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“Music school is behind me”: A case of “failed” musical socialisation

Samuel Chagnard
Traduction de Maggie Jones
Cet article est une traduction de :
« L’école de musique, c’est derrière moi » : chronique d’une socialisation musicale « ratée » [fr]

Résumé

This article proposes to study in depth the musical socialisation of a conservatory’s former student with a social profile that is not very well represented in this institution (working-class background from North African immigration). Structured as a sociological portrait, it retraces a path that starts out promising but ends with the student dropping out of the conservatory music curriculum. The analysis shows that the expected discipline (regular practice on the instrument) does not happen and explains the mode of appropriation of the musical playing that he develops. Experienced as a leisure activity, based on playing hic et nunc, this does not correspond to the school mode of musical appropriation centered on a distanced relationship to playing, both by the scriptural logic and by the establishment of a deferred satisfaction that is imposed. Focusing on a singular case, the article intends to contribute to the definition of the specific school mode of socialisation proposed in conservatories.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Hennion Antoine, Martinat Françoise and Vignolle Jean-Pierre, Les Conservatoires et leurs élèves : (...)
  • 2 Pinçon-Charlot Monique and Garnier Yves, “Enseigner la musique ? L’exemple d’un conservatoire muni (...)
  • 3 Lahire Bernard, Culture écrite et inégalités scolaires : sociologie de l’échec scolaire à l’école (...)
  • 4 Deslyper Rémi, “Les élèves guitaristes des écoles de ‘musiques actuelles’ : une analyse sociologiq (...)
  • 5 Thin Daniel, Quartiers populaires : l’école et les familles, Lyon, Presses universitaires de Lyon, (...)

1The persistent over-representation of the middle and upper classes in France’s conservatories1 calls into question these establishments’ mode of musical socialisation, which seems to favour affluent students over those from working-class backgrounds2. As is also the case at school3, this academic mode of musical socialisation is based on a scriptural and theoretical relationship to knowledge4, one that, though unevenly distributed, remains dominant in society today. Thus, students less endowed with academic dispositions are more likely to develop heterodox appropriations of the academic content offered to them5. From the school’s perspective, the unexpected results of these inappropriate appropriations are considered failures:

  • 6 Lahire, Culture écrite et inégalités scolaires, p. 60.

“Failing at school” is in fact the re-appropriation of academic products (statements, exercises, goals, lessons) according to non-academic logic.6

  • 7 This article has been prepared as part of a research on former students of municipal conservatorie (...)
  • 8 The name has been changed.
  • 9 Berger Peter Ludwig and Luckmann Thomas, La construction sociale de la réalité, Taminiaux Pierre ( (...)
  • 10 Ibid.
  • 11 Translator’s note: The practice described in the French as jouer “comme ça” is translated here as (...)
  • 12 Becker Howard Saul, La bonne focale : de l’utilité des cas particuliers en sciences sociales, Merl (...)

2In an attempt to understand this mode of socialisation and its effects, this article7 examines the case of a conservatory student whose music training might be considered a “failure” by the school, because of the heterodox forms of musical appropriation the student developed. Despite coming from a socioeconomic background fairly rare in this milieu, as a boy from a working-class family of North African immigrant origin, Sofiane8 had a typical – ideal, even – start at the conservatory: he began at a young age, received very positive assessments in his early learning classes, chose a string instrument (the viola), and was a “docile” student. However, he left the conservatory at age 11, without having completed the first cycle of the prescribed curriculum. Working from a dispositionalist and contextualist perspective, the aim here is to reconstruct the nature of Sofiane’s socialisation experience, in detail, by determining the “degree of asymmetry between the objective and subjective realities”9 such that this socialisation would be considered a “failure”10 from the point of view of the establishment, i.e. here, the conservatory. This analysis shows how the expected development of discipline (regular work and practice on the instrument) did not “catch on” in Sofiane’s case, how he formed a faulty relationship with reading music and developed personal practices (playing “like that”11) different from those taught in his instrument lessons, through a process of heterodox appropriation. For him, this socialisation juxtaposed two socio-musical worlds that came into tension, ultimately leading him to drop out. By focusing on one specific case12, this article aims to retrace how the illegitimacy of “not playing any more” was constructed and, ultimately, to shed light on the specific mode of musical socialisation that conservatories provide.

Methodology and field

Material composition

3The empirical material used for this article consists of a transcript of two semi-directive interviews (4 hours in total) of Sofiane, who was 19 at the time, the records of his studies at the conservatory, and documents from the conservatory’s archive (student database, history, enrolment numbers, curriculum, teaching staff, etc.) which help to contextualise his experience there. The first interview provides an overview of Sofiane’s musical development, the aim being to get him to describe all of his musical practices – both at and outside the conservatory, both formal and informal – by asking him systematically to offer context. At the end of the interview, the “records” of his music training (notebooks, method books, sheet music, evaluations, timetables, etc.) were collected and analysed alongside the transcript. I have also reconstructed the chronology of his musical life, encompassing all of his musical practices, in the form of a timeline. These documents (records and objectified musical life) then formed the basis of part of the second interview. Prompting the respondent to comment on them allows him to delve into the musical detail, to recall forgotten elements, to compare his memories with what appears in the records, and to discuss a given note or comment by a teacher, etc.

  • 13 Lahire Bernard, “La fabrication sociale des individus : cadres, modalités, temps et effets de soci (...)
  • 14 Becker, La bonne focale, p. 84.
  • 15 Lahire Bernard, Portraits sociologiques : dispositions et variations individuelles, Paris, A. Coli (...)

4Although the nature of the materials collected does not allow us to observe the socialisation “in progress”, this approach of systematically linking and cross-referencing them is a good way of understanding the effects of this socialisation by reconstructing it in terms of the frames, modes and time involved in it13. Working on one specific case in this way, with a focus on detailed contextualisation and analysis, serves to “open the black box in which this outcome was produced and see the stages in its production”14. This analysis of Sofiane’s trajectory is presented in the form of an in-depth sociological portrait15, retracing the situations he experienced over time, systematically contextualising his account using the correlating documents and records, and attempting to reconstruct the musical dispositions he developed, and particularly those “to quit music”.

School and family environment

  • 16 Translator’s note: A figure calculated by the French benefits system, based on household income.
  • 17 Hennion, Martinat and Vignolle, op.cit. ; Pinçon-Charlot and Garnier, op.cit. ; Bozon Michel, Vie (...)
  • 18 See for example the description of the Villefranche-sur-Saône music school by sociologist Michel B (...)

5The municipal conservatory where Sofiane studied is located in a town of 33,000 inhabitants in the outer suburbs of a major French metropolis. The town’s overall population is fairly mixed in terms of socio-professional categories, but there is a stark contrast between expanding areas of single-family homes and low-income neighbourhoods where the poverty rate is three times the national average. The socio-professional categories of students’ parents are not recorded in the conservatory’s computer database, but the introduction of a pricing system based on “family revenue quotient” (QF)16 gives us an indication of the music school population in terms of income: 65% of students enrolled at the conservatory in 2017 were in the highest bracket (family revenue quotient>€1350), 22% in brackets 8 to 11, 9% in brackets 5 to 7 and 4% in brackets 1 to 4 (family revenue quotient<€600). Although it is difficult to compare these figures with a national database, as none on these variables currently exists, they more or less correspond to trends long observed in studies on conservatories17: the majority of their students are from the middle and upper classes. The conservatory’s historical and statutory development follows a typical pattern for this type of establishment18: initially set up as an association tied to a wind orchestra, the music school became an independent association at the end of the 1990s, before coming under the governance of the municipality in 2002. It was classified by the French Culture and Communication Ministry as a Conservatoire à rayonnement communal (CRC) in 2009. In the span of a decade, its enrolment doubled, from less than 300 students in 1999 to more than 600 in 2012.

  • 19 On his mother’s side, his grandmother was a medical secretary and his grandfather a skilled labour (...)

6At the time of the first interview, Sofiane was 19 years old and living at home with his parents and 12-year-old sister, in the council estate flat the family had occupied since he was 3 years old. He is now in the 2nd year of a technical degree program (DUT) in electrical engineering and industrial computing, which he entered after passing his A-levels with distinction, with a concentration in science and technology for industry and sustainable development (STI2D). Sofiane’s mother holds a professional certificate (CAP) in shorthand and typing, and has been a self-employed cleaner for a number of years, after a period as a stay-at-home mother. His father is an HGV driver in the region; he left school at the lower secondary level. His parents both come from working-class (blue collar or clerical)19, Algerian immigrant families. Both interviews took place at the dining room table. During the first interview, his mother, who was present in the flat, intervened twice in the conversation, when she offered me coffee and at the end of the interview.

