"When I was a young musician, the only option available to pursue secondary education in music was to attend a classical conservatory." -Billy Joel

If you wish to find employment as an elite performer, music teacher or composer, you'll need to attend a university conservatorium to take high-quality music lessons and pursue your music studies.

A Conservatorium education is synonymous with excellence. Only truly dedicated flautists, drummers, violinists and pianists pass the rigorous audition process and enter classes at Conservatoriums.

A conservatorium education is not without its downsides - conservatoriums are often criticized for offering an education that is too rigid, forcing students to choose between a classical and jazz stream, for example, when they may blossom creatively by pursuing both. However, this is fast changing as conservatoriums modernise their teaching curricula. They may also be perceived as elitist institutions where students are pushed to their limits, sometimes to the point of losing their love for music altogether. But if you are truly passionate and thrive musically under high stress, a conservatorium education may be for you.

So how does a keen student pursue a piano education at a conservatorium?

What is a Conservatorium?

Understanding the conservatorium model

Piano teachers at conservatoriums are highly trained professionals and expect a high standard of commitment from their students. You can find out more about two of the largest conservatoriums in Australia here:

The Melbourne Conservatorium of Music

The Sydney Conservatorium of Music

Studying at a conservatorium used to be a pipe dream for most student musicians. However, over the years, conservatoriums have begun implementing programs to become more accessible to a wider section of the community, with various workshops, camps and masterclasses available to everyone. If you want to dip your toe into the educational environment of the conservatorium without signing up to a 3 or 4 year-long degree, you could research one-off masterclasses or piano workshops open to members of the general public. These might take place over one afternoon, or a whole weekend.

There are also conservatorium programs designed to be accessible to students from disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and there are usually scholarships available for those who can't afford program fees. So don't be discouraged when you see the fees - search the conservatorium in your city and see what's on offer!

At a conservatorium, lessons generally fall under one of three different categories:

  • Theory lectures, classes and exams
  • One-on-one instrumental tuition in your primary instrument
  • Ensemble practice - in orchestras, swing bands, choirs etc.

You will likely be expected to perform at concerts for the rest of your student cohort at particular times during the year, and many conservatoriums organise public concerts to help budding pianists confront their stage fright and hone their performance skills.

Depending on the piano teacher and their pedagogical method, you may also be allowed to specialize in a particular type of music such as Early Music or music from the Romantic or Classical Periods, or even jazz or contemporary classical.

You'll usually have the opportunity to take electives outside your piano study as well. These could take the form of composition subjects, where you'll learn to compose at the piano and beyond or world music ensembles (ever wanted to learn how to play the Shakuhachi flute or Indonesian gamelan?). Most conservatoriums now offer electives in recording and music production, so the modern musician can learn how to produce and record their own music.

The electives on offer will vary from year to year and depend heavily on the teaching staff at the Conservatorium. So if you have your eye on a particular subject or stream, email the professor to make sure it's definitely running this year!

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Details and Length of Study

Conservatorium of Music
Performing in front of an audience in a real concert hall prepares you for your future career as a pianist! (Source: Visual Hunt)

To study at a Conservatorium, there are usually a few qualifications and requirements you'll need to show. For example...

  • A high school diploma: many Conservatoriums require that you've passed year 12, although this may be waived for mature-age students who can show prior learning or experience. Even if you ace the audition, you may not be accepted if you don't meet minimum grades for Music, or even sometimes Maths and English. Different conservatoriums have different selection criteria, so be sure to check these out before you apply!
  • A letter from your music teacher or exam results: if you've passed AMEB exams for piano, you may be asked to show your certificates or a letter from your music teacher supporting your application and recommending you for the degree
  • An audition: if you've shown satisfactory high school marks, you'll be scheduled for an audition and your musical skills will be assessed. Prepare a contrasting program adapted to the length of the audition, and make sure you pick pieces that you are both comfortable with and that really show off your talents!
  • Your overall suitability: some Conservatorium entry processes also include an interview, where you'll be asked about your motivation and how you plan to handle the pressure of studying a music degree.

So, once you've received your letter of acceptance, how long will it take to get your diploma?

Undergraduate music degrees in Australia generally last for 3 years of full-time study, although you may have the option to study part-time as well, for up to six years. Students who excel may be asked to apply for Honours, which adds another year. You may also be offered classes in the Winter or Summer terms, which can help you catch up on classes or overload to finish faster.

These are just general guidelines, and conservatoriums across Australia will differ in terms of course structure, syllabuses and assessments. So make sure you head over to the website of your conservatorium of choice and read up on all the details.

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Who Can Learn Piano At A Conservatorium?

start playing an instrument young
If you want to enter a conservatorium, your best bet is to start playing the piano at a young age! (Source: Visual Hunt)

Conservatoriums aren't just for adults, and there are more and more learning opportunities geared towards children and adolescents. These are organised differently depending on the school, city or region.

