Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the center of the world. ―John Burroughs, Studies in Nature and Literature
I am feeling very grateful today that I grew up in the US, that there is the great college system and that my parents were able to finance my dream to study music. It was an amazing privilege that I didn’t recognize at the time but the contrast of how things work here in Germany is bringing into focus.
In Germany, most schooling is “free” including University. For college, you have to pay a nominal fee, somewhere around 500 Euro a year or semester but as a result the universities can be and are very choosy about who they take and who they don’t take. There is no such thing as elite university but there is a “numerus clausus”, which means you have to have a certain grade point average to study the most popular subjects. That is supposed to restrict the number of people who study subjects like law, medicine and psychology (which in some schools is a grade average actually higher than for medicine or law).
In the performing arts, there is an intense audition process where people get bounced out like at a Broadway Cattle Call. In music, you not only have to show your abilities in your instrument in an audition but also usually in piano and music theory. Regardless of how good your audition is, if your scores in the other tests are not high enough you are not considered. There are also very limited places available in each department because each teacher only has a few open spaces each year, especially since in Germany you can study as long as it takes. I met singers in my first summer in Germany who were in the mid-thirties and officially still considered university “students”, which means they were holding places in a teacher’s roster at a school although they were working professionally as singers. The best way – if not the only way – to get a place to study is to be studying with a teacher privately outside of the university so that they can fight for you with the audition committee.
As a result, only a chosen few are allowed to study music in Germany. That doesn’t mean that they are the best. A friend of mine was on a placement committee at her university and a singer made it into the school only because his teacher sat on the committee and insisted that he be taken although my friend thought he should take up plumbing. I taught a young singer with lots of promise and a great desire to be a singer, excellent piano skills and had been taking music theory classes for 3 years. We made a connection for her with the head of the voice department at the school where she wanted to study. She took a lesson with him. He promised he would fight for her. She didn’t get in. When she tried to contact him to find out what it was that she was missing – if for no other reason than to help her improve – he never responded to her inquiries. She was so devastated that she ended up choosing a totally different subject to study.
Another student of mine who was also promising left me to work privately with different teacher because that teacher as much as promised that she could get the student into the university where the teacher worked. That was important because this student didn’t have piano skills and had never had any music theory classes. I lost track of her and only recently found out that she didn’t get in to that school. According to social media, she doesn’t have a job, isn’t working on something else. Another sad case.
In the US, it is all about money – even more now than when I went to school -but at least there was a chance for someone coming from a middle class family and of course we took out loans. I don’t know if I would have been taken by an elite school like Julliard or Cincinnati but I never auditioned there because the tuition was way beyond my parent means. I had piano lesson but I wasn’t particularly good and the only music theory I had was in a self taught class in high school. But I skinned through the entrance exam and apparently showed enough promise at the audition to be accepted (funny enough I never considered any other possibility) and I was able to start the incredible journey that I have had. What a privilege. What would my life have been like if I had grown-up here? Amazing thought.