  • 20 Excerpt from the 2013-14 conservatory guide: “Early-learning music lessons – ages 4 and 5 – Durati (...)

7Sofiane was enrolled for 7 school years at the conservatory, where his trajectory exactly matches the first years of a typical conservatory trajectory20: he started at age 4, took two years of early-learning music lessons and then a year of “pre-solfege” before entering the 1st cycle at age 7, where he took viola lessons and music reading and theory classes for four years, alongside which he took two years of choir followed by two years of orchestra. He left the conservatory at age 11, at the end of Year 5 at school (CM2), at which time he returned the viola loaned to him for four years by the music school. During his last year, his Year 5 class was chosen to form a class-orchestra on wind instruments, led by teachers from the music school; in this ensemble, he played the French horn, an instrument that was also loaned to him. From Year 6 to Year 9, he learned to play the keyboard through music lessons at school. When he was in Year 7, he received a synthesiser for Christmas, which he sold during his first year at technical school (IUT).

Exposure to music in his early years

A family of musicians?

  • 21 The organ in question is an electronic organ (with one or two keyboards and, possibly, a pedalboar (...)

8During the first interview, Sofiane was quick to point out that there were “no musicians in [his] family”, apart from his “aunt who used to play the organ”. Later, Sofiane’s mother, who says that she has “never played an instrument”, added that her own mother, who “had always wanted to play music”, “made” her sister play the organ, because she actually “wanted to play the piano, but it was too… too expensive, to say the truth”. This sister therefore took private organ lessons21 which allowed her to “play very, very well” and to take part in “competitions and things like that”. Although this is something he has “always known” (“she always talked about it”), Sofiane has no memory of seeing or hearing his aunt play the organ. She no longer has an instrument in her home.

9At the start of the interview, Sofiane mentions only his aunt as a family member with any music experience, adding with a laugh, “It’s not a family of… There are no musicians in the family!” Yet, later in the conversation, it comes up indirectly that his younger sister and maternal grandfather both played the guitar.

10When I ask him if he has played other instruments than the viola, he quickly mentions his “grandfather who also played… well, who could play the guitar…”, adding “I often gave it a try; he had it at his house”. Asked what his grandfather played, Sofiane says that he does not really remember but attempts to describe it:

It was melodies… like we play, well it was… no. It was melodies… like, classical. It was a bit… I couldn’t put a name to it, frankly, but… it was… it was the sort of… songs that… that you play around a fire or… songs like that, you know.

11As for his sister’s musical practice, it is Sofiane’s mother who first mentions it, in connection with that of her own father, whom she describes as “self-taught”:

And my daughter, because she heard her brother play from the time she was a baby, she knows how to… she plays the guitar. She had a little guitar that she must still have, and she plays melodies, but by ear, like my dad, […] because I think she was a baby, because they are seven years apart. She heard her brother play and… and you know, she repeated the melodies. Then, one time we heard her play. So it’s sort of… a family of… [laughs].

12These last words, truncated by a laugh, seem to imply that, having a sister, a son, a daughter and a father who play or played music, and the latter two “by ear”, Sofiane’s mother can (almost) consider her family to be a family of musicians.

13Even though there are multiple examples of musical practice in his family, Sofiane mainly associates musicianship with instrumental practices related to formal training and labelled as such – i.e. his own and that of his aunt, even though he never heard her play – and not his grandfather’s. The context and qualification of the musical training play a part in his perception of a practice, how he categorises it and thus the placement of his memory of it in his telling. The context of the interview, focusing on the musical practices of the conservatory student he had been, may explain the initial non-mention of these “self-taught” practices:

Yeah, my grandfather, well, he’s… it’s like, for him, it was… he learned when he was young, so… you know, like that; he could play the guitar… he… he had taught himself.

14In saying “for him” as he does here, Sofiane makes a distinction, suggesting that his grandfather’s way of learning on his own is radically different from what Sofiane himself experienced at the conservatory, as we shall see hereafter.

A promising start

  • 22 Found on the municipal website.

15Sofiane came into contact with the music school through a municipal early childhood centre, a parent-child drop-in centre located in one of the city’s two low-income districts classified as priority neighbourhoods (quartiers prioritaires), set up to allow “children under age 4, accompanied by an adult, to have new experiences and meet other children”22:

It was a playground for children. And there was the music school that would present… a bit about what they did, and show us instruments, and I was always interested.

16His enrolment at the conservatory came about after his mother was approached by teachers from the music school “who told her that… I was just about the only child who showed an interest in… in the instruments, in watching the demonstrations, and so, then, my mother enrolled me”. We can speculate that the existence of an example in the family – that of his aunt who had taken organ lessons and played in competitions in her youth, and who, like him, was “very interested in music” – may have set a positive precedent for the possibility of learning an instrument and made it easier for Sofiane’s mother to be receptive to the idea when approached by music school teachers.

  • 23 Guide du conservatoire 2013-14.

17Once enrolled at the music school, Sofiane took a weekly 45-minute early-learning class for two years in a group of 6 to 8 children of the same age (4 and then 5). The aim of these first years is to “discover and explore the world of music, rhythm, sound and instruments through singing, dancing, listening, games…”23. He remembers little about these classes, but the evaluation sheets from his second year are very positive:

Sofiane sings well and enthusiastically, and is a leader in the group. He is attentive and listens closely’. “Sofiane is a fantastic student, a pleasure”. “He loves music and shows it”. “He understands the instructions and follows them very well!” “Sofiane has made progress rhythmically. He sings well and listens well”. “He can be bolder!! In any case, well done; keep it up!!! On to pre-solfege!”

18Thus, in his third year, Sofiane took a 45-minute weekly class called “pre-solfege” with a group of 10 children of the same age, and once again received excellent evaluations: “Sofiane is an attentive and pleasant student. He has real musical ability, particularly when it comes to rhythm. He also sings in tune and has a good ear”.

19As their name suggests, the first three years (early learning and pre-solfege/initiation) serve to prepare students for the first cycle, when they begin to learn an instrument. The feedback Sofiane received throughout these three years suggests a highly satisfactory start and real promise for continued success, from a conservatory perspective.

The “choice” of viola

20During his 3rd year, Sofiane regularly attended an instrumental discovery workshop in addition to his pre-solfege class, during which 5 instrument teachers came to present and have the students try out the instruments they taught, in four 30-minute weekly sessions:

So I saw just about all the instruments, to get an overview. And then they asked me to choose which instrument I wanted to play. And spontaneously, I said… violin. Because it was something I’d always been drawn to. But, in fact, there was no violin, so I did viola, which is more or less the same, expect that it’s not in the same clef.

21The importance of this choice of instrument and its consequences merit a closer look, to gain a better understanding of how his “spontaneous” preference for the violin came about and the various reasons for his ultimate choice of the viola. The origin of this choice is not something Sofiane, or those around him, had given much thought before the interview. Having stopped both music school and playing viola at the age of 11, and “moved on”, he has rarely spoken about this musical experience through his adolescence and young adulthood, and therefore has no ready answer to a question that had not been put to him before. Sofiane explains that he was drawn to the violin long before the instruments were presented at the music school, emphatically stating six times that he had been “all the time” or “always” interested in music, without being able to explain it any more precisely.

22When asked if there was a violin within his close community at the time, he recalls going with his father to a second-hand shop that had a musical instrument section:

We often went to shops with my father. And there would often be musical instruments. There were always… I remember always being drawn to the violin, and we always saw this amazing violin… it was nice, it was beautiful, it was… with… it was all polished, you know! And it’s true that my father, every time, we always talked about… about that instrument because, well, it cost a lot, so, yeah. And [laughs] and… I mean, maybe that’s it, because I do remember that shop all the time. It’s like a Cash Converters.

23The shiny varnish on the instrument and its price, which Sofiane and his father talked about, gave him a sense of the violin as something of sure value. In the same shop, he also remembers being drawn to the drums.

I often looked at the drums, too. It was… I was drawn to them, too, but because the drums were sort of… when you’re a kid… It’s sort of… you bang on them, so it seems sort of… not “easy”, but it’s the first thing that catches your interest, you know!

