Erika Bliznik, originally from Boston, and Laurent Grésilley, from Bordeaux, met when they both came to Paris to study music. In her case it was the clarinet, in his, conducting and the piano. Their paths then separated for a while when they both moved to the US to continue their studies, Laurent at the University of Cincinnati and Erika at Temple and Stony Brook universities, but crossed again when they returned to Paris a few years later. With a shared passion for music and a love of teaching, their conversations soon started to turn around the idea of starting their own music school together. Having both experienced first-hand the teaching techniques in the US and in France, they had a very clear idea of the advantages and disadvantages of the different methods used in each country. Their common desire was to create a school that would teach music in the most beneficial and enjoyable way for students, providing them with the best aspects of both worlds. Laurent explains, «Having taught for many years in the French system and then seeing how music was taught in the US, I wanted to combine my experiences to create a unique school that caters to what each student wants to achieve, yet provide a solid grasp of music theory. Erika had the same experience in reverse and after discussing this project for a long time, we finally opened the Conservatory in 2012.»
Today the American Conservatory of Paris offers classes for piano, guitar, violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, flute, saxophone, drums and voice.
There are 20 teachers on the faculty, all of whom speak fluent English and most of whom speak some or fluent French. Their teaching methods are adapted to each individual student’s preference for learning either the American notation system (A, B, C…), or the French (do, ré, mi…).
However, it is not just the teaching staff and their methods that differentiate the American Conservatory of Paris from other conventional music schools; as Erika explains, «I believe we are the only music school that teaches exclusively in English at students’ homes. Basically, you have the full benefits of a music school coming to your house at your day and time of preference.» The Conservatory’s teachers will travel anywhere within the Paris city limits and Neuilly-sur-Seine. For students living in other suburbs, they can arrange for lessons in various studio locations throughout the capital.
Another key differentiator is that the American Conservatory provides music lessons during school holiday periods. This is to allow students to devote quality time to their musical studies, when they are not so tied to other commitments, so they can really continue to make progress throughout the year.
The lessons themselves generally incorporate both learning to play an instrument and learning to read the music in the same session, because, as Erika explains, “It is essential for students to be able to read music and understand the scores they are playing from day one.” This is very much in line with the American method where musical theory is integrated into the instrumental lessons and not taught separately. Many students prefer this method to the traditional, somewhat stricter French method where musical theory or “solfège” is taught as an independent subject in dedicated classes. For the more advanced students, however, and those wishing to sit the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) theory exams, the Conservatory does also offer additional private or group classes. It is very much a case of providing the kind of tuition that is appropriate for each individual student’s needs.
From having just 12 students in its first year, the American Conservatory of Paris has since taught over 1000 pupils in its eight years of existence. This spectacular growth is even more impressive when you realize that it is largely due to word of mouth recommendations by students and their families from one year to the next. This is a testimony to the great care that Erika and Laurent have taken when choosing the teachers they work with. «Recruiting faculty members is the most important and most challenging task for the Conservatory,» says Erika. «We receive a large number of applications each year and are committed to finding teachers who share our values and teaching approach. We require all of our teachers to have a university education, but a degree is not always the sign of a good teacher. When we meet prospective faculty members, we sit and discuss how they teach, what ages, styles and levels they specialize in teaching. We talk about their past students, their successes, their failures and how they worked through them. We read a lot of resumes and interview a lot of teachers before choosing a new faculty member.» All faculty vacancies are posted on the Conservatory’s website.
Not only do the Conservatory’s students enjoy learning, but they also have an excellent success rate in their music exams, which Laurent attributes to «Lots of care! Our teachers are very experienced in preparing students for ABRSM exams and work hard to motivate their students. The Conservatory organizes mock exams throughout the year to simulate exam conditions so that students know what to expect and can feel more relaxed on the big day.» They are also very much aware of the fact that for certain students, in certain years, taking an exam at the end of the school year when there are other major examinations such as the Bac, can be complicated. The Conservatory can accommodate for this by arranging exam sessions in the winter when this is the case. However, unlike traditional French conservatories, exams are not compulsory at the American Conservatory. Students can take lessons purely for the enjoyment of learning music. «Some students do not study well under the constant pressure of exams.» explains Erika, «Others dislike the fact that they are limited to an exam repertoire and want to play in other styles. Our desire is that all our students have fun making music and so exams are always optional.»
The Conservatory currently teaches students from age 5 to 65, but, as Erika says «There is no age limit! We have Music Discovery classes at the American Cathedral in Paris on Wednesday afternoons 15h00-16h00 for 4 to 5-year-olds and 16h00-17h00 for 5 to 6-year-olds. This class is a fun way to introduce students to music by playing with sounds, building instruments, singing, dancing, and games. On the weekend we have Saturday Conservatory which has our Chamber Music program from 11h00-13h00. Students of all levels work in trios, quartets, quintets and other ensembles to perform at the student recitals.
«Performing is an essential part of musicianship. From the very beginning of instrumental study, we invite all students to perform at our student concerts. Getting up on stage in front of an audience is a challenge, but the more it is practiced, the more comfortable it will become. We love watching our students perform. It is incredible to watch their performance at the Winter Concert and then see their progress at the Spring Concert.» Once again, though students are very much encouraged to take part in these performances, they are not compulsory.
The most popular instruments at the moment are piano and guitar, but the lists for other instruments also fill up quickly, so prospective students are encouraged to sign up earlier rather than later to ensure they have their preferred time slot.
Based on its success rate over the last eight years, the American Conservatory of Paris is currently looking for a building in the 16th arrondissement to enhance its Preparatory Program with large ensembles such as orchestras, wind ensembles, jazz bands and choirs and to allow them to offer more group classes in Theory, Composition and Music History.
«We would love to partner with more schools and institutions.» says Laurent, «In addition to ISP (The International School of Paris) we are currently partnered with the American Cathedral in Paris. We welcome any new partnership in order to bring music to the anglophone community of Paris.»
To find out more about the American Conservatory of Paris and the opportunities it offers for teaching and for learning music with enjoyment, visit www.americanconservatoryofparis.com