My husband Gilberto Serembe and I gave in our resignation from our respective conservatorio a year before they became effective. His reasons are different from mine. At the Conservatorio of Milan, where I have taught for 33 years, during the penultimate year, the usual group of colleagues of Composition once again failed two of my excellent students. (A very long story which started from the first year I entered as a teacher in 1985 after having taught at the Conservatorios of Vicenza, Mantova, and Brescia for 6 years. Votes always on the decline and once a very good student was unjustly failed at the Fugue exam twice and had to repeat the year, with then very much longer and harder exams.) So, last year a student immediately went to another conservatorio and another did not want to leave me, but I also advised him to go there. I now leave the Milan Conservatorio because of my health, which includes many pathologies for which I am officially 55% disabled, and because of the teaching situation and the atmosphere of the Composition department that has not changed since the post-war period. The students are forced to compose by a group of teachers as they wish, as if by some kind of decree, and if they compose with a tonal basis and with traditional techniques they are heavily penalized. Frankly, I’m glad to leave but I will miss my good students. Today I feel very free. I diverted the other students in other classes and made sure that my class remained empty and in fact, they immediately had to close it. 14 classes of composition will remain with an average of 2.5 students per class with all the teachers who will invent other secondary courses so as to be able to reach the completion of the total amount of hours they have to teach according to the new Reform which has standardised the Conservatorios of Italy to university levels with at least 21 exams for the Bachelor’s Degree!! What a waste of time, instead of each student mainly studying his/her main subject, as we used to do!
I would have so many stories to tell that one would really be disgusted and incredulous. When I was a pupil 45 years ago it was all less bureaucratic, but the situation of the Composition department was not very different. Twenty years ago I joined the commission to create the new music courses for the so-called Reform of the Conservatorios and was the only advocate of the Orchestration course. None of the teachers wanted to create or teach this course because it was considered the symbol of old Traditional Music, of the final studies of traditional techniques, until one day I requested and received the pamphlets from the conservatories in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Cologne, the Royal College in London and the Juilliard School in New York and brought them to a meeting. I opened the pages concerning the Orchestration courses and placed them on the large table in the Professors’ room and there was a great, eloquent silence. They established two compulsory courses for the Batchelor’s Degree and one for the Master’s Degree. Gradually over time, the professors transformed the two Orchestration courses of the Batchelor’s Degree into one obligatory and one optional. Then they changed all the credits by lowering them, then they abolished the second course, then they abolished the only course of the Master’s Degree, and finally, from the 2018-19 school year, they removed the exam (written orchestration) and the vote, simply leaving an oral exam and written consensus. This last year I only had a student but by chance good, willing, and grateful who also wanted to do written exercises. Instead, our Coordinator assigned thirty Orchestration students to another of my colleagues! With this tactic, he wronged and hurt him, me, and even the other students … and then he resigned! It will be more than 15 years that I have taught this subject and, since from the first year when I had many, very good students, the other teachers, in turn, taught Orchestration taking students away from me more and more as the years went by. They sent out spy students who talked and laughed between themselves during lessons and asked me provocative questions. They spoke badly about me behind my back. My own pupils told me this. The various successive coordinators assigned me other courses to do, such as Orchestration for non-composers and for electronic music. For the latter, ALLOWED IN THE CONSERVATORIO IN GREAT QUANTITIES AND WITHOUT MUSICAL KNOWLEDGE, to the point of not being able to read and never having put their hands on a keyboard, I had to exclude written exercises. I had to give lessons to Koreans and Chinese who did not even know a word of Italian, but just moved their fingers. This year they gave me Composition for electronic music, a high-sounding title. I could only teach them how to distinguish the various species of sevenths and their inversions on the piano. For me, however, it was a great achievement, as if I had taught well to a student of an advanced composition course. In the end, after much initial begrudging behaviour, the attitude of the nine students changed completely and they were all happy to have learned those few notions, to the point of coming to find me and even embrace me later on.
With the Reform, the Conservatorio of Milan has generally fallen in quality, except for the usual few exceptional young musicians that emerge. During the last exams, I passed through the corridor between the bar and the Verdi Concert Hall, which at that moment had all the doors open and from where there emerged a tremendous noise never heard before. A mad and disturbing musical confusion, as if many instruments were playing at random with batteries of drums at full strength. I was with a colleague who laughed and told me that the Pop-Rock music exams were in progress. It’s absurd! When I was a teenager I listened to the Beatles (I have a wonderful collection of 33 and 45 laps) and the Rolling Stones and other contemporaries, but when I started studying Harmony I told myself that I would not listen to Pop music anymore. So it was, if not by chance in a bar or on a beach. Pop-Rock music is not Classical music and a composer of this music does not even need to study the foundations of Harmony because it is anything but a Classical musical language. Indeed, studying Harmony and Counterpoint destroys the fantasy of Pop and Rock composers! Anyway, I had a tremendous shock and I will never forget this cacophonic experience, right in the Conservatorio for which I have affection, not only for my old school days and the walls but for all the good, if not excellent, students I have had.