  • 24 Bourdieu Pierre, La distinction : critique sociale du jugement, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 197 (...)

24This present-day description of his past interest in the drums perhaps says something about his choice of the violin, which, as an adult shaped in part by his music school experience, he ranks above the drums, rejecting “pleasures that are too immediately accessible and thus discredited as ‘childish’ or ‘primitive’ (as opposed to the delayed pleasures of legitimate art)”24. The implication would be that his choice of instrument came not from a clear and spontaneous physical impulse, but rather through a form of distancing, in favour of a less “easy” practice, as these lines suggest:

Choosing the violin, I remember, happened well before the early-learning classes. It was already something… yeah, it was just something I was drawn to. I mean, when I was little, I was interested in all sorts of things that were kind of… kind of abstract.

25This reconstruction of the reasons behind his choice of the violin reflects what learning to play the violin, or in fact the viola, represented to him, as we will see further on, i.e. a practice far from easy, requiring self-control and a form of grown-up distancing.

26Sofiane’s clear preference for the violin also suggests that his teachers did not contradict this aspiration. His assessments from the pre-solfege year, the year in which the choice of instrument was made, emphasise his real musical ability, as discussed above, particularly in the areas important for classical orchestra string instruments. Although difficult to define unequivocally, “having a good ear” is a fundamental trait for musicians, and doubly so for fretless string instruments, where it is the position of the finger that determines the pitch and accuracy of the note played. Accuracy and precision in perceiving what you are playing and what you want to be playing enables you to correct your finger placement to obtain the right note: “Sing[ing] in tune and ha[ving] a good ear” are therefore prerequisites and lend legitimacy to the choice of violin as his instrument.

  • 25 Harp, bassoon and string bass classes were added in the following years, completing the list of sy (...)

27In the end, however, the decision as to Sofiane’s instrument was made by the music school, which proposed – or rather, imposed – the viola rather than the violin. Sofiane does not remember the specific reasons but says the decision “definitely came from the music school”. The viola class was opened when the music school came under municipal governance in 2002. Its creation is consistent with the conservatory’s aim of expanding the instruction it offered to cover every orchestra instrument25, giving rise, in concrete terms, to the hiring of a teacher specialising in the viola and the allocation of hours in the budget. A minimum number of students would be needed to open this new class, and it would then be up to the teacher to develop it further. Between 2002 and 2006, the viola class included 2 to 4 students each year. In 2006-2007, 4 students were enrolled in viola, but it seems that these 4 students did not enrol again the following year, as the 3 viola students enrolled at the start of the 2007 school year were beginners. In addition, the November 2007 annual report notes that “no beginners were enrolled in piano and violin due to lack of space (several students are on the waiting list for these instruments)”. Some requests for violin, such as Sofiane’s, were therefore transferred to the viola, which meant that the viola teacher’s post could be maintained. However, if we assume that every aspiring violinist was offered a place in the viola course, the existence of a waiting list for the violin shows that some students did not take the viola option, suggesting that not everyone sees the distinction between these two instruments in the same way.

  • 26 The lower status of the viola is reflected in a 1974 ministerial document that states: “At the ext (...)
  • 27 Les amis de l’alto (Friends of the Viola) website, for example, features a whole page of violist j (...)

28Even if, as Sofiane says, the viola “is more or less equivalent [to the violin]”, the final choice of viola had certain non-neutral effects. Although the two instruments are physically very similar (they have four strings tuned in fifths, are played with a bow and require the same playing posture, with the viola being slightly longer), there are significant musical differences between them: their role in an orchestra or string quartet is different (the viola’s role is one of accompaniment more than main melody), the classical repertoire for viola is much less developed than that for violin, particularly the solo repertoire, etc. The viola was long considered a second-choice instrument, that “bad” violinists would play by default26. Violists do not benefit from the same symbolic status as violinists, as is illustrated, in one way, by the systematic, rampant and rather singular allusion to violist jokes – by all musicians and by violists themselves27. While these distinctions – which, in the long term, can represent a stigma – do not seem to have affected Sofiane because of the short duration of his experience as a violist and his age at the time (at no point, for example, did he make any allusion to jokes about violists), the difference between viola and violin that he does point out – “the clef [is] not the same”did end up having a significant impact in his trajectory.

Instrumental training at the conservatory: establishing a scriptural relationship with musical practice

  • 28 Although the conservatory and teachers refer to this class as “Formation musicale” (FM - Music the (...)

29After the first three years, Sofiane was enrolled in Cycle 1, including a half-hour viola lesson, a music theory (solfège)28 class and a children’s vocal ensemble, each lasting 1 hour 15 minutes per week. He was loaned an instrument for the duration of his training. He began studying viola with a teacher whom he kept for four years. He had individual lessons for two years, and for the last two years regularly attended lessons with another viola student.

Starting out on viola

  • 29 Most of the other respondents refer to their former music school teachers by their first names.
  • 30 He alludes several times to the difference between a music school and a conservatory, as here with (...)

30Sofiane has fond memories of his instrument lessons (“The viola lessons went really well”) and his teacher, whose name at first eludes him. He then refers to her only by her surname29, “Madame XXX”, speaks of her with great deference and emphasises the marks of legitimacy that he recognises in her (“she was at the conservatory30, she did quite a few concerts”).

31In terms of content, Sofiane describes his instrumental experience as follows:

I don’t really remember the beginning, but I know that there were… we used to buy… the teacher would ask me to buy this or that lesson book, and then to practice. And then, when we came back, well, I might work on… I mean, see what I needed to focus on, and see how she did it, well, just how I could improve! And then… yeah. No, yeah, it was, it was a bit… it was always sort of the same thing… We often spent quite a bit of time preparing for the concerts too, I mean, the little performances.

32For Sofiane, the approach used in all of his instrument lessons was to follow a method book, to go back and forth with his teacher to improve his playing, and to prepare for concerts. When asked about what was expected of him during his viola lessons, the direct association in his mind was his at-home work, what he called “practising”, and the goal of the lessons, i.e. concerts. Sofiane clearly had understood the key components of conservatory training:

  • 31 2012 Conservatory Rules (italicized by me).

Every student must be aware of the personal investment required for musical or theatrical studies (time commitment for lessons, participation in public performances, sufficient work on their own) which they will have to make in addition to their other school, professional and personal responsibilities.31

33However, understanding the expectations and putting them into practice are two different things, as we will see as we now look in detail at what was asked of Sofiane. Primordial to the approach was reading a score, meaning building a primarily visual relationship to music (deciphering a written code and correlating a written note with a certain finger placement).

The score as the basis of a gradual and repetitive learning process

She would tell me to take out this or that score… the one from… the one for that day, the one she had planned or that I had practised.

  • 32 Méthode d’alto – Débutants (B. Garlej – J.F. Gonzales), Méthode d’alto – Volume 1 (P. Hadjaje – M. (...)
  • 33 “Viola school of progressive studies volume 1 (A. Carse)” 3 first exercises played out of 100; “14 (...)

34As Sofiane remembers it, his viola teacher asked him to play only from written music. Over the span of four years, she had him buy three method books and five collections of viola pieces32. Although he has kept all of these books, he does not remember them well individually, having used half of them only for a few pieces33 and two, not at all. He completed 3/4 of the content in only two of these books, including his first method book, “Méthode d’alto – Débutants” by B. Garlej and JF. Gonzales (1994).

35The close link between musical notation and learning to play an instrument, established from Sofiane’s first lessons, immediately placed him in a classical tradition of instrument instruction:

  • 34 Lartigot Jean-Claude, L’apprenti instrumentiste, Fondettes, Van de Velde, 1999, p. 136-137 (italic (...)

Linking the simplest manifestations of sound – which could long be approached without notation – with written notes on the staff and then the progression of training on the instrument dictated by what is written, establishes a dynamic by which instrumental playing is subject to the written score, a dynamic that will remain firm throughout the classical instrumentalist’s training and career.34

36Established from the outset through the use of method books, this relationship to the score is supposed to lay the foundation for the progressive and cumulative organisation of exercises, progress being marked by the regular introduction of new signs requiring new instrumental actions. Thus, Sofiane’s instruction was based on a conception of learning characteristic of the instrument method books used to dispense it:

  • 35 Ibid., p. 152.

