and style. However, to make sure that this goes down well, they frame this within an educational approach. They would rather occasionally open up to other genres that suit the young peoples’ tastes than systematically force classical pieces on them. Having appealed to them in this way, they then try to gently ease them into the classical aesthetic.
These pedagogic strategies31 are combined with a slightly more relaxed approach to individual practice. While the latter is still strongly recommended and monitored, both the amount of work required and the consequences of failing to do the work are far smaller than in CRRs. Likewise, the obligation to attend theory classes is far less strict32. While these classes are mandatory up to the end of secondary education in CRRs, children in CRCs can stop attending them after completing primary education. The rigor and classicism of teaching in CRRs relate to that structure’s position in the pyramid scheme of French music education and to the tools allowing its teachers with lower degrees (the assistants) to symbolically distinguish themselves from their counterparts in CRCs. Here, their more overtly coercive aspects are challenged.
Being aware that music is often little more than a hobby among others for their students, the CRC teachers adopt their approach to highlight the most playful dimensions of music education to keep students attending for as long as possible. They are willing to do so not only because they have internalized the realities of their jobs at an early stage, but also because they are able to reinterpret this approach almost as a form of activism. By setting themselves the goal of ingraining a “love of music” in children who might not initially share this love in order to produce amateur instrumentalists with an awareness of classical music, they claim their adherence to a progressive ethic, which strives towards the democratization and massification of music practice33. This ethical reassessment of the meaning of their job leads them to reconsider their own relegation in the music world. They may hold low-level positions, train beginners instead of professionals, and as such fall short of the criteria for excellence in the music world, but they contribute to the diffusion of instrumental knowledge and to fostering an interest in music in society. To them, this gives their work much more of an impact than the training of professionals and the rigorist teaching of their colleagues in CRRs. This is how Didier, the director of the CRC under study, explains his institution’s mission:
“The conservatory’s job is to teach the masses, it’s to have everyone learn music, right? But the big problem is that often when someone learns music in a school or in private lessons, they’ll practice an instrument and then they’ll find themselves alone at home. And they’re going to drop their instrument, put it aside and never play anymore. So the point of what we do is to get the kids used to a group dynamic, to playing with others, to enjoying themselves. And mostly to being seen, playing here and there so that ultimately, once they leave the conservatory, they’ll still feel like playing with others. If we succeed in doing this, even if we don’t turn out good students, if the people who leave us go on to meet up among friends to make music, our work is done. […] I’ll always remember an argument with a colleague, a piano teacher in a CRR, who was telling me: ‘I’ve succeeded, I have. Don’t you realize, over the course of my career, I’ve had two of my former students become teachers.’ That really pisses me off, because if we’re teachers and we’re here to train people who’ll in turn be teachers, then that makes no sense. Our goal is to train musicians, professionals or amateurs. Actually, we mostly produce amateurs, thankfully. I’m happier when a student leaves here and continues to play instead of ending up teaching. That’s not the point.”
My analysis of the determining factors of instrumentalists’ trajectories uncovers the key role played by the music education system in the birth and maintenance of vocations. The myth of the “uncreated creator,” untouched by any sort of formal teaching, appears to be completely at odds with the representations and trajectories of instrumentalists. Regarding this, the classical music sector differs from other artistic occupations which are characterized jointly by a denial of the benefits of the education system and an emphasis on innateness34. This singularity of classical music derives from its distinct modes of learning.
First, in classical music the education system does not contradict belief in the gift of artists. Instead, due to its organization, it contributes to the production of collective belief in the musician’s innate qualities and talent. It does not conflict with family legacies, but facilitates the transposition of inherited dispositions into natural skills. The music education system does not oppose the innate and the acquired; it postulates their necessary coexistence. Secondly, it nurtures ascetic behaviours and an austere, repetitive work ethic in the vocation of being a professional musician. For classical musicians, the gift itself is not enough: one must cultivate it and develop it through hard work. Having a vocation means not only being gifted, but also proving one’s devotion by fully committing to playing an instrument to the point of self-sacrifice. Demonstrating this commitment involves a dull, formalized learning process focused on conforming to the aesthetic canons and technical demands of conservatories, which inculcate aesthetic practices and monitor the commitment of young instrumentalists. Submission to a work ethic, a sign of deference to the value of the stakes involved and to musical tradition, is both produced and monitored by the music education system, which holds a monopoly on the production of instrumentalists who are dedicated to the illusio of the classical music field.
This dedication explains what motivates teachers to find forms of re-enchantment of their vocation by reinterpreting their pedagogic practice even when they are deprived of the symbolic rewards associated with the dominant positions. However, these forms differ according to their trajectory and position. Those best endowed in capital can hold on to the myth of art for art’s sake, whereas the less endowed turn to more social redefinitions of their work—traditionalist approaches focused on putting young people to work, or progressive implementations of a cultural democratization ideal.