Since I started teaching at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland I’ve been asked many times by colleagues about the ins-and-outs of working as a music teacher and performer in La Belle France. It appears that many artistically-minded people are rethinking their lifestyles and seriously considering popping across la Manche. Having worked as a music teacher and performer in the Dordogne for seven years, I’d like to share my experience with readers. In this blog, I’ll look at opportunities for classroom teachers, instrumental teachers, where one can apply, performance opportunities, the importance of the language and many more things you may need to consider.
Classroom Teaching France has a highly-structured and long-established syllabus and set of principles. To be a classroom teacher in France is a prized line of employment. Students must gain the necessary teaching diplomas in France (the equivalent of a PGCE) and teachers-to-be will find themselves posted to schools across the country in order to complete their training. Unfortunately, the UK qualification, the PGCE is not recognised in France at the time of writing. There has been talk to suggest that this may change but one can only feel that with Brexit looming, such intelligent cooperation and collaboration will be restricted further. Who knows, maybe UK teachers will be forced to teach Morris Dancing and Land of Hope and Glory as core repertoire in the 2020’s while the French will focus on Edith Piaf and looking sultry.
There is hope though for Brits desperate to use their PGCE in France and that is to investigate France’s network of International Schools. Some of these teach the GCSE and AS/A Level systems so qualified Brits will be welcomed with open arms. I taught at such a school for four years and was giving freedom to teach pretty much as I saw appropriate. There was an emphasis on delivering performances at Christmas, summer and for open days which gave us valid targets. I also made films with my students and held rock band nights. It was a lot of fun and a pleasure to be free from the restraints of a rigid syllabus. I had a low take-up of AS/A level music, but was able to work in very small groups and consequently, achieve good results.
Instrumental teachers have more opportunities. Those wishing to work at conservatoire level will probably have no difficulty as such teachers will be employed on reputation rather than qualifications or an interview. A proven track record in the industry will is likely to be your most powerful tool. In French schools, there are no visiting peripatetic instrumentals tutors as in the UK (despite austerity’s best efforts). Instead, most learners will find their lessons either at an école municipal de musique, an association or via private tuition.
Ecole Municipale de Musique
Medium-sized towns and upwards will have an école municipale run by the mairie or town council. Lessons are usually subsidised for all by the council, regardless of age or social status. I enjoyed some very happy years working in the Ecole Municipale de Musique in the town of Coutras in the Gironde. I should point out here that I was successful in gaining this employment without a PGCE. I do hold an instrumental teaching diploma with Trinity College (an LTCL) but I am unsure as to how much difference this really made. My interview focused very much on my experience, teaching philosophy and publications (I have written tutor books). My main concern was avoiding putting my foot in it by mistranslating a question and giving a fantastically-inappropriate response.
At an école municipale, pupils are expected to attend other classes as well as their instrumental lesson, including theory (more in a moment) and choir. My challenge was that some of my pupils were teenage metal freaks so learning theory and singing in the choir was about as motivating as a Health and Safety seminar in a Slough branch of Waitrose.
Of course I recognise the value of theory and singing but the multi-faceted element of the guitar and its repertoire led to tension and dissatisfaction amongst some pupils. The problem was the complete lack of flexibility offered by the system – a characteristic often seen across French education. Pupils were also obliged to sit an exam at the end of the year. This was a pre-set piece given by a faceless body somewhere in Paris. I felt the pieces were often far too challenging for many students and that there was an assumption that everyone would be able to learn at the same pace. Some colleagues believe in the system passionately, but for those seeking greater freedom, you’d be better off working for an association.
Cities, towns and even the smallest villages will have a network of associations enhancing the cultural, sporting and social lives of the inhabitants. At its most simple level, an association is set up by someone, or a group of people, wanting offer activities on a local level. This can be anything from music lessons to Tai Chi, basketball to needlecraft. They vary in their levels of sophistication. I worked for one association which had been set up by a piano teacher. He was able to benefit from the use of a room owned by the mairie. I was given a key to this room and I would teach there one day per week. There were no colleagues to speak of so I felt as if I was acting as a self-employed teacher. It is possible that you will be required to deal with your own admin – including pay – which I, for one, would find uncomfortable. Other associations are large-scale affairs. I worked for another which was run by a council of volunteers. Despite being located in a small rural village, the music school offered lessons in guitar, bass, saxophone, clarinet, piano, voice, drums and trumpet. It also hosted a 20-piece big band and a choir. It ended up punching well above its weight as teachers with higher-status jobs recognised the pleasure to be had in teaching without the constraints of a fixed syllabus. More often than not, they brought half their pupils with them too. We had a ball in that little old school building, creating rock bands, jazz ensembles and the like. Staff meetings lasted for hours on end; half an hour to discuss matters of administration and three-and-a-half hours to sample and discuss the merits of the local wine producers’ wares. Our store cupboard looked like Keith Richard’s drinks cabinet.
