Teaching Music in France

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.

La Famille Jones set off in 2010…

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.

Oh la la…

International Schools.

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 Teaching

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

Learn the language…

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.

Waitrose, Slough. I’m sure it’s terrific.

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.

Associations

In case your pupil is trying to communicate something REALLY important, like ‘I’m going to throw up’.

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.

Mr Richards himself

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.

Tching…

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.

When…?

Extracting Goats… a source of unparalleled wisdom.

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.

Conclusion

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.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, please re-post. To hear our story in full, order Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen here or get a signed copy by contacting the author here.

Giving Concerts in Small-Town France

Performing in the Perigord

I’d love to share with you a second extract from ‘Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen’ in which I describe the sharp contrast between concert giving in small-town France and that in urban life. I hope it makes you smile and I’d appreciate a share. ‘Extracting Goats… is published by Kellan Publishing on January 27th.

During my formative years as a classical guitarist, I soon came to understand that a formal concert in a British, urban environment is a structured and rather predictable affair. There is a code of conduct which attendees follow religiously: it is inappropriate to applaud between movements of a piece, a concert will start at 7.35pm if it is billed as 7.30pm and the performer will receive an encore – regardless of whether the audience enjoyed their evening or otherwise. How different my experiences were in our little corner of France.

Upon arrival in theDordogne, I was a musical unknown. I needed to expand my pupil base pretty sharpish and to present myself as a guitarist for concert work as there were mounting bills looming on the near horizon. The music schools for which I worked were kindly and energetic in organising events where I could showcase my playing. One of my first concerts was in the beautiful Eglise Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix in Ribérac. Here I was to share the programme with an organist, a pianist and also accompany a violinist. Upon arrival a couple of hours before the event I was thrown into a world of loosely-organised chaos, more akin to a rock gig than a classical concert. The pianist was using an electric instrument and brought along a degree of sound equipment better suited for Megadeath at Glastonbury rather than Chopin at Ribérac. There was also the preparation of the microphone for the Master of Ceremonies or, as he/she is known, the animateur or animatrice. This was my first of, sadly, many experiences of the phenomenon I refer to as Monsieur/Madame Micro. Attendees of concerts in small French towns appear to believe an evening is incomplete without a local ‘character’ bellowing benign information down a microphone at a volume akin to strapping one’s head against the landing gear of a Boeing 747 in take-off mode. More on this in a moment.

Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen

As the starting time of 8.30pm approached – notably later than in the UK – I was prepared. I had changed into a snappy suit and red shirt, completed my warm-up routine, and was poised purposefully on a pew to the left of the stage. At 8.35pm, the pianist was still unloading more equipment – reversing up a truck to the ancient oak door and gathering a team of roadies to stagger in with a second batch of bucket woofers. There was no audience. By 9.00pm, I was anxious and my normal zen-like pre-concert state had evaporated. I felt uneasy at such a casual disregard for the starting time. At least though, the church had gradually filled up nicely. It seemed the French audience knew the protocols just as a British audience knows theirs – they were just singing from a different hymn sheet. In small-town France, there is no way that a concert starts at the billed time. It is mutually understood that at 8.30pm, an audience is tucking into dessert which will be followed by an espresso and the obligatory digestif.

My dubious artistic depiction of the notorious Monsieur Micro… it’s 10.05pm and I’m yet to play a note…

Eventually, at 9.15pm, Monsieur Micro took to the stage to rapturous applause. I sensed his performance was of equal, or perhaps greater importance to that of the musicians. He proceeded to introduce the performers at a volume which would have made Pete Townshend wince, giving lengthy biographical details of each of us. This was completely unnecessary as he was simply reading the same programme notes which had been handed to every audience member in print, but it was all a necessary step in the procession of events. Whereas I was bored and mildly vexed at this further meaningless delay to the music-making, the audience appeared enraptured, nodding encouragingly at every already-communicated fragment of information. I soon found myself staring vacantly at the ancient stone domed roof above us, concerned the massive vibrations emitting from the PA may cause structural collapse and kill us all before a note was played. Suddenly, I became aware of a sustained round of applause. I looked at the audience and saw all eyes were on me. I had been introduced and, due to the mixture of 10,000 watts of power and my rudimentary knowledge of the language, I’d rather missed my cue. I hastily stood, grinned gormlessly like a kid with his hand caught stuck in the cookie jar, and took a bow.

The first performer was the organist. He was around ninety-seven years of age and barely able to lift his upper body, never mind place the necessary limbs on the organ’s keyboards and pedals. Once he had installed himself at his instrument, with generous help from a couple of gentlemen in the audience, I looked at the programme to see the works he was proposing. With considerable surprise, and admittedly some apprehension, I read that he would be offering pieces by Charles Gounod. These virtuosic and massively musically-complex works seemed an extraordinary choice of repertoire for an audience who looked more as if they were up for a touch of easy listening, and a performer who would perhaps have been more at ease in charge of a Zimmer frame.

