Autobiographic notes: The conservatory years, mid-1980s to mid-1990s

© March 2017 Paul Cooijmans

Preparing for the entrance examination

In 1985, when my main activity was playing guitar in a rock band, the idea arose to switch to jazz and study it formally at a music conservatory to get a degree, thus enhancing my chances of making a living with music, as I desired. The style of our band, then bearing names like Grave prospect and The kitchen but still Catweazle under the hood, had been changing in the direction of jazz-rock, so this was a logical development for me. I acquainted myself with the admission requirements of several conservatories, and in the autumn of 1985 sought the help of a guitar teacher to prepare for the entrance examination, or audition as some call it.

Up till then, I had been a complete autodidact since starting with guitar in 1980. The exams would take place in the spring of 1986; fortunately, I was a good student and made rapid progress. Determined as I was to pass the admission procedure and successfully complete the years to follow at school, I devoted all of my time and energy to study, not rarely spending close to a hundred hours weekly on it — a pace that I would keep up until the mid-1990s. When so intensely occupied with something, it tends to continue in one's dreams, and that happened to me too in those years; I was studying at night while dreaming, knowing that I was dreaming. It worked, and I qualified to be admitted and, once a conservatory student, passed all the needed examinations and graduated for classical guitar in 1992 and composition in 1993.

Room at the conservatory.
Inside the conservatory. In this room, I had various theoretical classes
(including counterpoint), individual composition lessons, and I
practised on my guitar there when the room was free
and happened to be assigned to me.

I should explain that a music conservatory is a demanding type of school, and will only let you in if you are sufficiently advanced and talented for them to believe that you are able to complete the curriculum and reach the desired professional level within the allowed time, which was around six years then. In the field of music, the difference between amateur and professional is shockingly large, and even conservatory entrance level is way beyond the average amateur level and forever out of reach for most. In those years, I held the conviction that I could achieve anything I wanted if I set myself to it with full determination; that may have been an illusion, but in this case it was proven right.

On the teacher's advice, I requested information from multiple conservatories in the country and chose four on which I would try the entrance examination. There were differences; at one conservatory the exam consisted of a single sitting, wherein I had to play a few jazz pieces with their ensemble, after which some random theory and ear training tasks were given orally. The other three places had two thorough sessions, one for theory, ear training and solfeggio, and one for playing. At one school, the one I would end up going to, I had to play classical guitar as well as jazz. The idea there was to study improvised music as a major and classical guitar as a minor subject. The playing went reasonably by then; the pure music theory was no problem at all (I was very much further than needed with that) but the solfeggio part was extremely difficult for me as it involved producing tones with one's voice. This was a novel and problematic concept for me, and almost impossible to do; several examinators asked if I had a defect of my voice apparatus, which I had to deny because such had never been diagnosed in me. Meanwhile, more than thirty years later, I am quite certain I do have a serious neurological speech disorder, but too rare to be recognized by any but a few specialized doctors.

After all of these exams, I was admitted as a first-year student of improvised music. I was not required to take one or two years of preparatory classes, which conservatories sometimes make you do before admitting you to the first year. I chose the conservatory that was closest to where I lived, and housed in an old convent at the edge of Tilburg. For information, I used an Ibanez Artist AM 50 hollow-body electric guitar to play jazz in those days, and an Aria AC 8 for classical music. The Aria was not satisfactory and would have to be replaced soon by a better classical guitar. The jazz pieces I played were basic Realbook repertoire, and a few improvisation compositions of my own.

The early conservatory period

The curriculum was extremely full, so that, with all the studying and practising I had to do, I was occupied with music literally twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. On top of that, it took two hours to get there by public transport, and two hours back (much later I tried it on a recumbent bicycle: one hour and twenty minutes for the forty kilometres). By car it was only thirty-five minutes, so I quickly began to use my father's car most of the time I went to school. Another reason to go by car was that I sometimes had to bring two guitars (in hard cases) as well as a suitcase full of books, and that is impossible to carry at once, so excludes travel by train and bus. A dance academy was housed in the same building, so it was a bit like walking around in the television series "Fame". One day when exiting the toilet I bumped into a man in a strange costume with a bizarrely made-up face; it was the operette singer Marco Bakker, dressed up as "the phantom of the opera" for a lunch concert.

