Please allow me that, apart from my regrettable ignorance of the Hungarian language, I remain Magyar in my heart and soul from birth to the grave. As a consequence, I earnestly wish to further the progress of Hungarian music.

Liszt to Antal Augusz

Cooperation – with emotional intelligence

28. September 2018

When you open the gate with its the huge copper doorknob it feels as if you have entered another universe. The roar of the street is left outside; instead notes of the violin and piano, scales on the flute fill the space with a curious riot of sound, as if one were listening to some avant-garde musical composition. There is no need to ask the receptionist to check that you have arrived at the right destination: this is certainly the Bartók Conservatory, or more precisely, the Bartók Béla Secondary School of Music, Instrument Making and Repair.

Mr Director, the din of practising is audible from next door but you seem undisturbed…

Well, of course I do not mind it – replies Dr Szabolcs Benkő, director of the Bartók Conservatory – most of the time I take no notice at all. Once in a while, when I hear a kid struggling with some unsuitable practice, I think about interrupting and telling them that there are simpler and easier methods. Yet, in the end I never do so. It would be pointless to weigh in. Such matters concern the student and the teacher of the subject.


These are one-to-one lessons. Such tutoring requires a special harmony, doesn’t it?

The implementation of individual instruction is a long-standing tradition in Hungarian music schools. It makes it far easier to discover talents and then promote their progress on an individual basis. This is certainly one of the reasons why we have such a wealth of musical talents in our tiny country. Education which is tailored to the individual is an excellent approach, but it requires significant resources as it is certainly rather expensive and time-consuming. The second pillar of our artistic tuition, and one that is prevalent in the reformist approach to education, is that teachers should strive to teach their students to use their knowledge appropriately. We do not teach a piece of music in class, as this can be learnt from the script and practised at home. Rather, the aim of the classes is to fine-tune its playing and discover the best way to practise it for the next lesson.


Photo: Liszt Academy / Gábor Valuska


So, this is the essence of your artistic education?

Yes, each student is dealt with individually by the instructor of their major subject. The musical piece is carefully selected to match his or her character and preparedness. The tutor has great freedom within the framework of the curriculum. It also benefits us, as we do not need to be sitting and listening to the same piece played, for example, by each and every violin student at the examination. That would be rather a torment!


What about the harmony between the Liszt Academy and the Bartók Conservatory?

I am happy to say that our cooperation is excellent. The Liszt Academy is our benefactor, meaning that there is never any need to haggle about financial matters. The issues between us are purely professional, like the reforms of theoretical education and the organizing of joint concerts. Since last year we have staged our own concerts at the Liszt Academy. These ’conservatory concerts’ are a great initiative from a number of aspects. They give kids the chance to display their talents. Their parents can come along to support them, and we teachers can meet with them as well, otherwise teachers and parents only see each other when there is some issue to be addressed. These concerts provide the opportunity to build a different type of relationship between parents and teachers. We are grateful for the fact that the Grand Hall, besides belonging to an institute of learning, is one of the most wonderful concert venues in the world, one that we are entitled to use as our own for a couple of evenings. And I should add with some pride that our children perform to full houses as, despite their tender age, they offer an evening of genuine artistic accomplishment.


Is it possible to teach the principles of harmony and cooperation?

Rather it is imparted by experience. Harmony requires high levels of empathy. Sometimes, let me admit, we find that even with a band that has been together for years the personal relationships between band members can get worse and not better. Yet, despite this, the sonority they produce can sound ever more mature. Examples like this demonstrate that it is possible to separate human and artistic aspects. When an artist, under the spell of inspiration, concentrates on nothing other than the music, all other things lose their importance. You switch off life’s hassles when you listen to music intently, don’t you? This is even more so when you are playing it. Our students see this and this becomes their template for study. In a family, a child is not only influenced by what they are told but also by the model provided by his or her parents. This is equally the case with our own instructors: the primary model each of our students look to is the teacher of their main subject. When I watch how one of our students behaves, how they move and how they present themselves, I can often figure out who their teacher is. Such is the impact of individual tutoring, especially between the receptive ages of 14 and 18. This is something that we capitalize on. Whenever I would like to bring something out in a student I first turn to the instructor of their major subject, and only then to their class tutor. There is another level to our training, one which takes place when the student watches their teacher on stage. I am especially happy when the teacher is able to demonstrate the essence of their subject on stage, as this demonstrably enhances the progress of her students. This is one of the major criteria when we select who to invite to join our teaching roll. Our teachers are first rate – there are more than 140 colleagues working together – and the reason for such a large number is the necessity of individual education.


How much time is left for your own cello playing?

Unfortunately, very little. I know that I am a manager, but it would still be great to have more time for practising and performing. But nowadays I rarely have opportunity to practise, and even then, I do not make much noise about it.


Ágnes Mester