The model for this conception of learning is above all based on a cumulative progression, from the simplest to the most complex, and on activities based mainly on repetition of the skill to be acquired.35

37The method book used by Sofiane has all of the elements identified by Jean-Claude Lartigot in his analysis of different instrument method books, particularly those for string instruments: a general presentation on holding the viola and the bow, followed by a detailed description of the instrument; first chapter on open strings to introduce the use of the right hand (sustaining the sound with the bow), then successive and cumulative introduction of the fingers of the left hand (adjusting the pitch of the note) in a specific chapter (1st finger, 2nd finger, etc.). Each chapter systematically sets out the technique being covered in exercises on each of the four strings, moving from long counts to short counts (quarter notes) and preparing a final piece that synthesises the aspects worked on during the chapter.

38Looking through this method book brings back memories of the content of Sofiane’s lessons, and the way the time was organised: “I remember I had… We had spent a whole lesson, yeah, listing the different parts of the viola”. “Yes, I remember that we spent quite a few lessons on… holding… yes, holding the bow”.

39The repetition inherent in this approach to learning was somewhat off-putting to Sofiane:

“At first, it was sort of… it was sort of tedious, yeah.
“What do you mean by that?”
“It was… it was sort of academic, you know. It was… it was, basically, it was quite academic; you had to… you had to learn the movements and… yeah. I remember, yeah, it was… it was the parts I didn’t really like [laughs]”.

40The repetition focused in particular on an aspect that would play an important part in his development as a violist: finger placement.

Finger placement

41Using a beginners’ method book like the one Sofiane followed places proper pitch at the centre of string instrument instruction, requiring precise placement of the fingers on the strings. Successive introduction of the fingers and insistence on using a single finger movement for an entire chapter (which can take several weeks to complete) reflect the intention of gradually creating a “fingerprint” in the left hand that will mechanically link each sequence of notes to a finger movement:

  • 36 Ibid., p. 145.

In learning to play strings, accurate pitch is the criterion that enables us to check that the neutral zone, the base structure, i.e. the structure of the notation, has penetrated into the learner’s body.36

42The method book used by Sofiane dedicates seven chapters (out of ten) to finger logic. Considering that two of the chapters not concerned with finger placement were not covered in his lessons (“VI Staccato”, “X Studies, Pieces”), it seems that the method book was used specifically for the development of this particular skill. Sofiane makes many mentions of the importance of “finger placement”, suggesting that this is something he heard repeatedly:

Finger placement was very important. Madame XXX gave me little tabs to help me… to have a visual… marking for the music notes… so I could put… place… place my fingers correctly.

  • 37 0=no finger/open string, 1=index, 2=middle, 3=ring, 4=pinky.

43The teacher’s focus on establishing this fingerprint – which all strings teachers consider a fundamental priority – means that a great deal of time was spent working on it, which Sofiane has identified as problematic considering that he is left-handed (“It was often the focus of [laughter] my lessons, … because I was left-handed, so it was tricky, right”). To train the finger movements to match the notes on the page, teachers of string instruments add37 annotations on the scores. Typically, what starts out as many added markings early in the learning process gradually dwindles as the correlation becomes automatic, i.e. a given note prompts a given fingering. In Sofiane’s case, the pieces he played in his third and fourth years of viola are still full of his teacher’s added markings, where they should have become rarer – a sign that the assimilation process was not really working. Essentially, the teacher was “decoding” and “recoding” the score. By spelling out the implicit signs on the score (this note at this height means this finger position on the viola), she was in a sense highlighting the arbitrariness of the code while at the same time adding information that did not seem to be particularly helpful to Sofiane. Through these annotations, the teacher signalled to Sofiane that he had “trouble reading music”, an observation that also emerged in the classes that were supposed to develop his music reading skills, i.e. his music theory classes.

To each their own clef

  • 38 In his fourth year, for example, he was in music theory class with two cellists, a harpist, a drum (...)

44During his first cycle, Sofiane took a weekly music theory class. This 1’15” lesson took place with around ten other children of the same age but who played different instruments38. Here again, eight years on, his memories of the classes themselves are quite hazy. When music theory (solfege) first comes up, Sofiane likens it to schoolwork, involving analysis and writing:

It was more in solfege that… we had to do… the… not analysis, but well, we had to write… I remember I had a notebook and wrote down a lot… Then afterwards, well, we checked it… Solfege was a bit like school, you know.

45He then raises a point that will return throughout the interview:

I remember that we often had to try to do… well, to work on the… on our instrument’s clef.

  • 39 Cello, trombone and bassoon scores use tenor clef (F4, or ut 4 in French) to write notes in their (...)

46The viola is the only instrument taught at the music school whose scores are written on the alto clef (called clef d’ut3 in French, which translates as “C3 clef”, as it marks middle C as the third line of the staff), or on any C clef at all39. During the first interview, Sofiane did not say “C clef” but rather “F clef” (bass clef) as “his instrument’s clef”. There are a number of possible explanations for Sofiane’s error in assigning the clef. The first could be that he had forgotten the technical term, as with other terms he had trouble remembering during the interview (bow, metronome, pulse). However, he showed no hesitation in twice referring to “F clef” as “his instrument’s clef”:

“When it was a piano, it was… G clef [treble clef]. I was F clef [bass clef]…” “For piano, it was G clef, and I was F clef”.

47A more likely hypothesis would be to consider the context in which he broached the subject of his instrument’s clef, i.e. in opposition to that of the piano, when he was trying to describe the content of his music theory lessons. In the same way that he distinguished the viola from the violin, he emphasised that for piano, the clef was “not the same”.

48Over the years, it was not so much the name of the clef that he retained as the fact that his instrument’s clef was different from that of the piano, i.e. the instrument of reference in music theory:

“The piano was… it was sort of, you know… the base. So we often worked on the… the G clef and… so the piano was always… always the… the instrument… that kind of led the… the class”. “Piano was the… the ‘master’ instrument, so to speak”.

49“The base”, that “led the class”, the “master instrument”: with these words, Sofiane clearly conveys the piano’s dominant position in the music theory classes.

  • 40 Hennion Antoine, Comment la musique vient aux enfants : une anthropologie de l’enseignement musica (...)

The piano is a spatial drawing, the clear diagram of the musical score, between reader-subjects and sound objects, between the visual and the auditory. It is the perfect instrument for music theory, and not just for music theory; it is the embodiment of the tricky relationship between the musical signs and the sounds that music theory has to manage; it physically draws the Saussurian line that separates the musical signifier from its signified.40

  • 41 Of the 20 pages containing 5-line staves, 16 show only G clefs, 3 combined G and F clefs, and 1 sh (...)

50To Sofiane, the piano represents the “main” clef, i.e. treble clef or “G clef”. From his earliest lessons, the materials he saw in his music theory class were almost exclusively written in G clef. Analysis of the material Sofiane has kept from his classes shows the overwhelming presence of the G clef41. This pre-eminence of the G clef and the use of the piano make the “piano/G clef” pairing the symbol of music theory class. In Sofiane’s mind, the piano is not an instrument for which scores are written indiscriminately in G clef and in F clef, but a music theory tool (for singing, to give the scale, to characterise intervals, etc.) that is always used in G clef. Thus, F clef represents “the other clef”, both the piano’s other clef and the other clef worked on, from time to time, in music theory class. In this sense, it is not surprising that it is F clef that comes to his mind when he refers to his instrument’s “not the same” clef during the first interview, based on his memory of a difference of clef. The second interview shows, moreover, that he has not forgotten the term “C clef” (clef d’ut), since he uses it without problem when consulting the various viola books he worked on. Today, he would have a hard time explaining the technical difference between the clefs:

Frankly, anything that’s a symbol… even the notes… even the notes of… [laughs], even the musical notes, no [laughs], no, I don’t remember.

51But he is very clear on the fact that the clefs are different and that distinguishing between the two was difficult for him:

In solfege, we studied the G clef; well, we mainly focused on the G clef, and then the C clef was another world and… often, it was tricky… you had to distinguish between the two.

52His emphasis on the matter of distinguishing one clef from another indicates a tension in the simultaneous learning of two clefs in two different parts of music school (G clef in music theory class and C clef in his viola lessons). Translated into the difference in actual time spent on each clef, this led to confusion when he was alone at home:

I spent more lessons on the G clef than on the C clef, and so at home it was a bit… I was improvising sometimes, yeah.

53He does not mean “improvising” in the musical sense but rather is using the word pejoratively.

I used to have a… let’s say an idea of what… what it was supposed to sound like, but… often… thinking back, what I was playing was an approximation.