To practise in between lessons, one could get a key to a study room from the concierge. After finding the room in question, which was not self-obvious in the beginning given the many stairways, corridors, and doors of the three-story high century-old building, a problem for a guitarist was the omnipresent noise from countless much louder brass instruments, woodwind, violins, pianos and so on that penetrated the walls, floor, and sometimes ceiling. It was an uninterrupted cacophony, and the first time I just sat there and did not even try to play, convinced that such was useless and studying was impossible in this institute. Soon I got used to it though, but ideal it was not, and I suspect that mentally blocking out the racket caused much internal tension. I suffered from irritable bowel syndrome in that period, which was stress-related according to my doctor. It got much better after I started running.

During the first year, everyone was required to sing in the choir, and a test was administered to determine your voice type. With some hesitance, the test administrator classified me as "bass 1", together with some more male students who had no singing voice at all; "have fun", he added with clear irony. Over the months I learnt to find my way in the building with its often illogical room numbers. The many theoretical and solfeggio subjects went well, as did playing. A favourite subject, in which I excelled from the start on, was counterpoint; the writing of melody and polyphony in Renaissance and baroque style. One day, the teacher wanted us to write the exposition (the first part) of a fugue in baroque style. When I came to the next lesson I had finished an entire fugue. The teacher played it on the piano with all the students sitting around him, as was common. After my piece had died away, there was an unusual silence. When people resumed breathing, the teacher looked at me and asked, "Did you write this?" I said, "Yes". He said, "Then you must have been moved by the Spirit". None of the other students had more than a few bars completed. This was in the room seen in the photo on top of this article.

What slowly became clear was a certain lack of organization in the improvised music department. This type of music is best played in ensembles, and one would expect to be doing that a lot as a student. Well, not if it was up to this department. Almost nothing was organized, students were not assigned to ensembles, no roster of rehearsals was provided. It was left up to the students to organize themselves and get together and play.

This laissez-faire approach — the head of the department used the term "autodidactic method" for what they were doing — led to the formation of cliques wherein mainly the hyper-social, extraverted, narcissistic type throve, while others were permanently excluded. Outside the cliques, it was near impossible to form long-standing ensembles because (1) you had to find a number of diverse musicians willing to play with you, (2) you had to find a recurring time window (like weekly) wherein all of them were available, which was hard considering the busy schedules of most, and (3) you had to have a rehearsal room at that specific time, which was problematic given a shortage of rooms and the impossibility (for normal students) to reserve a room at a fixed time each week. The logistics of it all were so complex that organization from above would have been needed, and exactly that was one hundred percent absent. I tried my best, but did not get further than a few temporary projects, like several rehearsals toward a single performance at a required instrumental exam. In one period I also played bass guitar in an ensemble because of a lack of bass players. Getting together with a few guitarists was less problematic than forming a mixed group, but what one wants as a jazz guitarist is to play with a bass, drums, trumpet, piano, and so on. The hypocrisy of it was also that they would never tell you that you were supposed to arrange these things yourself; you were left to figure even that out on your own. It took about a year. "When do you think the ensembles will be formed?" we guitarists occasionally asked each other. Eventually, it dawned to us that the answer was "never". And those who already were part of permanent ensembles had known this all the time and not said anything and not allowed outsiders in. It was Kafkaesque, and I noted this well, Kafka being my favourite author.

An excellent illustration of these conditions occurred a few months into the first year, when the improvised music department held an event of several days in a building somewhere in town, where the idea was to all come together and play in various constellations. What actually happened was that the usual cliques, the existing ensembles and bands, each permanently occupied a room of their own and simply rehearsed as they were used to, while the newcomers and outsiders had great trouble getting in. I believe all I did was play a bit with another guitarist and a pianist. That is what you get when you do not organize from above, when you do not assign people to groups and rooms. The ruling cliques take charge, and they are exclusive.

