But I only wanted to practice! Part 3: Conservatoire à rayonnement régional de Toulouse, France

Conservatoire à rayonnement régional de Toulouse, France
(Accurate as of May 2016)

Most cities and towns in France have a Conservatoire de [insert town name here], which is essentially a community music school with the addition of dance and theater as focuses. These regional conservatories often have age restrictions (depending on the degree level, but typically under 30 years old) and accept students of all levels after an audition. Private lessons are the primary focus, but other parts of music study (solfègeécriture, etc) are available. Students pursue a sort of diploma program with 3 levels of cycles that precede the final two diplomas: cycle spécialisé and en perfectionnement. I pursued the latter diploma, which is an equivalent to the American Artist Diploma. Only the two national conservatories in Lyon and Paris have adopted the American degree monikers of Bachelor, Master, and Doctorate, and a student typically attends either of these after studies in the more local conservatories.

Toulouse has been called the Capitale mondiale de l’orgue (world capital of the organ) because of its proliferation of truly extraordinary historical instruments, primarily in the French style. Paris-based instruments often changed with the prevailing fashions while instruments outside of the French capital more frequently remained in their original conditions, whether because they were loved as they were or, more practically, because there were no funds to “update” these historical monuments. This fortunately leaves us with hundreds of organs throughout France — hundreds of musical windows through time. Southwest France, including Toulouse, being far from the destruction zones of both world wars, has an especially high number of these, making the Toulouse-centered corner of France a veritable organists’ playground.

Because of these historic instruments, practicing in the environs of Toulouse is the goal, rather than practicing at the conservatory itself. However, when there for a year of studies, one still must learn repertoire and prepare for concerts and competitions — and I, for one, didn’t want to drill notes on a 200+-year-old instrument. A practice session of repeating one measure ad-infinitum doesn’t teach nearly enough about the organ and the space!

Practice facilities: 3 separate practice rooms / 3 practice organs
– two 3-manual. one 2-manual
– all tracker/mechanical action
– all flat pedalboards
– one organ with swell shoe
– all instruments with 56 notes on manuals and 27 notes in pedal

Building hours: Monday – Friday from 8AM – 10PM (closed on holidays and vacations – or without warning in case of a strike!)

Number of students: approximately 20-25

Availability: at the start of the academic year, we signed up for regular practice slots. Mine were Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday from 8AM – 10AM, with a 1.5 hour slot on Wednesday afternoon. We could swap with other students if out of town or unavailable for our particular time.

(A thousand thanks to Celina Kobetitsch for photographs of practice organs at the Conservatoire de Toulouse!)

At the conservatory, organ students do not have the droit (“right”) to practice on pianos unless they are in the piano program. One of the organ practice rooms also has an upright piano – but of course, practicing on that would be during the reserved time, not in addition to.

In order to access a practice room, one has to leave their student card at the entrance desk in exchange for the room’s key. If, at the end of one’s practice time, the next student does not come, one can stay until the student after them arrives. I quickly learned to bring snacks to my morning practices (although I’m still not sure if that was permissible), since the “gift” of someone not arriving might mean double the amount of practicing that day… although this made it a tad difficult to plan the day, and the day’s meals! Also, the entrance desk (with the keys) closed for lunch from 12PM – 2PM, so one had to be sure to arrive before the guardien/ne/s took their lunch breaks (beginning anywhere from, on one occasion, 11:37AM onwards) or you’d be left without a key and without a practice room.

Since my scheduled practice time was from 8AM – 10AM, I often finished my schedule work mid-morning, allowing for endless exploration of beautiful Toulouse – both its cityscape and culinary offerings!

Performance and practice facilities (in the city of Toulouse):
– 1889 Cavaillé-Coll III/P/54 in Basilique St-Sernin
– 1981 Ahrend III/P/33 in Musée des Augustins
– 1848 Cavaillé-Coll/1970 Kern III/P/47 in Cathédrale St-Etienne
– Pleyel pedal piano in Église du Gésu
– 1888 Puget III/P/47 Église Notre-Dame de la Dalbade
– 1677 Delaunay/1750 Isnard/1982 Grenzing IV/P/51 in Église Saint-Pierre des Chartreux
– 2005 Daldosso II/P/28 in Temple du Salin
– 1885 Puget III/P/25 in Église Saint-Exupère

Most churches in France are open to the public for touring, visits, and meditation throughout the day. Unlike many American churches (although exceptions certainly exist on both sides of the Atlantic), these churches prefer that the organ not be played for most of the day, especially since administration offices often abut or are in the churches themselves. Even French organ music on beautiful, historic instruments gets old, it seems?