54A request for clarification offers additional insight into Sofiane’s practice at home:

I remember that on the viola I didn’t know how to play the note and I didn’t know if it was the right note. So I… I was playing it again and again and thinking… I was imagining a melody… an ideal melody, say, or well, a certain… what, what… just, what I thought I’d heard, in fact. And… thinking back, I think I… I wasn’t doing [laughs], I wasn’t doing what was on the score. So it was… yeah. Yeah, there was a lot of improvisation at home.

  • 42 “Difficulty in reading the notes is holding back work on the instrument. Sing the scores before pl (...)

55Here, Sofiane alludes to difficulty with reading music and playing the notes on the instrument, for which he compensated by playing by ear, a strategy which, though it may have sufficed early in his musical training, his teachers saw as problematic in both music theory and viola, as indicated by their assessments in his biannual evaluations from the second year onwards42. The constant comments on note reading establish this skill as a prerequisite for playing an instrument, i.e. without competence in music reading, instrumental practice is not considered possible. The agreement on this point between the music theory and instrument teachers, combined with the fact that to play the viola in music school activities always involved reading a score, meant that if difficulty in this area was not overcome, one’s instrumental – that is, musical – future was doomed.

The instrument at home: playing here and now

Discipline that did not catch on

56Sofiane’s teachers interpreted the difficulties he encountered as a sign of insufficient work on his own, as noted already at the end of the first year:

You need to work more on the exercises and pieces at home to make progress. Very pleasant in class, but don’t talk too much so that we can make faster progress…

57The “we” signifying Sofiane and his teacher serves as a reminder that the instrument lesson was implicitly based on an agreement in which all parties were expected to do their part, and that the expected progress could not be achieved if Sofiane did not hold up his end of the bargain, with sufficient and regular work at home. The teacher explicitly mentioned this a few lines above under the heading “Individual work. Autonomy”: “The pace of work is not yet sufficient to ensure steady progress”.

  • 43 “Very good, keep working with regularity” (December, 1st year) “Repeat the exercises with regulari (...)

58For the four years Sofiane took viola lessons, each biannual assessment by the viola teacher includes a remark on the necessity of work at home43, which must combine both regularity (daily if possible) and increasing quantity over time. While the teacher’s very first observation is positive, it already mentions the need to establish regularity. Thereafter, her remarks systematically indicate what she considers to be insufficient work at home. Indeed, work at home was viewed as an absolute necessity, the sign of a professional musician’s habitus that this teacher – who herself had cultivated this discipline as a conservatory student and then a symphony orchestra musician – was trying to help Sofiane develop:

  • 44 Lehmann Bernard, L’orchestre dans tous ses éclats : ethnographie des formations symphoniques, Pari (...)

All of the musician’s work, made up of tireless repetition, solitude and perfection, has the effect of forming the musician’s habitus, adapted to the daily work of a symphony orchestra. […] [The repetitiveness of orchestral rehearsals] collectively reproduces the tireless work that the instrument teacher first imposes at the individual level and that the musician ends up self-imposing – ascetically – both during their training and throughout their ensuing career.44

  • 45 For a presentation of the different categories of conservatoires classified by the State (CRC/CRI, (...)
  • 46 Pégourdie Adrien, “Les provinces de la musique. Pratiques professionnelles, trajectoires et rappor (...)

59In his study of classical instrumentalists, Adrien Pégourdie shows that while teachers at CRC-class conservatories are less demanding “as regards the inculcation of ascetic practices” than those at Conservatoires à rayonnement régional (CRR)45, individual work is nonetheless “strongly recommended and monitored”. In the CRC curriculum, insufficient individual work is not eliminatory, “whereas the threat of dismissal hangs over CRR students”46. Insufficient work on Sofiane’s part was pointed out to him but did not seem to affect his relationship with his teacher:

If she saw or if I said that I hadn’t really worked on something, for one reason or another, she wasn’t really… she’d tell me it wasn’t…, well, she didn’t scold me for it.

  • 47 “Put in more effort at home” (December 2008); “But is he putting in time at home? It doesn’t seem (...)

60Nevertheless, the repeated remarks about this issue in Sofiane’s records, including in some of his music theory assessments47, suggest that in his case, the expected degree of discipline did not “catch on”.

61Yet Sofiane did spend time playing his instrument at home, but not always working on the things assigned by his teacher. He developed different practices, making a distinction between what was required of him for music school and what he called playing “like that” (jouer “comme ça”).

Playing “like that”

62The notion of playing “like that” is something Sofiane repeated many times, distinguishing this type of playing from the manner of playing associated with music school:

When I was working on my lessons, the real lessons, like I explained… the lessons that… the teacher assigned to us, I put myself in, like, a… a serious environment. And then afterwards, when I was… when it was just to play like that, I’d… I’d put everything away. I’d leave nothing else out and have just the viola.

  • 48 Lahire Bernard, L’homme pluriel : les ressorts de l’action, 2nd ed., Paris, F. Nathan, 2001, p. 14 (...)

63Echoing other survey respondents, particularly blue-collar and clerical workers, when asked about their professional and domestic music reading and notation practices, what Sofiane describes as playing “‘like that’ mainly refers to a situation in which no cognitive artefact or technical sophistication is used, and especially no form of writing”48. In other words, what this primarily means to Sofiane is playing without a score:

I used to play like that, without a score… I mean… I would try to, to do something that sounded good, but that’s it. Not with a score.

64This explains why he would “put everything away”, “leave nothing else out” and have “just the viola”, as the non-use of written music justified putting away the materials needed for its usual use – intrinsic to his curricular practice – such as the music stand and the metronome. It seems that voluntarily changing the context of his playing in the same room, his bedroom, was necessary to allow himself to play differently, outside of the “serious environment”. In his study of playing, sociologist Gilles Pronovost similarly points to the need for a change of context to symbolise a concrete shift in practice:

  • 49 Pronovost Gilles, Loisir et société : traité de sociologie empirique, 2nd ed., Sainte-Foy, Québec, (...)

Doing something “for pleasure” is not reprehensible if in a context of amusement, whereas without this context it might be strictly punished. A place can quickly be turned into a place of leisure or enjoyment, thanks to a few identifying markers.49

  • 50 “This expression [‘like that’] can […] refer to situations in which order is not particularly chos (...)
  • 51 Among the rock guitarists at music schools interviewed by Rémi Deslyper, we find the same distinct (...)

65In Sofiane’s case, this meant making changes to the place, his bedroom, but also recognising the different contexts in which he was playing “like that”. He uses this expression in reference to playing the viola without a score, but also for playing the guitar with his grandfather, or at home alone or with his sister, and for playing the synthesiser. Thus, playing “like that” means “for fun”, “not for a specific occasion”, with an “untuned” guitar; it is “experimenting”, “playing around”, “as it comes”, “not something specific”, “not a structured thing”50 and “without a finished result”. Observing the words used around his multiple uses of playing “like that” points to and characterises a practice opposed to the type he perceives as legitimate and required for music school, his notion of which therefore emerges in contrast: regular, specific, finished, equipped, regulated, serious, in-tune, etc. Sofiane measures playing “like that” against the type of practice he encountered at the music school, qualifying it as lesser: “It was just playing like that”.51

  • 52 “Playing ‘like that’ may indicate a situation where the written form is less formal”. Lahire, ibid(...)

66Yet playing without a score did not mean no written form at all52, but involved a use of writing or notation different from that in an academic context. In his synthesiser playing after leaving the conservatory, Sofiane sometimes used a temporary written form – jotted or dashed together, e.g. from an online tutorial to play an Avicii song:

He showed the keys, actually. He was a YouTuber; it was pretty good. He had his music notes; he had annotated the keys in colour, and then I wrote down the colour code on the… the colour code and the… each key… Like, one, two, three – he numbered them. And then I would jot them down on a sheet of paper and try it out.

67The written form served as a memory aid, meant to solve a practical problem (“back then, it was sort of complicated; the computer was here, so I would try to look at it, and then I would go back to my room”), i.e. as a transitional tool needed only up to a point, and thus, ultimately, of little consequence:

And it was sort of a technique… [laughs], it was a bit vague, but then afterwards, I… at first, I’d try, I’d follow it precisely, and then I would try to… to find it on my own.