A number of guitarists who had started with me dropped out during or after the first year. Another guitarist, who continued his studies just like I did, characterized the head of the improvised music department as "big words, little deeds". Halfway the second year, I got the idea to switch my major and minor subjects, so to go on as a classical guitarist. Although ambitious (considering my minimal experience playing classical guitar) that change would rid me of the problems surrounding ensemble formation. I would have to do a new entrance examination (for classical guitar) at the end of the year, so prepared as well as I could with the aid of Jan van de Langenberg, my classical guitar teacher in the first two years. I passed and was admitted to the second year for classical guitar. Meanwhile I had bought a Hanika 10-A guitar to replace the Aria, but that was again not sufficient now that classical became my major subject, so some time thereafter I got the better sounding José Rodriguez E40, which I would keep until 2008. Improvised music would be finished at the end of my third year as a minor subject; I think I only got two lessons any more in that year, having abandoned the department so to speak. In hindsight, I see that switching to bass guitar instead of classical guitar might have improved my chances of getting in ensembles, considering the lack of bassists. In recent times I have often thought that if I were ever to start playing in bands again I would prefer bass over electric guitar anyway.

In the course of this third year I learnt of a weekly group composition class that was open to interested students, and began to attend it, having been composing since the early 1980s already. This went well; for information, I worked on opus numbers 9 to 15 while participating in that class, with the exception of opus 10, which was created over the first three years while studying counterpoint, and opus 12b, which consists of educational pieces written while working as a guitar teacher. The most significant composition from that period — so, before I actually studied composition — is opus 14, Composition, dedicated to saying "Aha" in a monotone voice, for eight saxophones. I investigated the idea of doing composition as a second major from the fourth year on. This was possible, and I was admitted based on the work the teacher had seen from me in the group class.

At the end of the third year I had to give a kind of evening concert by way of final examination for improvised music. It cost great trouble and stress to get people together for the ensemble, and we could only do a few rehearsals, but I succeeded. Earlier that day I had played a classical guitar exam to go to the next year, also with positive result. The evening concert would be recorded on video they promised me, but I have never seen the video. Neither did I ever receive a certificate for that minor subject; years later when I left the school I asked the lady at the office to make a note of it on the back of my diploma, to at least have some proof. She agreed, but said this was not the proper procedure.

The later conservatory years

So, from the fourth year on I had two majors, and most of the theoretical subjects were done. Some new pedagogical and psychology subjects came, and we had to do things like sit in on lessons at a music school, and (the next year) teach a small number of students for a year. The latter was unpaid. All in all it got slightly more relaxed than in the first few years. During these later years I developed my approach to music theory, laid out in the treatise The hidden world of intervals, and studied the topic of giftedness, about which I wrote a paper called "Hoogbegaafdheid". Another article I produced was De vihuela, about a sixteenth-century Spanish instrument similar to the guitar. I received praise for the quality and clarity of my writing, although, when it came to music theory, no one fully understood what I was doing. "When I see those things, that is where it ends for me", said my composition teacher, pointing at a radical sign in my work. He would also describe teaching me as "observing an internal process develop". On one occasion I gave a well-received lecture for composition students about part of my theory.

My study of giftedness also raised eyebrows; this topic was unknown and never mentioned then and in that environment. The teacher who was supposed to discuss the study with me at the end of the year even delegated this task to a colleague because he felt not sufficiently acquainted with the matter. When the colleague asked why I had chosen the topic, I told him it concerned myself. He expressed great surprise: "What?! I have always seen you as no more than an average student!" Not long thereafter, he had to stop working because of deafness. I visited the Binet foundation, seated in the same city as the conservatory and occupied with giftedness. Their psychologist, Juanita Rebel-Runckel, advised me to join the I.Q. society Mensa, which I would a few years later. During my visit to her, I discovered she knew one of the guitar teachers at the conservatory well.

In psychology class, I was confronted with the bizarre untruths that the "alpha" sciences desire to plant in our brains; the teacher said things like, "lying is normal social behaviour and we all do it many times a day", and "it is perfectly acceptable to call in sick when you do not feel like going to school or work". Being completely honest and never having lied in my life, this was extremely insulting to me, and I had to constrain myself not to kill him on the spot. Only many years later I would understand that the social "sciences" are really largely a political movement masquerading as science, and part of neo-Marxism's orchestrated attack on Western civilization and the Caucasoid subspecies.