Because of this, the available practice times for most churches were from 12PM – 2PM (when administrative workers have lunch) or overnight, if a key could be procured. This was the case for St-Sernin, the Cathédrale St-Étienne, and Église Notre-Dame de la Dalbade. Practice sessions for these spaces were reserved in advance, in a kind of rotation system with other students. One might have a single two-hour session in a local church in two weeks, or be lucky enough to be locked into St-Sernin (with the bats) for the whole night.

For other instruments, the situations varied: the Musée des Augustins was available from 8AM until the museum opened at 10AM, the Église du Gesu was closed to the public so mostly available for practice if one knew who had the key, Église St-Pierre des Chartreux was open all afternoon if you got there first, Temple du Salin could be reserved, and Église St-Exupère was a good option if you could sweet talk the priest and play softly.

(As an aside; arriving at the Cathédrale St-Étienne’s swallow’s nest organ, which clings to the wall almost 60 feet above the church’s floor, is an astounding experience. One first climbs the most interminable set of stairs in Toulouse — a stairway so long that Renée Darasse-Laroyenne, titulare at the Cathédrale from 1946-1986 [Xavier Darasse‘s mother], insisted that a second light switch be installed halfway because the timer on the one at the bottom of the stairs would expire before she reached the top — to arrive at a landing where the only option is to cross the roof. Finally, one proceeds down a harrowing catwalk from which one is on display for all tourists visiting the cathedral at that moment. “No photos, please!”)

The Cathédrale is also where I developed a bit of a practice “twitch.” There was a signal used there (and elsewhere, of course) if somebody in the building wanted the organist to stop playing. This person would clap; a far better method than shouting at the organist – there is always ambient noise (talking) in these public spaces, so a shout isn’t distinguishable from the hum of voices. Whenever I was practicing in the Cathédrale, if somebody clapped their hands, that nearly always meant to stop practicing immediately — even if one had just arrived for the two-hour session. A group of pilgrims may have arrived for prayer, there might be a noontime funeral service, or somebody may have forgotten to communicate that there was no practice time that day. Even today, when somebody claps during my practice sessions, I can’t help myself: I stop playing.

Despite being comfortable in the French language, my status as an expatriate caused challenges in finding practice spaces, since I simply didn’t have an initial social foundation to open doors and access spaces. The sheer number of hours needed to adequately prepare a competition, especially coupled with wishing to learn new music (shocking!) made 2 hours, or even 4 hours, per day on a practice organ seem too short, no matter the level of mental preparation and planning I put into such sessions (SUCH a “first-world problem,” I admit!). The key? I discovered the incredible kindness of friends and fellow organ-lovers, creating this social foundation and finding people with whom I now stay in contact years later. I often traveled for a weekend away practicing, or practiced on a piano and electronic organ in the home of a friend.

Practicing in Toulouse required creativity, strategy, and thought to adequately prepare to play varied instruments elsewhere, especially those not of the French Romantic or German Baroque styles. It was in Toulouse that I discovered pretending to hit pistons on an organ without any combination action so as to not be shocked when having to do so on an instrument that had it. When playing a concave/radiating AGO/RCO pedalboard once again (mostly standard in the USA, Canada, and England), I had several instances of overshooting when leaping in the pedal, before I reminded myself that the lowest and highest notes of the pedal were closer once again!

International organists coming to France for study typically have a different expectation to that of a standard degree program: they study in France to add depth to their understanding of French organ music. The unparalleled access to historic French instruments in Toulouse and its environs fulfills this need to play and learn from the original instruments and, furthermore, allows students to study both the instruments and the culture, adding breadth to their studies. Beyond this, the student can be as creative as s/he likes to be sure they are prepared for instruments in other styles, traveling to play other instruments or pretending that an instrument has something it does not. This Capitale de l’orgue is indeed the modern capital of French organ study, with a wealth of both instruments and beautiful views to boot!

Église St-Exupère

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