68Sofiane’s use of the synthesiser itself reflects a different relationship to music than that encountered at the conservatory, based on a “here and now” (hic et nunc) form of practice, as conveyed when he talks about playing with his sister:

It was, like, just playing around with the piano. It was just for fun. For sure, it wasn’t about making music… trying to play a… a particular song. It was just turning it on… and, you know, playing around with it.

69Adding the adverb “just” again marks a distinction, here with what he calls “making music”: “playing around” with an instrument, “just for fun”, without trying to play a particular piece, does not correspond to his experience at the conservatory with the viola (reading a score, long rehearsing a piece to play it well, in its entirety, in the correct position, in perfect tune, for the purpose of a performance, etc.). While he allows himself to use the synthesiser in this less formal way, he also assigns it a lesser status in the hierarchy of musical practices.

  • 53 Perrenoud Philippe, Métier d’élève et sens du travail scolaire, Issy-les-Moulineaux, ESF éditeur, (...)

70Sofiane’s personal musical experiences show that his use of an instrument does not conform to the practices required and expected at a conservatory. He makes clear the division between two practices, the first – academic, associated in particular with the systematic use of written music, requiring him to be a disciplined student53 (reading before playing, practising for later, working alone on an ensemble part, doing exercises, etc.) – in stark contrast to the second, which he considers a “for fun”:

No, it’s true that I didn’t often use sheet music; that was more for music school, but then, I… I liked just playing “like that”… It was, yeah, it was for fun, you know.

Another world

71In addition to the divide that written music represents in Sofiane’s instrumental practice, other factors, both musical and social, also contributed to his perception of the music school as “another world”.

72Firstly, the musical repertoire that Sofiane played at music school did not correspond to the sphere of music he listened to:

Back then, I listened to what my parents listened to, in the car, so like I was saying, French classics… French classics, yeah. Yeah, funk, stuff like that, and the radio.

73While he liked the pieces he played in class, they were not part of his listening repertoire: “I mean, I liked it, but no, I didn’t go so far as to listen to it at home”. Inversely, it never occurred to him to ask to play a piece he listened to and liked:

No, I never mentioned it. I mean, I could have, maybe I could have, but then I thought, that was music school: they’re going to teach me a style of music or… no, I mean, it never occurred to me.

74This relationship with a school representing authority on the repertoire normalised a separation between two musical worlds, all the more implicit as his teacher never seems to have broached the subject with him: “We never really talked about what we listened to personally or… at home”. Not discussing these things, by both parties, further elevated the legitimacy of one practice over the other. It was only after he left the conservatory that he began to play pieces he liked on the synthesiser, alone at home, in a context that closed the gap between music he played and music he listened to.

75Secondly, although Sofiane does not explicitly distinguish between two worlds in terms of the musical repertoire covered, he does make this distinction when describing the different social class of the students he met at the music school:

Well, I mean, it was sort of a different world… the music school, you know.
How so?
Well… [sigh], it was… the people there… [silence], yeah, the people were, so to speak, from another world. It was… socially, it wasn’t, it was sort of… I don’t like to use labels like that, but it was like… the people were like petit bourgeois [upper class], that kind of thing. And us, we’re [silence] from another world; we’re not that sort of people.

  • 54 Hoggart Richard, La culture du pauvre : étude sur le style de vie des classes populaires en Anglet (...)
  • 55 The town’s different school sectors are not represented uniformly within the music school. For exa (...)
  • 56 As an “unscientific” observation, to be taken with due caution, during Sofiane’s last year of enro (...)

76Corroborating the under-representation of working-class students at the conservatory, Sofiane here expresses the sense that, for members of the working class, “the world is divided between ‘us’ and ‘them’”54. Although he liked the students he met at music school (“I mean, I got on well with them”), they were not the same as his friends from primary school55, who sometimes came to his house: “The ones who came to the house were people from school, but nothing to do with music school”. The friendships formed at music school were, in Sofiane’s experience, confined to those premises and the time he spent there. At music school, Sofiane was part of an under-represented demographic in terms of social class, but also in terms of his family origins: “You don’t know everyone’s origins, but obviously… a North African studying… music, is rare”. The low number of conservatory students from North African immigrant families56 further accentuated the exceptional nature of his presence there.

77While these two ways in which Sofiane stood out as a conservatory student did not seem to bother him or his parents, Sofiane mentions several times that there was some push back from people around them:

People wondered about it. There were a lot… well, I wasn’t the one who felt it; it was more my mother. But it came up a lot… like, why does your son play viola?

78These questions were first directed at the parents on the assumption that they were the ones wanting their child to pursue an activity that did not correspond to their background:

They thought maybe it was my mother who had… well, that my parents had said, “Sofiane, go and play the viola”. Even in my family, on my father’s side… We’re Algerian, so it is a big deal for a child to play the viola, so… of course, they wonder about it; they talk.

79These issues also came up for Sofiane himself and in relation to his friendships. He quickly realised that this activity could be disapproved of in his community:

When people ask you, “Why don’t you play football?”, it means… it means what it means.

80To avoid being stigmatised, he opted to stop talking about it:

Sometimes, I figured it was better not talk about it, because some people just don’t get it, you know. It’s like when I say I love to read, well, people… just don’t understand, you know. They’ll say “You? You read?”, so, yeah… at first, I would talk about it and then I realised that people, they… It’s not that they made fun of it, but they saw me differently, so I figured, well, shove it, I’ll just keep it to myself; it doesn’t matter, you know.

  • 57 Laillier Joël, Entrer dans la danse : l’envers du Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, Paris, CNRS Éditions (...)

81In another artistic discipline, classical dance, boys are also subject to stigmatisation by their peers57: while some choose to keep their practice a secret, others manage to achieve recognition for it thanks to the exceptional physical skills they can display. In this case, the stigma may reinforce their positive sense of being special, “not like the others”, a sense already instilled in them through their elective experiences at dance school. Sofiane’s situation was not the same: his musical practice did not bring him strong recognition at the music school, nor a degree of prowess with which he could impress his friends.

82Sofiane’s telling of his experience paints a picture of two musically and socially separate worlds, two parallel spheres, at the crossroads of which he found himself alone. This juxtaposition worked for a time but eventually became difficult to sustain: at the end of Year 5 in school (CM2), he did not re-enrol for music school. His explanation for this points to the strain of orchestra rehearsals in preparation for concerts:

Like I was telling you, I was really shy, and I didn’t really like that pressure… all the time… of working to get ready for performances.

  • 58 Chagnard Samuel, “La pratique publique comme pratique-écran en conservatoire”, Les identités des p (...)

83This strain came, in particular, in the form of the demands that the teacher conducting the orchestra placed on the students in the run-up to concerts. The public nature of a concert meant that there were certain expectations, since the orchestra’s work, and by extension its conductor’s, would be evaluated according to the quality of the performance. When Sofiane expressed that he did not want to perform in a concert (“I was really stressed out about playing in public”), he was challenging the implicit purpose of the orchestra’s work, and thus, in essence, the purpose of the music school58. The teacher responded by putting Sofiane aside with other musicians during rehearsals, to continue practising and preparing for the concert with those performing, further adding to a sense of exclusion:

All of us who weren’t doing the concert were put together, and then… it was like, we were sort of left out.

84Sofiane names this incident as the event that triggered his decision to quit the conservatory, but, ultimately, he describes it as the end-point to an activity that he no longer wanted to continue:

That didn’t sit well with me, and well… well, also I didn’t really feel like doing it anymore. It was… I think, it was perhaps, that kind of strain. The strain was increasing, and so, for me, I had a hard time with that, and so I just quit, yeah.

  • 59 In his last year at the conservatory, Sofiane went there 3 evenings a week for a total of 5 hours/ (...)

85The musical difficulties he encountered at music school were compounded by tensions, both musical and social, that his involvement in music ended up eliciting: although embraced in his family unit, his musical practice went against expectations both at music school and in the community. His explanation of the large time commitment required59, in terms of increasing demands, points to the process of imbalance that gradually led him to stop the conservatory:

  • 60 Lahire, Portraits sociologiques, p. 411.

It is when then the degree of compromise exceeds the degree of satisfaction that an individual no longer finds it worthwhile and may decide to break off the relationship.60

  • 61 Laillier, Entrer dans la danse, p. 67.

86Observation of cases such as this one suggests that a disposition not to do music can develop in the same way as a “vocational stigma […] constantly asserted in the different spheres of a child’s social life”61.

