Throughout this past year, I’ve received many questions about my experience studying clarinet in France. I believe studying abroad (whether it’s music or any other discipline) is a great opportunity to learn about other cultures while creating lifelong friends and memories. I encourage anyone interested in studying abroad to make it happen, and I hope this article helps if you’re considering studying abroad.
Below are some of the most common questions I get asked, along with some questions from my Facebook page. Disclaimer: These responses are based on my own experiences and won’t necessarily apply to all study abroad situations. Before moving abroad, do as much research as possible for your own program, course of study, and country.
Why did you want to study clarinet in France? I wanted to study with Philippe Cuper, who teaches at the Versailles Conservatoire. He has always been one of my favorite clarinetists, and hearing him perform the Francaix Concerto at the ICA ClarinetFest in Los Angeles in 2011 inspired me to begin researching a move to France. Additionally, so much of the clarinet’s history is centered in Paris – the solo de concours at the Paris Conservatory, the rich history of instrument manufacturers located in Paris, and the famous composers create an unparalleled clarinet culture.
I want to study abroad, but I’m not sure which country is right for me. Think of your favorite soloists, performers, pedagogues, teachers, conservatories, and orchestras. Is there a pattern among them? I decided on France specifically for my teacher, but maybe you’ve always been interested in traditional Spanish music – look into Spain. Love listening to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff? Consider Russia. Talk to your teacher or school’s study abroad counselor for advice. As much as you like a certain country or culture, just make sure that you have a connection to that country or a legitimate reason to move there (besides the sparkling beaches, cheap wine, or Hogwarts-inspired castles).
Did you study French before you moved to France? Aside from a year of mediocre high school French class, not really. I practiced with DuoLingo and Rosetta Stone before I moved, but I wish I had more opportunities to study the language seriously. I thought my French was a lot better than it actually was when I arrived in Paris. I was surprised by how quickly everybody speaks, and although many people do speak English in Paris, it can still be overwhelming. It’s true that the best way to learn a language is to be thrown into the culture. My advice is to practice the language as much as possible before you arrive – listen to the radio, find others to practice conversing, and immerse yourself in the language. My most embarrassing language mishap: I ordered a slice of pizza at a boulangerie (I know, I know, I should have stuck with the pastries!) and they asked me a question that I didn’t understand, so I said no, took my pizza, and left. It was only after I got on the train with my pizza did I realize they had asked if I’d like them to heat my pizza, which is why I suffered through cold pizza on the train back to Paris.
Is it expensive to live in Paris? This answer depends on your lifestyle and levels of comfort, but Paris is not as expensive as I expected. Of course, you could increase costs by living in the 7th arrondissement near the Eiffel Tower or in the bohemian Montmartre neighborhood, but I don’t recommend this, especially on a student budget. My grocery bills are much cheaper in France than they are in the States, but that being said, brasseries and other restaurants are usually more expensive. Create a budget, apply for grants and scholarships in your country, and research jobs (just be sure it’s allowed with your visa). The biggest cost advantage to living in France? Tuition! My tuition last year was only 300 euros – for the entire year! In the States, a single textbook can be more expensive than that! So even if you decide to live in a ritzy neighborhood and wine and dine yourself around Paris, it’s still probably cheaper than a year’s tuition for most schools in America.
What was the biggest culture shock? Definitely the smoking. It looks sultry and romantic in movies about Paris, but when everyone is smoking all day around me, all I can think about is the second-hand smoke I’m inhaling.
Was it scary moving to a foreign country? Yes and no. I was too excited about the opportunities I would have in France to be very scared, but it was a weird feeling moving to a country without knowing anybody. Of course I miss my family and friends, but I am very thankful to have the opportunity to live in such a beautiful city. Many people think that Paris is unsafe now because of the terrorist attacks last November, and while this is a valid concern, these attacks can happen anywhere.
What are the differences between the French and American approaches to music? In America, many musicians begin in a middle school band or orchestra program, where they learn music simultaneously with their instrument. French music pedagogy teaches students how to read music, rhythm, and basic music theory before applying it to an instrument. There is also a heavier emphasis on ear training and solfège in the French school. And by the way, I even had to “relearn” music – instead of whole notes, half notes, etc. the names are different (noires, blanches, croches, etc). Not having a strong foundation of solfège was also difficult – Every Good Boy (doesn’t) Do Fine in France!
What do you miss most about America? Besides my family and friends? Spicy food! French cuisine is rich and decadant, but not spicy. Two of my favorite restaurants in Paris are El Guacamole and El Nopal, both near the Canal St. Martin, where I can get my spicy food fix.
What are the advantages of studying music abroad as opposed to staying in the States? Gaining a new cultural perspective and meeting people from around the world. Studying music in a different country introduces you to so many new ideas, pieces of music, composers, performers, and opportunities you probably wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. If you live in a larger city, you also can hear traveling orchestras and soloists perform in your city.
What advice do you have for anyone interested in studying music abroad? Just do it. If you’re thinking about studying abroad and unsure, imagine yourself 20 years from now – which will you regret more, studying abroad or not studying abroad? Don’t be deterred by rejected grant proposals, lengthy visa procedures, or complicated administrative regulations. It might seem like a lot of work now, but the reward is worth it.
Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!