One out of two students at a German music conservatory comes from abroad. Those who pass their concert exam have a good shot at the international market, though getting to that point is not easy.
Piano professor Gerlinde Otto has a poster in her office that says "students of the music academy in Weimar can attend concerts and theater performances free of charge." Unfortunately, her Asian piano students don't really take advantage of the offer. "I keep telling them how important it is to go to concerts and opera here in order to learn something about classical culture and not just to learn to play their instruments perfectly," she said.
Of the 923 students at the University of Music Franz Liszt in Weimar, over 46 percent come from abroad and a third from Asia. South Koreans and Chinese in particular want to study there, followed by students from Russia and Spain. The situation is similar at the 24 other music academies in Germany, all tuition-free.
Germany: classical music frontrunner
With a bachelor's degree in vocal performance from South Korea, Ye Eun Choi came to Germany six years ago to get her master's and take her concert exam at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Frankfurt. Currently engaged at the Cologne Opera, she told DW, "With so many theaters and opera houses in Germany, there are more opportunities here than in Korea. And the quality of the opera performances is first-rate."
Kasumi Itokawa (article picture) of Japan is soon to take her Master's exam for harp. "In Japan, you play a lot of solo harp, but I wanted to learn orchestral performance," she said. She too says that there are many more opportunities for classical musicians in Germany than in her homeland. The German Music Council lists 129 publicly-financed symphony orchestras in Germany alone, plus chamber orchestras and specialized ensembles. Added to that are 80 permanent opera ensembles, almost as many as in the rest of the world combined.
The prestige of music studies in Germany
Piano is a particularly popular instrument among students. Anyone who returns home from Germany with a concert exam has a good shot at making a career in an orchestra or being appointed to a professorship. Music studies in Germany go along with high prestige, particularly in Asian countries. "Good instruments and lessons can cost a fortune, so there are high expectations and a lot of family pressure," said piano instructor Gerlinde Otto.
Of some 300 applicants in the discipline of piano, only about ten are ultimately accepted. Apart from performance proficiency, a good command of German is required for admission, level B2 at least. "It also depends on musicality and sensitivity," said Otto, "not just on technical proficiency."
Nicolas Pasquet, orchestra director at the Franz Liszt University of Music in Weimar, said that the same applies to conducting studies. "We are very restrictive," he noted. "If you want to conduct here, you have to speak German in order to communicate with the orchestra." Weimar has the reputation of being a forge for conductors. "We've built that up over the past 20 years and are definitely number one in Germany and Europe."
First, the entrance exam
Gerlinde Otto's piano students all come from other countries for the simple reason that they did better on the entrance exam. In general, students' level of proficiency has risen rapidly in recent years, she says — also because Asian students have very high technical skills. Time and again, media and music academy professionals ponder whether the tests should be organized differently, allowing room for a musical development that is worth waiting for before making an early judgement.
The Cologne Academy of Music and Dance grapples with those issues. "German competitions like Jugend musiziert (Youth Makes Music) are highly demanding, but only few prizewinners make it to the music academies," says Tilmann Claus, the academy's vice-rector, adding that some of them probably don't dare apply due to the strong competition.
The challenge of orchestral playing
The courses, however, are not easy for international students from other cultural backgrounds either, which is particularly evident in orchestras. "It was difficult for me to speak German in the orchestra and to understand the instructions, but with time things got better," says Kasumi Itokawa.
Nicolas Pasquet is well aware of the problem and sees it played out in the university orchestra all the time. Many students have to learn to listen to others while performing. "We offer musical education at a young age in Germany, so some students will already have played in school orchestras," says Pasquet, adding that that need not necessarily apply to all international students. The university professor from Uruguay originally traveled to Germany for violin studies. "I had never played in an orchestra before, and suddenly there I was, sitting in the university orchestra and trembling."
Tilmann Claus, who teaches composition and music theory at the Cologne Music Academy, points out that cultural differences are often at the root of the problem. "Western classical music has a lot to do with language, breathing and style," he argues. "You first have to learn to see things that way if you don't come from a Western culture. You have to know what a minuet is, and you have to know Mozart's music."
Foreign ties important
Music academies offer exchange programs that allow students to broaden their horizons. Weimar's Franz Liszt University of Music is currently planning two complementary conducting courses in the US, explains Jens Ewen, director of academic and student affairs and head of the school's international office. The courses are organized in cooperation with the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in the city of Bloomington. Conducting in Weimar is "highly sophisticated, with many professional orchestras in the surrounding area that students can work with," he says. The school in Bloomington, on the other hand, has very well trained in-house orchestras, so instruction can always be given with a live orchestra. In Weimar, in contrast, the emphasis is on theory.
Claus envies his Weimar colleagues for that city's orchestral environment. The Academy in Cologne — with 1,500 students Germany's largest institution of higher learning in the performing arts — specializes in early music, composition and jazz. It also cooperates with the Cologne Opera Studio. For a year or two, eight talented young singers from the studio receive instruction at the Cologne Music Academy and are given the opportunity to perform on the big operatic stage.
Stay in Germany or return home?
"In Germany, soloists are employed at an opera house," says Ye Eun Choi, adding that in her native Korea, agencies book singers only for individual performances. She would like to stay in Germany. Her family is proud that she is making a career there: She is in the ensemble of the current production of the opera Carmen at the Cologne Opera.
After finishing her MA, Kasumi Itokawa would like to play in a German orchestra for a while before returning to Japan or another Asian country. The market is highly competitive. Without a degree, finding work in Germany or in Asian countries is equally difficult. But Kasumi Itokawa has already worked with professional orchestras in Weimar, so she is confident she will find a job after all.