The next year, another psychology teacher administered a test for "fluency" to us; in thirty seconds, we had to write down as many as possible alternative uses of some everyday object he named. When time was up, he asked, "Who could not think of anything at all?" Fortunately, everyone had managed to write down at least something.

"Who found one possible use?" Muliple hands were raised.

"And who found two?" A few more claimed two.

"Who has three?" Only two or so had three.

"Four, anybody?" Truly, there was someone with four.

"Five?" No one.

"Six?" No one.

"Seven?" No one.

"As you see, it is not that easy. Four is good for you, very creative. Formidable, I do not see that often. You can really know we are at a conservatory here. You clearly are creative folks."

He asked not whether anyone had more than seven. Such did not occur to him. Surely, no one could have thought of that many uses? No one could be that creative? Thus, no one learnt that I had nineteen. No one was allowed to be that far above the rest.

A remarkable teacher we had was an Englishman who called himself by the name of a Russian poet, although his actual name was Smith, I am told. He taught us twentieth-century music history. Wearing Reebok sports shoes, he was enthusiastic about Igor Stravinsky, but also discussed contemporary visual art. "Peasants", he used to call us contemptuously. He was constantly and emphatically insulting us; we knew absolutely nothing, according to him. It must be said that he was critical of other conservatory staff members too; they could not understand the irony of Stravinsky, he said. For the final examination of this subject, he gave everyone a 6-, the lowest grade to pass. I am certain I deserved a much higher grade. We never saw him back after that year.

I remember the composer Theo Loevendie giving a lecture, mainly for the composition department. That is, he started the lecture, but after only a few minutes began to answer questions from the public, and never stopped, never returned to what he was saying. The whole hour was filled with silly questions and his responses. A tragic example of how audience participation can spoil a performance. He did not seem to mind, I think he was glad he did not have to think of anything to say by himself, but I would have preferred to hear his own story, if he ever had one.

Once, my classical guitar teacher fell out with me at the end of a lesson and said he would pass me on to another teacher because he could not go on like this. I had no idea what he meant, but it turned out to be about things like not greeting him when I entered the room and not talking back enough when he explained things to me. No other individual teacher has ever had such problems with me, either before or after that, and I could and can still not believe that my behaviour was that hard to bear. In the end he did keep teaching me. Another difference we had was that he did not seem to favour Renaissance music a whole lot, and put more emphasis on the Romantic and Classical style periods when it came to choice of repertoire. As it happens, Renaissance is my favourite era concerning guitar music, next to my own compositions of course. Baroque is acceptable too, but Romantic, Classical, and contemporary serious music I have stopped playing altogether after leaving the conservatory. At least with Bach (baroque) we had no difference of preference or opinion. For clarity, this concerns my teacher from the third year onward, having switched to classical guitar, so not Jan van de Langenberg, who was my teacher for the first two years when classical guitar was my minor subject.

In the winter of 1990-1991 I got pain in my left hand, arm, shoulder, and back, which made it hard or impossible to play guitar. Since I would graduate in 1992, that was a serious problem, and on advice of one of the guitar teachers I took "Mensendieck for music" therapy to treat the condition. I believe that my own teacher, Hein Sanderink, was somewhat sceptical regarding this therapy, but his colleague strongly recommended it. I ended up undergoing the therapy for a year, and after some months I could play guitar again, only a little at first, but gradually more. It appeared to be what would later be called repetitive strain injury (R.S.I.), but no doctor at that time could provide any diagnosis or treatment. Traces of it have always remained; for instance, when I do push-ups I still do them on my fists, because doing them on the palms of my hands evokes the pain in the arm again. Years later, in 2003, I heard someone say that this problem only occurs in people who are lazy and try to avoid working by pretending they have R.S.I. I could not disagree more; only the hard workers and perfectionists get it. And once you have had it, you will never be completely rid of it. It can stick its head up again any time, especially when you least expect it. Most running injuries are of the same kind.

