The French School—Secrets and Strategies

by Dionne Jackson

This article from the New York Flute Club Newsletter is adapted from notes for the author’s April 3, 2016, lecture/demonstration at the New York Flute Fair about her two years in the early 1990s as a student at the Paris Conservatory, where she was the first American in over a decade to be awarded a premier prix in flute.

The Paris Conservatory: A Brief History

The Paris Conservatory, founded in 1784, is steeped in an atmosphere of deep musical traditions and widely considered to be the model for all musical education in Europe. The sole purpose of all the regional conservatories throughout France is to train and prepare musicians for their entrance into the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris (CNSMP). Its past directors and professors included some of the most famous musicians of the day—Cherubini, Ambroise Thomas, Gabriel Fauré, Hector Berlioz, Massenet, Widor, Olivier Messiaen, and Nadia Boulanger, just to name a few. Some of the more famous flute professors who have taught there include Taffanel (considered a founding father of the modern day French Flute School) and Gaubert, Marcel Moyse, Jean-Pierre Rampal, my teachers Alain Marion and his assistant Raymond Guiot (a position now held by Sophie Cherrier), and Philippe Bernold.

Each of these professors had a great influence on the flutists of his generation and many times it was the professor’s best pupil who succeeded his master as the next Conservatoire professor. Examples are Taffanel, who was succeeded by Hennebains, who was then succeeded by Gaubert; Jean-Pierre Rampal, who was succeeded by Alain Marion; and Raymond Guiot, who was a pupil of Marcel Moyse. In my opinion, what makes this school and its flute training methods so special is the disciplined way of practicing that was handed down orally from professor to professor. This basic system of training has stayed the same for generations and has produced many of the world’s most famous flutists.

The Entrance Exam

The entrance exam to get into the Conservatory is very intense. If you are gifted enough to pass the entrance exam, you will get a totally free education. The school is free and open to everyone, not just French citizens. But you must audition live in person; there are no taped rounds.

Acceptance letter

Letter accepting Dionne Jackson (née Hansen) to the Paris Conservatory

When I auditioned there were 204 flutists and three competition rounds. You had a list of six pieces to choose from: Casella, Dutilleux, Fauré, Gaubert, Taffanel, and Sancan. The first round pieces were Gaubert’s Nocturne et Allegro Scherzando, Mozart’s Andante et Rondo, and the Dutilleux Sonatine. The flute class accompanist, Fuminori Tanada, didn’t speak to me and the jury was very far away in the back of a large rehearsal room. Alain Marion said something to me in French, even though I knew he could speak English. But I did not understand what he said, and began my audition with the Gaubert. At the end of the audition, as we were leaving the audition room, the accompanist said in perfect English that they asked me to start with the Mozart, not the Gaubert, so I thought my chances of acceptance were over. Fortunately, I was invited back and I played the next two rounds the best I could.

The wait for the list to be posted was long and really stressful. All the candidates and their parents raced to the board to check the list, and you could cut the tension in the room with a knife. It was truly as if their lives would be over if their name was not on that list. I couldn’t believe it when I saw my name. Four students had been admitted to the class of Alain Marion and Raymond Guiot: myself, and one student each from Switzerland (Beat Lütolf), Belgium (Valerie Chermiset), and France (François Xavier-Roth). Other students already in the class were Sharon Bezaly, from Israel; Claudio Marinione, from Italy; and Olivier Tardy, Alexis Kossenko (age 14), and Marina Leguay, from France.

After the Entrance Exam...

I was the first American to study at the Paris Conservatory in over a decade. At the beginning, I felt just the slightest hint of antagonism from my fellow students. I could tell they were wondering how an American made it into this class. And it was incredibly intimidating: my French was not good, and all the classes are open masterclasses — there are no private lessons. In addition, every week there were students from abroad who were allowed to sit in and audit the class so every lesson felt like a public performance. The pressure to perform flawlessly was always on my mind. Missed notes were frowned upon greatly, and I was amazed at the level of technical perfection amongst my colleagues who were all many years younger than me. I already had my BM from Indiana University, where I had studied with Peter Lloyd, but a first prize from the Conservatory is the only musical education necessary for a career in Europe. In the first six months, the “new” class got right to work. Together, Marion taught us forward articulation, both Mozart concertos, and all six Bach sonatas. After that initial six months, each week we were to prepare a concerto, sonata, solo flute piece and a contemporary piece (see p. 5 for the first page of the repertoire list). Listening to all this music in our open classes, we were exposed to so much repertoire in a very short time because we observed all our colleagues in all their lessons. It was like having 14 hours of lessons a week.

with teacher Alain Marion

Dionne Jackson with her teacher, Alain Marion

We were never spoken to about the technicalities of producing a vibrato, but rather how to be expressive within a phrase and the importance of appoggiaturas. As I said, missing notes was not acceptable, and if you did your colleagues scrutinized you. In addition to 14 hours of open masterclasses each week, we had four hours of technique class with the assistant Raymond Guiot, whom I adored. He knew how much I valued his teaching and that I was working really hard, so he took an interest in helping me improve my technique. He assigned two etudes a week: one that was to be “performance ready,” that you played in front of the class, and one that was to be “in preparation.” Many of these etudes, for example the Nine Virtuosic Ètudes by De Lorenzo, were four or more pages long. If you made it to page three and fumbled a note, he would make you start back at the beginning and do it again until there were no missed notes or mistakes. It was tough and intense, and we learned how to concentrate under extreme circumstances.