I am part of the Committee for the Reform of Composition Studies at the Conservatorio of Milan. I have had to fight a lot against my colleagues because I believe in solid studies of a ‘classical “type while some of them would like to do without them and write only with technical contemporary techniques. However, I have managed to set up three Instrumentation / Orchestration courses.
When a student at the Conservatorio of Milan in the 1970’s it was fashionable to write very long pieces for solo instruments and solo flute in particular. I have never liked the idea of writing for a solo instrument because of the limited harmonic possibilities and because I loved the rich and colourful sounds of many instruments, particularly a full orchestra. It was easier to write for a solo instrument and easier to find a concert, but the main reason for this fashion was that the Italian copyright society SIAE paid by the minute, whether it was for one instrument or full-sized orchestra and thus all the solo flute pieces were very long and boring indeed.
Somehow or other I have always been musically independent and cross-current. My ways of thinking and feeling were just naturally different from those of most musicians and I just could not accept to compose and believe in a different musical world other than what I felt it naturally was. I always knew that this would cut me off from musical opportunities, however, I then found a husband who had my same beliefs and this re-enforced mine and gave me even more courage. Already, in 1986-88 I had decided that I would only write for large orchestra and, apart from my Violin and Piano Sonata Rapsodica, I have exclusively written for orchestras of all sizes, always conscious of the fact that it would be very hard, if not impossible, to find performances. This has never caused me particular distress since my father had always taught me that it didn’t matter if I wrote for the drawer, just as long as I was convinced of what I was doing and that I worked hard. Unfortunately, for many reasons, I have not worked as hard as I would have liked to, but I have always been convinced with what I have done. Actually, a few international opportunities arose just the same, so I have been quite satisfied and don’t mind if I don’t have many opportunities in Italy.
To say the truth, I have always had more ostracism than opportunities in Italy during my life. Ever since I have been at the Conservatorio of Milan, first as a pupil (1973-1980) and now as a teacher of Composition (1985-) I have had nothing but spokes in wheels.
Sometimes I think back at the last musical decades during which most composers have composed and believed in Avante-garde and consequently related music. This period has lasted much longer than I thought it ever would and hoped when I was young. The changeover to independent thought has been very slow and the Avante-gardists still have most of the power and control of musical opportunities, namely publishers, radio and tv, concerts, and competitions. At the Conservatorio of Milan there are only about three teachers of Composition out of fifteen who feel and think like I do. However, if they teach students traditional Composition techniques and if they take them to the end of a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, the commissions boycott their exams to the point of trying to fail the pupils or pass them with the lowest marks possible. Thus, the reason why I have always refused to take pupils to the very end of their studies is because I would not have been allowed to teach traditional techniques and let them compose in their own style. This is why I have chosen to teach only Harmony, Counterpoint, the Fugue, works in different historical styles and Orchestration. If I personally had had to pass a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree nowadays, the commission would not have allowed me to write the way I do and would have failed me. For 17 years my pupils were boycotted in their Harmony, Counterpoint and Fugue exams, receiving much lower marks than they deserved and once they even downright failed a good pupil and obliged him to repeat the year. As much as I contested the outcome of the exam (and was publicly called a squawking chicken) there was nothing I could do against the commission of four against one. For this reason, my pupils have always had to change teacher to obtain their degrees. Unfortunately, they either go to another Conservatorio or give up studying and if they remain in Milan these teachers manage to brainwash or oblige them to compose the way they want and then give them the highest marks, after which they purposely tell me all about it with mockery…..but what do I care of pupils who have no precise idea of what they want and no courage to fight for their liberty of thought! However, since my two Naxos CDs came out in 2002 I have been treated with a little more respect and my pupils have received very good if not excellent marks, also because they now know that I won’t interfere with their exams. In fact, I am never called to take part in admission, final degree or commissions for the valuation of foreign students and substitutes for teachers and I hope I never will.
I am unable to predict the future, but there are always more and more pupils who are fed-up with the situation. I can do nothing more. I have fought and fought and made enemies, but the only thing I have obtained is the creation of the historical Instrumentation and Orchestration course. Now it’s up to the students to fight and create. There have been no great composers in the last decades since Strawinsky, Shostakovic, Britten, Barber and the like. The world needs more independent great composers to showdown and definitely end this era of unmusical music.