Apart from practising too much and too hard, and imperfections of my skeleton and posture like pelvic tilt and a slight scoliosis, what may have played a role is the temperature in the room where I studied. The house was not insulated, so, even with the recently installed central heating on, it was sometimes not more than 12 or 13 degrees when it froze outside. The radiators they put in bedrooms are dimensioned so that they give off very little heat. Playing guitar in such conditions is not ideal. But the main cause of these overuse injuries, R.S.I., or how one chooses to call it, lies in the field of personality: the ruthless perfectionism, conscientiousness, persistence, the working too hard and resting too little. And since personality tends to persist throughout life, the injuries keep returning, making for a lifelong battle. Particularly frustrating is that doctors can not find anything, unless you continue the offending activity until a verifiable injury occurs, like a full-blown tendon inflammation; but at that point, your career is at jeopardy and you may never play guitar or run again, or not for a very long time.

Concerning the Mensendieck therapist, at her request I once brought a recording of my music to give an impression of what I was doing as a composition student. It was my Composition, dedicated to saying "Aha" in a monotone voice for eight saxophones. After hearing it, she asked whether I had had any room to express my own ideas in the piece. Astounded, I said that I had thought of and written every note myself. "Ah, so there is creativity involved too!", she replied, leaving me speechless with the enormity of her stupidity.

Early 1992, in the last year of my classical guitar study, a masterclass on lute songs was given by the lutenist and singer Robert Spencer. I participated together with a female singer to whom I was assigned after indicating I wanted to take part. This illustrates the contrast with the improvised music department, where they would let you sort out things like forming ensembles on your own. Both system have their pros and cons, depending on one's personality. On the morning of the first day of the masterclass, I woke up hearing a loud rattling of cassette tapes in my closet, and a noise as if a heavy truck was passing the house. It was an earthquake of magnitude 5.5. There was no damage near where I lived though, and the masterclass went well and was concluded with a concert. I went on to cooperate with that singer for more than a year thereafter. Shortly after graduating for guitar, I also took part in a masterclass by the guitarist David Russell. And, I expanded my own guitar teaching; I had already had a few students since around 1990, and this grew significantly over the 1990s, including group classes for children. In a certain period I also worked as a substitute teacher at a few music schools, peaking at over a hundred students in a week. Early in the year 2000, I quit teaching guitar entirely.

From about 1990 to 1996 — the latter is three years after my graduation as a composer — many performances of my compositions by conservatory ensembles took place, sometimes with myself as a guitarist or doing a spoken voice part. Once, the conservatory symphony orchestra held a project wherein work by composition students would be played. Unfortunately, I was informed of this much too late, so that I had only two weeks to write out the parts of one of my compositions for symphony orchestra, the score of which covered 114 pages of A3 size. I wrote almost uninterruptedly, up to fourteen hours daily, with fountain pen and Indian ink; a near superhuman task, hard to delegate because of the level of expertise and rigor required, not to mention the fact that I could not afford to pay people for it. Just in time, it was finished. After a few rehearsals, the composers were invited to hear how the orchestra was doing with their pieces. Regarding my composition, the conductor told us it was too difficult to handle in this project and would not be practised any further. A few fragments were played to give me an impression. It sounded tremendous, and everyone instantly recognized the work as a great and brilliant masterpiece. The other composition students urged the conductor to focus the project entirely on my work and discard theirs. He refused, and said he would play my composition on a later occasion with a different orchestra. A bad decision; one of the worst I have ever seen. Naturally, the later occasion has never occurred.

After that rehearsal, nearly all of the orchestra musicians left their parts of my piece on the music stands, abandoned. The other students alerted me to this and advised me to collect the parts and keep them, otherwise they would be thrown away. I did so. One of the violin parts had "Brrrrrrrrrr!!!" written on it.

A number of other compositions, for smaller ensembles, were performed successfully, some even many times. This concerns works from the opus number range 14 through 34, plus 40, but not by far all of those. For instance, the choir piece Collection of words and sentences, never to be uttered in my presence on pain of having one's tongue ripped out without anaesthetic was presented to the conservatory's choir conductor, but for some reason he did nothing with it. Opus numbers 14, 16, 22, 24, 25, 26a, 32, 34, and 40 were performed on stage in this period, and several more were only practised a few times. Musicians tended to find my music highly strange and difficult to play, even though it was not necessarily hard in the technical sense. I played in a few ensembles devoted to contemporary music, both my own pieces and work by others. Thus I have been to some more or less prominent theatres, the most important probably the IJsbreker in Amsterdam, but also to theatres in Eindhoven, 's-Hertogenbosch, Tilburg, and Gent (Belgium). Once, we had to rehearse in the weekend and the conductor brought salami and whiskey for us. Other ensembles (without me as a player) played compositions by me in many more places than just mentioned.