Conclusion

Music school is behind me, for sure. I mean, in terms of my interests now, it’s another world. After that, I moved on to other things.

  • 62 Bourdieu Pierre and De Saint Martin Monique, “Les catégories de l’entendement professoral”, Actes (...)
  • 63 Ibid.

87This detailed analysis of Sofiane’s musical trajectory, using a combination of interviews and documents, offers insight into his experience of the musical practice he developed. For him, playing music was a fun pastime, based on a hic et nunc form of practice ill-suited to an academic mode of musical training involving a distanced relationship to playing, i.e. predicated on scriptural logic and the delayed satisfaction this imposes. Leaving the conservatory marked the end of the prescribed ascetic practice he had supposedly been learning for four years, but it did not stop his practice of playing “like that” for pleasure, which he continued for a time on his synthesiser. Thus, while this case of musical socialisation in a conservatory setting could be said to have “failed” with respect to the type of musical practice the conservatory aims to produce, the perceived illegitimacy of this practice had a very real impact, resulting in the student eventually dropping out. However, this outcome could be seen, in fact, as an example of successful socialisation, in the sense that “all successful socialisation tends to get agents to act as accomplices in their own destiny”62. Like “provincials [who] do not want a Paris that does not want them” or “secondary school teachers [who] refuse university as much as it refuses them”63, one could say that Sofiane left a music school that no longer wanted him. This individual journey, as analysed and documented herein, offers a concrete illustration of certain dynamics at play in the statistical trends reflecting the exclusion of working-class students, especially those of North African immigrant origin, from France’s conservatories.

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Lartigot Jean-Claude, L’apprenti instrumentiste, Fondettes, Van de Velde, 1999.

Lehmann Bernard, L’orchestre dans tous ses éclats : ethnographie des formations symphoniques, Paris, Éditions La Découverte, 2005.

Mairie de Paris, Synthèse de l’audit des conservatoires municipaux d’arrondissement, Paris, Mairie de Paris, 2010.

Passeron Jean-Claude et Jacques Revel (Dir.), “Penser par cas. Raisonner à partir de singularités”, Penser par cas, Paris, Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2020, p. 9-44.

Pégourdie Adrien, “Les provinces de la musique. Pratiques professionnelles, trajectoires et rapports au métier des instrumentistes classiques limougeauds”, Doctoral thesis in sociology, Université de Limoges, Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines, 2013.

Perrenoud Philippe, Métier d’élève et sens du travail scolaire, Issy-les-Moulineaux, ESF éditeur, 2000.

Pinçon-Charlot Monique et Yves Garnier, “Enseigner la musique ? L’exemple d’un conservatoire municipal”, Les cahiers de l’animation, no. 51, 1985, p. 13-31.

Pronovost Gilles, Loisir et société : traité de sociologie empirique, 2nd ed., Sainte-Foy, Québec, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 1997.

Secrétariat d’État à la Culture, Règlement pédagogique à l’usage des conservatoires nationaux de région et des écoles nationales de musique, Paris, Direction de la Musique, de l’Art lyrique et de la Danse, 1974.

Thin Daniel, Quartiers populaires : l’école et les familles, Lyon, Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1998.

Tranchant Lucas, “Des musiciens à bonne école. Les pratiques éducatives des classes supérieures au prisme de l’apprentissage enfantin de la musique”, Sociologie, vol. 7, no. 1, 2016, p. 23-40.

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Notes

1 Hennion Antoine, Martinat Françoise and Vignolle Jean-Pierre, Les Conservatoires et leurs élèves : rapport sur les élèves et anciens élèves des écoles de musique agréées par l’État, Paris, la Documentation française, 1983; Mairie de Paris, Synthèse de l’audit des conservatoires municipaux d’arrondissement, Paris, Mairie de Paris, 2010.

2 Pinçon-Charlot Monique and Garnier Yves, “Enseigner la musique ? L’exemple d’un conservatoire municipal”, Les cahiers de l’animation, no. 51, 1985, p. 13-31; Tranchant Lucas, “Des musiciens à bonne école. Les pratiques éducatives des classes supérieures au prisme de l’apprentissage enfantin de la musique”, Sociologie, vol. 7, no. 1, 2016, p. 23-40.

3 Lahire Bernard, Culture écrite et inégalités scolaires : sociologie de l’échec scolaire à l’école primaire, New ed., Lyon, Presses universitaires de Lyon, 2000.

4 Deslyper Rémi, “Les élèves guitaristes des écoles de ‘musiques actuelles’ : une analyse sociologique d’un passage de l’autodidaxie à l’enseignement pédagogique”, PhD thesis in sociology, Université Lumière lyon 2, Faculté d’anthropologie, de sociologie et de science politique, Lyon, 2013.

5 Thin Daniel, Quartiers populaires : l’école et les familles, Lyon, Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1998.

6 Lahire, Culture écrite et inégalités scolaires, p. 60.

7 This article has been prepared as part of a research on former students of municipal conservatories [in France], aimed at offering insight into the effects of conservatory socialisation on the students’ musical practices.

8 The name has been changed.

9 Berger Peter Ludwig and Luckmann Thomas, La construction sociale de la réalité, Taminiaux Pierre (trad.), Paris, Armand Colin, 2005, p. 223.

10 Ibid.

11 Translator’s note: The practice described in the French as jouer “comme ça” is translated here as playing “like that”, in keeping with related work on this expression by French sociologist Bernard Lahire, quoted herein. To do something comme ça/like that means to do it without formality, without a particular aim, as it comes. Distinguishing a free-form use of their instrument from their formal practice, work or training, a musician might say they are “just playing” or “playing around”. It is in this sense that the subject here describes his informal practice of playing “like that”. On the notion of doing something like that from the French comme ça, see notes 50-52 below, and Lahire Bernard, The Plural Actor, Wiley, 2011.

12 Becker Howard Saul, La bonne focale : de l’utilité des cas particuliers en sciences sociales, Merllié-Young Christine (trad.), Paris, la Découverte, 2016; Passeron Jean-Claude et Revel Jacques, “Penser par cas. Raisonner à partir de singularités”, Penser par cas, Paris, Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2020, p. 9-44.

13 Lahire Bernard, “La fabrication sociale des individus : cadres, modalités, temps et effets de socialisation”, Dans les plis singuliers du social, Paris, La Découverte, 2013, p. 115-132.

14 Becker, La bonne focale, p. 84.

15 Lahire Bernard, Portraits sociologiques : dispositions et variations individuelles, Paris, A. Colin, 2002.

16 Translator’s note: A figure calculated by the French benefits system, based on household income.

17 Hennion, Martinat and Vignolle, op.cit. ; Pinçon-Charlot and Garnier, op.cit. ; Bozon Michel, Vie quotidienne et rapports sociaux dans une petite ville de province : la mise en scène des différences, Lyon, Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1984; Tranchant, op.cit.

18 See for example the description of the Villefranche-sur-Saône music school by sociologist Michel Bozon (op. cit., p. 221-222).

19 On his mother’s side, his grandmother was a medical secretary and his grandfather a skilled labourer; on his father’s side, his grandmother was a housewife and his grandfather a worker.

20 Excerpt from the 2013-14 conservatory guide: “Early-learning music lessons – ages 4 and 5 – Duration: 45 minutes; Initiation – age 6 – Duration: 45 minutes plus instrumental discovery workshops; From age 7 – […] Music theory: 1h15 Instrument: 1/2 h Ensemble: 1/2 h to 1h15; For the Music+ / Cycle 1 course From 7 to 11 years – Duration: 4 to 5 years”.

21 The organ in question is an electronic organ (with one or two keyboards and, possibly, a pedalboard) which, thanks to its affordability, was played widely from the 1960s to ‘80s. It was replaced by synthesisers in the late 1980s.

22 Found on the municipal website.

23 Guide du conservatoire 2013-14.

24 Bourdieu Pierre, La distinction : critique sociale du jugement, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1979, p. 566 (italicized by author).

25 Harp, bassoon and string bass classes were added in the following years, completing the list of symphony orchestra instruments taught at the music school.

26 The lower status of the viola is reflected in a 1974 ministerial document that states: “At the extreme limit, students who have made serious instrumental studies without achieving the necessary results may be reoriented […] towards an instrument similar to the one they have played thus far (for example: from violin to viola, from tenor trombone […] to bass trombone, etc.)”, Secrétariat d’État à la Culture, Règlement pédagogique à l’usage des conservatoires nationaux de région et des écoles nationales de musique, Paris, Direction de la Musique, de l’Art lyrique et de la Danse, 1974, p. 42 (italicized by author).