The Conservatorio Composition colleagues consider me a Traditionalist since I was a student and, in their opinion, reactionary. Regarding Instrumentation/Orchestration, they consider it a subject to avoid because it is linked to Tradition. They teach Harmony through Counterpoint so as to avoid 19th Century Romanticism. They think Analysis is enough so that the student does not get used to practicing which I consider essential for learning. I had to fight before the Reform of studies for this course to be established in our Conservatorio. One day at a meeting I brought brochures from the Juilliard School, Hochschule in Vienna, Cologne and Berlin, the Paris Conservatory and the Royal College of London to demonstrate what other institutes were doing with very in-depth courses in Orchestration. My colleagues have always opposed me by giving low marks to my students of Harmony and Counterpoint until my two CDs from Naxos with music for orchestra were released. Only since then have my students had a little more justice and peace until this year. For many years I always refused to teach Composition at the higher Graduate level because I didn’t want to be forced to teach Avant-garde techniques as they want. They impose their way of thinking on everyone. It is not possible to graduate otherwise. But I have always had independent students who have had different ways of expressing themselves and always with traditional techniques because my music is on the internet and obviously, I do not attract students eager to learn Avant-garde techniques. The world is diverse and there are multiple musical needs. They are excluding them all. I believe in full freedom of musical and artistic expression, and there hasn’t been any in our Conservatorio for decades. I have had students who stopped studying, moved to other conservatories, or “held their noses”, as one of my students once said, and graduated as my colleagues wanted. Years ago, two very weak-tempered students “converted” and graduated with 10 cum laude. Then my colleagues came to tell me with great satisfaction. They were both very musical and one of them composed a la Rachmaninov, but maybe that’s the way it went because he wasn’t a very smart person and he didn’t have a personal style. Now they don’t do anything anymore. They just teach the piano. Many no longer do anything because they are no longer convinced of anything. No one has ever encouraged them. There are fewer and fewer students who enroll in the graduate courses (the fact that you can enroll with a debt of harmony and counterpoint, which are then inevitably taught in a superficial way, is a disgraceful system). A student of mine who is going to do his exams to go on to the Graduate course in February has already told me that he wants to quit because he doesn’t want to be forced to write in a way he doesn’t believe in and doesn’t feel like his own. It has been like this for decades. Music with a capital M is going downhill. Not for me, because I was able to graduate with the old system, have Naxos who esteem me and in April my third CD of music for orchestra comes out, but what of many, many other young people? …… The number of students studying the new courses of Jazz has increased. Some of them enroll because they don’t want to study the type of Composition that is imposed. Going on like this there will no longer be fertile ground for the growth of new Composers with a capital C who create Art with a capital A because the ground will have become arid … .. and when it is dry there will no longer be anyone who carries on the sensitivity, intuition, techniques and the Art of Music of the past beyond mere rules. I know this is what my colleagues are hoping for, but the world is changing and it is no longer what it was in the sixties and seventies. From this year on, I have decided to continue teaching my students at the Graduate course and let them write as they want, which they are delighted with, but they already know that in the last year I will have to send them to another conservatorio. I don’t know what they will do: Maybe they will stop composing, but I will have given them everything I can and what they want. I know that there are a couple of colleagues who think like me, but they are afraid of retaliation against their students during the exams. In reality, we would like to be able to graduate our students as they want with maximum freedom of expression. Otherwise, there will be fewer and fewer people graduating from our conservatorio. We would like two parallel courses, each with its annual exam commission, but without interference from one side or the other. Completely separate, with similar programs, but with different languages and ways of expression. Maximum freedom of expression on all sides.
Today I was walking through the corridors of the Conservatorio and with sadness I thought about how many years I have passed by the bust of Puccini where in 1990 I met my great friend the writer Mary Medawar for the first time! I have given in my resignation because there is too much injustice. When I am in my classroom, I am happy with my pupils and I have always loved teaching, even the worst of them as long as they were at least nice and willing. I have always adapted to each student and tried my best, looking for different ways to make each one with different abilities understand Composition under its different aspects. I want to think that I will still have many years with Gilberto and our ex-students who will come to visit us, hoping for good or acceptable health. I am happy to go but at the same time my heart is a bit heavy. I will miss the Conservatorio despite the bad environment created by my composer colleagues. It is part and always will be a part of my life. 1973-2018.
9th February 2018
My colleagues all also know that I am leaving, partly because I had told some and because the Director has now accepted my resignation publicly. I think many teachers are also envious and annoyed. I can’t wait to be free as the wind and remove “consmilano.it” as an address to stop receiving the myriad of emails that don’t interest me. In fact, I have not been interested or followed the state of the Conservatorio since the Reform of Studies, which for me is a total failure. I am disheartened, saddened, disgusted by everything and I can’t take it anymore. There is one particular teacher who fails my students, and the Coordinator has put him once again in the exam commission where there is a student of mine. I wrote to the Director and she wrote to the Coordinator that he should remove that colleague for the umpteenth time (the Coordinator continues to be rude and full of malice) but also for the good of all the other students in this exam. The commission will consist of 3 professors and not 4 as usual. It has never happened before! All this to save this teacher’s face! Madness! In short, I am very happy to leave, although I have always loved teaching my students for all these 39 years …….. except during exams! However, I expect I will certainly have moments of nostalgia and regret. I never expected to leave like this! I just hope that my resignation can be useful to improve something in this Conservatorio …….? I officially leave on November 1st.
25th February 2018
I have not regretted or missed the Conservatorio one single day!
16th February 2022