One evening in Plaza Futura in Eindhoven, where several of my works were played among which one or two with me as a musician, a few friends of mine were in the audience. One of them caused so much trouble by constantly talking and smoking that he was refused admission after the break. Another time in the Bethaniënklooster in Amsterdam, I was waiting with the other members of our ensemble in the dressing room until it was our turn. The dressing room was located right below the stage, so we could hear everything well. There was a rattling of heavy chains over our heads; that was the percussionist. Then we heard loud footsteps moving away and a door slamming; that was part of the audience angrily leaving the theatre, as we found out later. It was not one of my compositions, incidentally.

At the start of my last year, so late in the summer of 1992, the composition department was expanding from one to (I think) three teachers, and my existing teacher asked if I wanted to move to one of the others to reduce his work load. I thought about it for a few days and then chose to go to one of the new teachers, who was actually a former teacher of one of the theoretical subjects I had done in the first few years, and I had always had a good impression of him. It turned out they were surprised about my choice and had expected me to stay with the original teacher; apparently I had misunderstood something. Well, they should have been more clear about it then. All in all, I have studied composition with three different teachers at that conservatory: Kees Schoonenbeek (the primary composition teacher), Daan Manneke (briefly), and Joop Voorn. The leader of the contemporary music ensembles, Alexandre Hrisanide, was also knowledgeable regarding composition, and offered advice regularly while rehearsing my pieces.

In this last phase of my composition study, or perhaps some months after graduating, I attended an informal meeting of composition students of the conservatory. It was held in the house of a female student — the only female composition student — , located in a small town near a large river, where she lived with her friend or husband and a small boy. I think we were there with only three or four composers. Sitting in the kitchen, it struck me that she and her man both smoked heavily indoors with a child growing up. "Yes, in this house we smoke", she said with emphasis, blowing her carcinogenic fumes over the infant's head. It was one of the rare occasions where I felt it would have been fully appropriate to give a woman a good beating. Another blunder of hers was to say, "As a female composer, you always have to fight twice as hard for it", and subsequently go on to tell about a project for female composers where her work would be performed with that of other females, the only criterion for inclusion in the concert being the composer's sex.

In 1993 I did my final examination for composition, consisting of a concert and a talk with a committee. Beforehand I had submitted, in sixfold, the scores of a number of my works and some recordings. I took a photo first. The concert went excellently; the discussion was naturally a bit harder, because they always do their best not to let you off easy in such talks, even though the outcome is necessarily "pass" otherwise they would not have let you come. Every possible criticism on your work they can think of is brought forward as if it concerns an indictment for murder, and they make certain you begin to believe you do not deserve to graduate at all. One committee member strongly objected against some of my titles, in particular Collection of words and sentences, never to be uttered in my presence on pain of having one's tongue ripped out without anaesthetic. Yes, narrow minds are everywhere. They also said with great emphasis that, in trying to find candidates for the committee, some had refused after seeing my work because they did not agree that I would graduate. Unfortunately they did not say who those haters were, or I could expose them here.

After graduating and leaving school, ensembles connected to the conservatory have played compositions by me until 1996, insofar I know. Thereafter I mostly lost contact. They never held a reunion or something like that, except for a brief meeting about a year after graduation. Currently, a quarter of a century later, none of my former teachers are still active there. Things have changed, in line with reforms of the educational system; you can now receive a Master degree when graduating, while in my days the highest obtainable was called baccalaureus (abbreviated bc.), and equated to the Bachelor (B.) degree of the Anglo-Saxon system. The time needed to become baccalaureus was about the same as the combined duration of the current Bachelor and Master degrees, though. The conservatory also moved to a new location a few years after I left, close to the centre of Tilburg; I have been there once or twice in 1996 for a rehearsal and concert of my opus 40. The new building had long corridors I remember, and you could no longer walk in without identifying yourself, as in the old days. Some of my post-conservatory adventures as a composer are related in Composers of superfluous music, mid-1990s.