27 Les amis de l’alto (Friends of the Viola) website, for example, features a whole page of violist jokes http://amisdelalto.over-blog.fr/article-23467145.html (consulted on 2 June 2022).

28 Although the conservatory and teachers refer to this class as “Formation musicale” (FM - Music theory), students generally call it “solfège”. Music theory and solfege are used interchangeably in this article.

29 Most of the other respondents refer to their former music school teachers by their first names.

30 He alludes several times to the difference between a music school and a conservatory, as here with regard to the music school’s classification as a CRC (State recognised) conservatory: “This was no longer the little music school […], it was the ‘conservatory’!”

31 2012 Conservatory Rules (italicized by me).

32 Méthode d’alto – Débutants (B. Garlej – J.F. Gonzales), Méthode d’alto – Volume 1 (P. Hadjaje – M. Carles), Viola school of progressive studies vol. 1 (A. Carse), Premier voyage vol. 2 alto (A. Voirpy), Play it again – viola (D. Scott), Mon premier concert (A. Ameller), Mélodie et marche (C.H. Joubert), 14 easy tunes for viola (C. Cowles). Their purchase represented a total cost of around €150.

33 “Viola school of progressive studies volume 1 (A. Carse)” 3 first exercises played out of 100; “14 easy tunes for viola (C. Cowles)” 1of 14 pieces played; “Mon premier concert (A. Ameller)” 1 of 6 pieces played; “Méthode d’alto – Volume 1 (P. Hadjaje – M. Carles)” 16 exercises done out of 167.

34 Lartigot Jean-Claude, L’apprenti instrumentiste, Fondettes, Van de Velde, 1999, p. 136-137 (italicized by me).

35 Ibid., p. 152.

36 Ibid., p. 145.

37 0=no finger/open string, 1=index, 2=middle, 3=ring, 4=pinky.

38 In his fourth year, for example, he was in music theory class with two cellists, a harpist, a drummer, an accordionist, a classical pianist, a clarinettist, a jazz pianist and another violist.

39 Cello, trombone and bassoon scores use tenor clef (F4, or ut 4 in French) to write notes in their upper register that would require too many extra lines in their usual F clef (bass clef). (Translator’s note: Throughout this passage, the clefs are referred to by their letter notes rather than the usual English terms (treble clef, alto clef, bass clef, etc.), in order to reflect the way they are referred to in French and therefore in the experience of the subject of this case study.

40 Hennion Antoine, Comment la musique vient aux enfants : une anthropologie de l’enseignement musical, Paris, Anthropos, 1988, p. 9.

41 Of the 20 pages containing 5-line staves, 16 show only G clefs, 3 combined G and F clefs, and 1 shows staves with no clef, for a total of 116 staves with a G clef, 8 with an F clef and 9 with no clef. No C clef (clef d’ut 3) appears in the pages distributed by the teachers.

42 “Difficulty in reading the notes is holding back work on the instrument. Sing the scores before playing”. (Viola); “Needs improvement, unsatisfactory. Don’t get discouraged” (Music theory [“Reading” section]); “A lot of work to be done on rhythm, but above all on reading (C clef), the key to your instrument!” (Music theory); “Practise reading your C clef and repeating the rhythm”. (Viola); “Encouraging results this semester, especially in rhythm and singing. You now need to get your eye used to reading more quickly so that you can put this progress to good use when playing your instrument”. (Music theory).

43 “Very good, keep working with regularity” (December, 1st year) “Repeat the exercises with regularity”. “The pace of work is not yet sufficient to ensure steady progress”. “You need to work more on the exercises and pieces at home to make progress”. (June, 1st year) “You need to work more at home”. (December, 2nd year) “Better, but be very regular in your work at home”. (June, 2nd year) “Read the workbook carefully: the recommendations will help you to work on your own at home”. “You need to gradually increase the amount of work you do each day”. (December, 3rd year) “Keep up the good work at home; you can do it”. (June, 1st year) “You need to work more at home”. (December, 4th year).

44 Lehmann Bernard, L’orchestre dans tous ses éclats : ethnographie des formations symphoniques, Paris, la Découverte, 2005, p. 55.

45 For a presentation of the different categories of conservatoires classified by the State (CRC/CRI, CRD, CRR), see the Philharmonie de Paris website: https://metiers.philharmoniedeparis.fr/classement-conservatoires.aspx (accessed 13 May 2023).

46 Pégourdie Adrien, “Les provinces de la musique. Pratiques professionnelles, trajectoires et rapports au métier des instrumentistes classiques limougeauds”, doctoral thesis in sociology, Université de Limoges, Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines, 2013, p. 366.

47 “Put in more effort at home” (December 2008); “But is he putting in time at home? It doesn’t seem so…” (December 2010).

48 Lahire Bernard, L’homme pluriel : les ressorts de l’action, 2nd ed., Paris, F. Nathan, 2001, p. 146.

49 Pronovost Gilles, Loisir et société : traité de sociologie empirique, 2nd ed., Sainte-Foy, Québec, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 1997, p. 82-83.

50 “This expression [‘like that’] can […] refer to situations in which order is not particularly chosen or cultivated, i.e. in which the actor does not have a particular order in mind when carrying out the action”. Lahire, L’homme pluriel, p. 147.

51 Among the rock guitarists at music schools interviewed by Rémi Deslyper, we find the same distinction between playing for music school, which is characterised as work, and playing “like that”, which is not: “I work a lot. Then, well, there are times when I just pick up the guitar like that, to try and come up with ideas for songs or new guitar bits, stuff I like, play solos, stuff like that, fun stuff, but that’s more rare” (Aurélien, 21, who has been playing guitar for 10 years and enrolled in music school for 3 years). “I still sometimes just play like that, like if I’ve got five minutes before I leave the house or whatever, I walk by my guitar and pick it up to play a few chords, but that’s not work” (Paco, 19, who has been playing guitar for 5 years and enrolled in music school this year). Deslyper, “Les élèves guitaristes des écoles de ‘musiques actuelles’”, p. 168.

52 “Playing ‘like that’ may indicate a situation where the written form is less formal”. Lahire, ibid.

53 Perrenoud Philippe, Métier d’élève et sens du travail scolaire, Issy-les-Moulineaux, ESF éditeur, 2000.

54 Hoggart Richard, La culture du pauvre : étude sur le style de vie des classes populaires en Angleterre, Garcias Jean-Claude and Garcias Francoise (trad.), Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1970, p. 118.

55 The town’s different school sectors are not represented uniformly within the music school. For example, students from the school sector attended by Sofiane represent less than 4% of total music school students, whereas the school sector located in the centre of the town’s main area of single-family housing represents more than 16%.

56 As an “unscientific” observation, to be taken with due caution, during Sofiane’s last year of enrolment, only around thirty pupils had a North African-sounding first name and surname, out of a total of 547 students enrolled at the music school.

57 Laillier Joël, Entrer dans la danse : l’envers du Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2017, p. 65-67.

58 Chagnard Samuel, “La pratique publique comme pratique-écran en conservatoire”, Les identités des professeurs de musique : actes du Colloque international Les identités professionnelles des professeurs de musique, Paris, CNSMDP, 15-16 décembre 2014, Delatour France, 2017, p. 49-62.

59 In his last year at the conservatory, Sofiane went there 3 evenings a week for a total of 5 hours/week.

60 Lahire, Portraits sociologiques, p. 411.

61 Laillier, Entrer dans la danse, p. 67.

62 Bourdieu Pierre and De Saint Martin Monique, “Les catégories de l’entendement professoral”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, vol. 1, no. 3, 1975, p. 87.

63 Ibid.

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Samuel Chagnard, « “Music school is behind me”: A case of “failed” musical socialisation »Transposition [En ligne], 11 | 2023, mis en ligne le 02 novembre 2023, consulté le 18 juin 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/transposition/8105 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/transposition.8105

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Samuel Chagnard

A multi-instrumentalist, Samuel Chagnard is a trainer, researcher and training manager at Cefedem Auvergne Rhône-Alpes (Centre de formation des enseignants de la musique). Working in the fields of sociology and educational sciences, his research focuses mainly on specialised music teaching in France, studying in particular the effects of musical socialisation within conservatories on the playing practices of their former students. Personal website : http://sociomusic.hypotheses.org/

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