For Children or Adolescents

Generally, there aren't any one-to-one classes offered at the conservatorium for students between 8 and 17. But that doesn't mean there aren't lots of other musical opportunities! Some things on offer at conservatoriums for younger students might include...

  • free concerts they can attend with their parents to get inspired by professional musicians
  • junior choirs or orchestras run through the conservatorium
  • a dedicated conservatorium high school with a strong music focus
  • orchestra, choir or composition camps over the school holidays
  • music theory summer schools

If your child or teen dreams of attending a conservatorium one day, it's a good idea to look into the programs available. There are two main benefits to this; they can try out the conservatorium atmosphere and see if they like it before they commit to a degree pathway, and having attended conservatorium programs for young artists will make their application stand out when the time comes to apply for their degree.

For Adults

Sometimes, adults who play piano but are not already studying a degree are also welcome to participate in summer schools, conservatorium choirs or orchestras or piano masterclasses. However, unless you're signed up for a degree, this is not a private music school offering one-on-one music tuition to beginners.

If you're looking for private lessons and live close to a conservatorium, you could pass by and check out the local noticeboard - there will almost certainly be piano students and professors offering piano lesson on the side, and you have some assurance that the lessons will be of high quality!

When Should You Sign Up at a Conservatorium to Learn Piano?

The application and audition process can be long and complicated, so our best answer is - as soon as possible!

Registrations start to open mid-year for the start of the school year in January, and auditions usually take place over the summer.

Most applications now take place online, so get all your documentation ready (high school diploma, letter of recommendation from your piano teacher, any AMEB certificates, and a letter of motivation) and get uploading!

How Much Will It Cost To Study Piano At A Conservatoire?

If you are looking into programs at a conservatorium, the price will depend on the length and depth of instruction. A day-long masterclass could cost anywhere between $50 and $200, whilst a week-long orchestra camp might be upwards of $500. If you are taking part in a conservatorium orchestra, fees might be paid in semesters or for a full year.

On the other hand, if you're looking at employing a student or staff member from the conservatorium for one-on-one lessons, prices could range anywhere from $40 per hour (for a first-year piano student without much teaching experience) to $120 per hour (for masterclasses with a piano professor).

If you want to study your Bachelor of Music full-time at a conservatorium, you're looking at more like $5,000-$6,000 per year, although if you are an Australian citizen you may be able to take out a HECS loan to cover the full cost of this.

If you're studying a Bachelor's degree at the conservatorium, you'll have access to practice rooms. But beware - these fill up extremely quickly, especially around exam and performance season, and you may need to book your practice sessions a week or more in advance.

If you're serious about your studies, you'll need either a very good keyboard or upright or grand piano at home. So this is a cost you'll need to factor in if you dream of obtaining your degree at a conservatorium.

The Pros and Cons of Learning Piano at a Conservatorium

Conservatoriums provide high-quality musical instruction to the next generation of elite performers, but the high-pressure environment is not without its downsides. Like anything, there are pros and cons to learning the piano through a conservatorium.

The Pros

Whether it's in flute, saxophone, contemporary dance or classical piano, the instruction you receive is guaranteed to be of the highest quality. The professors at a conservatorium will all have music degrees themselves and many years of teaching experience.

You will also receive a holistic education - whilst performance and artistic practice may be the central focus of your degree, you'll round out your education with compulsory music theory classes and have the opportunity to take classes in composition and join musical ensembles of all different stripes.

The secret to musical success is practice, practice, practice, and at the conservatorium, you'll be expected to practice daily. Being part of a larger cohort of passionate musicians will do wonders for your motivation to practice, and there are lots of practice rooms on campus for you to use.

You'll have plenty of opportunities to perform to your peers, your professors and the general public. This could be through public concerts in the auditorium or at music festivals and piano competitions. These experiences will teach you to handle performance stress and be invaluable training for your life as a professional musician on the performance, competition and audition circuits.

You can specialise in the music you are passionate about. Whilst you generally won't find rock or pop on the agenda, conservatoriums have a large teaching staff specialising across jazz, classical, romantic, early music, contemporary classical music and experimental music.


The Cons

playing and instrument for fun
Never lose joy in your instrumental practice! (Source: Visual Hunt)

On the other hand, a Conservatorium education does come with some disadvantages, and maybe even some dealbreakers.

You may be forced to choose between the jazz and classical streams early on. This could be a dealbreaker for the versatile musician who wants a lot of room to explore all their musical interests.

Many instrumental courses require mandatory music theory and music history classes. This can be daunting for students who are brilliant musicians excelling at practical exercises and performance, but who struggle with the more academic side of things. Many students drop out because they lose motivation to continue, as the joy of simply playing is overshadowed by the heavy academic load.

If a conservatorium isn't for you, what are your other options? You could learn the piano at an association, take piano classes through private music schools or even explore the piano without a tutor.

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Erin is an Australian musician, writer and francophile living in France.