As associations bring benefits to communities, particularly rural ones, it is possible that the mairie will chip in financially or offer the use of buildings for lessons. A mairie should recognise that if someone brings a child to a village for a music lesson, there’s a sporting chance that they’ll use the tabac, boulangerie or café at the same time. If your village is yet to start an association for music lessons, why not pop in to the maire to discuss the possibility of starting one? This may help you to decide where to live as well.
Solfege and music theory
Anglophone music teachers are often anxious about using the ‘do, re, mi’ system in France. This concern stems from a misunderstanding linked to the Kodaly system. In France, music is taught using the ‘fixed do’ system. By this we mean that the note ‘C’ is always ‘do’. It is a simple question of translation so, the following is the case: C – do, D – ré, E – mi, F – fa, G – sol, A – la, B – ti. You’re going to have to learn French so learning new note names is frankly, the least of it. In the case of the variable or movable ‘do’ Kodaly system, the note ‘do’ is always the tonic. Therefore, if you are playing (or usually singing in Kodaly training) in F# major, the note F# is ‘do’. This helps students to identify the sounds and functions of tonic and dominant pitches amongst others. It’s an excellent technique but a totally different thing.
Contracts and… Yes, Pay
Ah… The elephant in the room. Firstly, you’ll need to find a job for which you can apply. Look up ‘Pole-Emploi’ online. This is essentially the French equivalent of The Job Centre. It has a keyword search box so look up ‘professeur de guitare’ and matching jobs will pop up. You may notice the letters CDD or CDI adjacent to the job description. The former stands for Contract Duration Determinée and the latter, Contract Duration Indeterminée. The first is a fixed term contract. This job may be to cover maternity leave for one year for example. The second is essentially a permanent contract – much-prized in France. Frequently, a CDD will lead to a CDI. An association may employ someone for just one year to check if the person is competent. If after that time all is well and good, and if the teacher brings decent wine to staff meetings, he/she could well be offered a CDI.
I found that pay is generally quite low. I wouldn’t like to offer a figure here, but expect about 25%-40% less in comparison to a similar role in the UK. Having said that, much of your pay goes to the state in social charges or national insurance. If you are working in the French system and your income is low, you can get much of it back through a wealth of benefits so it rather balances out (mind you, who knows what will happen after Brexit, if it ever happens). My book, Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen talks about this in depth. Some associations require you to become self-employed which in France is known as being an Auto-entrepreneur. You’ll need to do this if you decide to offer private lessons. You can sign up for this online with relative ease. You will then be responsible for declaring your earnings and pay charges according to what you earn. Some associations employ external bodies to deal with pay. This means that all earnings are processed by such companies and charges dealt with. You can also to have your year’s forecast pay divided into 12 and have it paid monthly to avoid those lean holiday periods we all know only too well.
As mentioned, In French schools, there are no visiting peripatetic instrumentals tutors. At the moment, there is no ‘regular’ school on a Wednesday (although successive governments tinker with this system). Therefore, you can expect to work a twelve-hour day or a Wednesday. Saturdays are also popular as are after-school times. We had our two young children in the village school but in France, after-school care is free of charge and can be used (in rural areas) with glorious spontaneity. This was very helpful! To find full-time work, you need to seek out retirees or those being home-schooled. Some teenagers in college have very flexible timetables so can come for lessons at other times.
Perform. Let people know you’re around.
Learn French. The way to do this is to jump in at the deep end. I’m fluent and had no French lessons.
Bring something decent to drink at a staff meeting.
Look at Pole Emploi daily.
Be positive and generous. No-one likes a victim mentality.