He also drilled us with difficult technical exercises on the spot. Simple patterns notated on the page were repeated in all keys, with different articulations, varied rhythms, and octave and meter changes as well. We stood in a circle waiting our turn; things moved quickly and it was nerve wracking. One of my favorite quotes from Raymond Guiot was “Always keep your mind in the game. You must never practice the same exercise two days in a row. If you do, you are either really bored or NOT concentrating.” I studied chamber music with Christian Lardé (who had studied the Poulenc Sonata with Poulenc himself), had a sight reading class with Philippe Bernold and Michel Moragues, and had lessons in “solfège” and “analyse” (harmony).

Marion's repertoire list, first page

The first page of the class repertoire list, in the hand of Alain Marion

My harmony teacher was Madame Solange Chiapparin. Then in her late 70s, she was an organist and former pupil of Olivier Messiaen at the Conservatory. She coached all her harmony students privately on their various instruments at no charge. She would meet with me for four hours at a time (sometimes even on a Sunday) and helped me prepare for the Kobe International Flute Competition in Japan with my accompanist and good friend Fuminori Tanada, who had been her pupil. Fuminori is a fabulous musician and holds six first prizes from the Paris Conservatory. One of his prizes is in composition and he kindly wrote cadenzas for me for both Mozart concertos. We became such good friends from all of our coaching with Madame Chiapparin that he flew to New York City in 1997 to perform the Boulez Sonatine with me at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall. Madame Chiapparin’s energy was boundless, as was her passion for music and teaching. But many of the professors at the school were just as dedicated and felt the same obligation to teach and share their gifts.

Oral Traditions, Handed Down

In 1905, the great flutist Marcel Moyse entered the class of Paul Taffanel. Taffanel is considered one of the founding fathers of the true “French Flute School,” and it was during Taffanel’s tenure (1894–1908) that the silver flute became accepted over the wooden flute of the day. Before Taffanel, most of the flute repertoire was not of superior quality, and so Taffanel started the tradition of commissioning new works that would exploit the greater potential of the new Boehm system flute for the purpose of the prix concours or final exam. This is how so many French repertoire pieces were born (including every work in Louis Moyse’s Flute Music by French Composers book). Marcel Moyse spent one year in this class of Paul Taffanel. Today there is an age limit of under 22 to be eligible to audition. Jean-Pierre Rampal actually came before the age limit and didn’t enter the Conservatory until he was 24! My entrance audition took place exactly seven days before I turned 22, so I barely made it!

In the French system of training, technique does not mean only fast fingers but rather:

  1. Beautiful sound
  2. Forward clean and clear articulation
  3. Color changes
  4. Even, controlled fingers
  5. Interpretation

Technique is used to express musicality. Guiot and Marion said often that proper accentuation of a phrase comes across only when technique is totally controlled. Once you have a perfect technique you are free to be expressive and can start worrying about making music. They both thought that trying to teach technique through learning difficult pieces was completely backwards. You need the technical skills first; once you have them even hard pieces can be learned easily and quickly. Technical training is analogous to athletic training or musical gymnastics. They taught this with three method books by Moyse, considered to be the bibles of French school flute training: Gammes et Arpèges, De la Sonorité, and Tone Development Through Interpretation. Each class we played from each book. I kept detailed notes on Guiot’s classes to better remember the many (and usually very difficult) variations that he created on the basic exercises. I hope that someday I will be able to rewrite all my notes so that others can use them. I get my own students to practice this way and they make amazing progress very quickly.

inscribe CD from Guiot to Jackson

Raymond Guiot’s November 1994 inscription on Dionne Jackson’s copy of his CD reads, “To my very dear talented student Dionne, who has given me great pleasure in seriously applying the methods I believe in.”

The incredible forward articulation you hear by many French flutists (please Google Philippe Bernold’s YouTube recording of CPE Bach’s Concerto in D minor) is a result of their language, but can be learned with careful practice. Try TU KU and DU GU and notice how DU GU is much more forward in the mouth. Before learning forward articulation, though, you must practice exercises with the diaphragm, saying “HA” only. Starting on a midstaff B natural, say HA four times and then go up chromatically. Then repeat with two HAs, two DUs, and then two GUs. Marion always said if you have a great triple tonguing you will have fabulous double tonguing and he recommended practicing T&G No. 4 with DU GU DU for each note, GU GU GU per note, and then GU DU GU. He also recommended going up a chromatic scale using these various triple tonguing syllables, starting slowly and then speeding up to go as fast as you can.

The Concours de Prix [Competition for the Prize]

It is hard to overestimate the pressure experienced by students preparing for this event. This playing exam was not just a test, but a public debut open to the community, reviewed and analyzed by the press, and juried by the most famous performers of the world. The first prize winners represented a “Who’s Who” of the most promising young artists in Europe. In 1994, the year I passed my prize, the jury consisted of Jean-Pierre Rampal, Aurèle Nicolet, Maxence Larrieu, Sophie Cherrier, Trevor Wye, and Emmanuel Pahud (who received his prize just two years earlier). The normal length of the study cycle was three years. I had a Fulbright for one year and a Harriet Hale Woolley grant for year two, but no money to complete the third year. Alain Marion asked the director for special permission for me to be able to compete for the prize even though it was only my second year. Amazingly, the director agreed. Since the members of the international jury were all invited from the outside, they didn’t know the performers, so I was judged equally with my peers.

I succeeded in obtaining my prize. The commissioned piece that year was Gilbert Amy’s Trois Études; the required concerto was the Reinecke, and my piece of choice was the Muczynski Sonata. Marcel Moyse presented for his prize in 1906, after only one year at the Conservatory. Gabriel Fauré was the Conservatoire director, the commissioned exam piece was Gaubert’s Nocturne et Allegro Scherzando, and the sight reading piece was by Louis Ganne. Moyse accepted his first prize and was deemed ready for a professional career. He obviously continued his disciplined practice well after graduating from the Conservatory. Today, flutists everywhere are thankful for the method books he wrote as a guide to the kind of disciplined practice he learned while a pupil at the Conservatory.