Kirsty and me giving an outdoor concert in the summer of 2017.

He commenced, with the volume predictably turned up to eleven. As he crashed his way through the rich, dissonant harmonies – some Gounod’s, others of his own inadvertent invention – I found my face wincing into a range of contorted expressions of which I had no idea I was capable. I lost three years’ worth of tooth enamel due to a subconscious grinding induced by each wrong note. At every page-turn, he would stop, raise an arm, and agonisingly turn the sheet before continuing his war with the keyboard. The time taken to do this necessitated a substantial pause which suggested a somewhat elastic interpretation of Gounod’s rhythms. Some pauses occurred for no immediately apparent reason. At one point, I wondered if Monsieur l’Orgue had met his demise at the instrument which would, I suppose, be quite a rock ‘n’ roll way to go, but no, happily (or otherwise, depending on your musical tastes) he jerked back into life and launched into a new phase of his attack. At least these pauses allowed us respite to grab a tissue and dab at the blood discharging from our eardrums. Monsieur l’Orgue’s performance was met with rapturous applause – a standing ovation even. I have no idea who was more surprised, me or him.

Finishing a jazz gig with friends

From this, I learned an audience in the Dordogne love to hear works by a French composer. It is perhaps a reassertion of the might of their culture. Bearing in mind many in the audience were elderly, it’s possible they remember the war and therefore value their ‘Frenchness’. Secondly, I learned the French like to see a bit of effort – they recognised the gladiatorial element of the performance. Yes, all the notes were there but the audience wanted blood, sweat and tears – as if they were watching a monstrous bearded-bloke from Latvia pulling an articulated lorry in The World’s Strongest Man rather than marvelling at the subtleties of phrasing in Gounod’s melodic counterpoint. I think it also relates to the passion they have for a good spectacle, the artistic consequences being immaterial. Interestingly, the French also adore music of a Celtic origin. I arranged many traditional Celtic songs and melodies for solo guitar and placed these within a classical programme. They went down a storm. Some of them, such as the beautiful song The Water is Wide, have been rewritten with French lyrics. The original meaning is usually completely disregarded and new stories created. The other items, including my own offerings, passed off very well – the audience loving my attempts to tell them about the pieces (Bach, Weiss and Villa-Lobos I believe) in French. Monsieur Micro looked rather affronted as I was stepping into his territory.

This is my arrangement/recording of The Water is Wide, so popular in Scotland and France. In the latter country it is known as ‘La Ballade Irlandaise, popularised by the brilliant singer/songwriter Renaud. The recording is on my disc Les Cerisiers

I was interested to see and hear the courteous and reverential silence which one habitually experiences during the actual pieces was absent during this concert, and the dozens of similar events I performed at afterwards. It was regarded as perfectly acceptable practice for a group of ladies to noisily drag a table across the back of the church during the slow movement of a sonata, in preparation for the inevitable post-concert aperitif, digestif or rather charmingly named pot d’amitié (pot of friendship) which is a diplomatic way of saying ‘any excuse for a glass of hooch’. To omit this element would be akin to omitting the presence of musicians or even worse, Monsieur/Madame Micro.

Concerts were habitually of agonisingly-long length. I would frequently share programmes with choirs in the area and, during pre-concert planning meetings, I would drop to my knees and beg them to discard some of the proposed items. The response would be that the audience would enjoy such-and-such a piece or this would be a nice contrast to that piece, but when buttock has been installed on hard pew for an hour, Monsieur/Madame Micro is in full flow and you had that second glass of wine during the pre-concert aperitif, believe me, an unbroken hour of music is too long. I played at a choir festival in Perigueux and the well-meaning organiser allowed a young folk singer with a guitar to do ‘a small spot’ at the beginning of the already-groaning-at-the-seams programme. The result was the young fellow, charming as he was, did that maddening thing all folk guitarist/singers do where he mumbled indistinct introductions, telling stories which went nowhere, all the while strumming airy chords and making meaningless adjustments to his instrument’s tuning. We heard about half-an-hour of chit-chat and seven minutes of songs, all before the actual scheduled programme had begun.


Dan goes on to explain why pretending to be French at a boozy chateau weddings is a bad idea, how one should avoid flippantly offering to perform at a French funeral and how he is repeatedly mistaken for a celebrity at pop/rock gigs.

Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen is available for digital pre-order now and in can be ordered in print from January 27th 2019.