The language of music: Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp updates master’s programme


The Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp is updating its master programme in music to cater to a fast-growing international population

Rise in international students

Mikko Pablo and Nicole Miller look slightly puzzled when I tell them the Royal Conservatoire in Antwerp is starting an English-language version of its master programme in music. Both are current students, and they already work in English. But they are the reason the new option is being introduced.

“Students of 33 nationalities, from Europe and beyond, are currently following our master’s programme,” explains its head, Inge Simoens. This international population has risen strongly, from 16% foreign students in 2009 to 34% during the past academic year.

“Some of the instrument classes nowadays have more foreign students than Belgians,” she says. “The English-language master’s addresses this growing multilingual student population.”

For students like Pablo and Miller – who play cello and viola respectively – the emphasis of the programme is on performance, and their main contact is with a teacher for their particular instrument. “You speak with your personal teacher in whatever language is most comfortable,” Pablo explains.

He was born in the US, grew up in the Philippines, and then returned to Los Angeles for his undergraduate studies. After that, Europe called. “I wanted to dive deeper into the western classical tradition,” he says.

Family connections took him to Germany, where he started to look for a teacher. The name Justus Grimm, at Antwerp, stood out.

“Antwerp was not on my list of schools, but I was referred to Justus by other teachers,” he recalls. “And thank God I was, because I found the right person. He’s an incredible teacher, an incredible person and in many ways a role model for me.”

Creativity is key

Other attractions included Antwerp’s openness to mixing disciplines, for example in the creative project each master’s student must produce. “It has to involve the instrument you are studying, but other than that you can do anything you want,” Pablo says. Students can commission new work or collaborate with choreographers or dancers. “It’s a very nice opportunity to explore how we can be creative.”

Sharing a campus with the prestigious de Singel concert hall is also a plus. “All the orchestra conductors and chamber music ensembles that we’ve idolised come here and we can hang out with them,” he says.

Pablo is still thinking about his creative project, but his research project, another requirement of the programme, will be an investigation of jazz and popular music influences in Shostakovich’s Cello sonata. As well as writing a paper, in English, he will defend his findings with a performance of the work.

All the orchestra conductors and chamber music ensembles that we’ve idolised come here and we can hang out with them

- Mikko Pablo

This is a further aspect of the master’s that he appreciates. “They are teaching us the process of investigating a piece of music, the context around it, and finding things that could inform our interpretation of the piece,” he says.

Miller’s situation is slightly different, since she is following the programme part-time while pursuing a busy career as a performer. Originally from the US, she first studied the violin, then switched to the viola. She currently plays in a range of settings, from classical and contemporary to jazz and rock.

Already living in Brussels, she was also drawn to the Antwerp conservatory by a particular teacher, Leo De Neve. “I really wanted to study with him,” she says. “He’s an incredible human being and an amazing teacher.”

She sees the master as part of a continuing process rather than a career stepping stone. “I always like to be learning,” she says. “It pushes you and keeps you in a framework so that you keep studying.”

Attracting millennial musicians

And Antwerp is proving to be a stimulating environment. “It’s a really beautiful campus, with a lot of things happening. The building itself creates a really open mentality, and there is a lot of open-mindedness to more creative projects.”

Openness is particularly important given her musical interests. “I’m getting a classical education but I do a lot of non-classical things, such as inter-disciplinary and inter-genre work, and I like to get credit for that,” she says.

The building itself creates a really open mentality, and there is a lot of open-mindedness to more creative projects

- Nicole Miller

This is also the starting point for her research topic, which will look at how “millennial” musicians like her approach the strings. “We’ve been trained in a very traditional discipline, in an instrument that was made at a very specific time in history, so how are we taking it out into the world?”

That could mean using the instrument differently, for instance playing percussively or using looping machines, or performing in settings where amplification and distortion come into play. This is something she has experienced with her string quartet In Praise of Folly, which has been touring this year with the rock band Marillion.

“I love classical music, but I also think we’re not that generation,” she says. “I was not born in the Renaissance. So, how do I interpret music when I’m from an open-source generation? To me it means collaboration, open-mindedness and all kinds of mixing.”

Photo: Frederik Beyens