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Discord down at the music academy

Poland's top child musicians are losing their drive, say teachers at one of Europe's leading musical education institutions.

There is a clear change compared to a decade ago and teachers say their gifted pupils seem to lack the motivation to reach the highest levels of excellence.

Experts at the Frederick Chopin National School of Music in Warsaw blame the problem on 10 years of social and economic change, a mixture of the impact of the lifting of martial law, the fall of communism, the triumph and decline of Lech Walesa, and the effect of the rapid privatisation of state assets.

This flux in economic, social and ideological values has had a bad effect on the stability of family and educational life despite the fact that economic growth in Poland ranks among the highest in Europe (forecast at 10 per cent this year).

Bronislawa Kawalla, a teacher at the National School, has been witnessing the decrease in the concentration needed for excellence. Ms Kawalla, renowned for her interpretations of Bach's piano pieces, has given masterclasses at Britain's Royal College of Music, and is also a lecturer at the affiliated Frederick Chopin Academy of Music.

"I think that the young people are (just as) talented, but we have a lot of problems with their mental stamina. These days, our youth are definitely less resilient than they used to be. They find it very difficult to make the effort to drive themselves competitively, and this requires a lot of mental stamina. This somewhat cancels out their technical abilities."

Ms Kawalla does not think it is just music students who are affected. The wider social, economic, and ideological unrest is also affecting concentration among pupils, at primary and secondary school levels as well as on university courses in general. She has seen this in her own pupils of 10 years ago who are now at university.

The National School flourished during the communist period when it was generously funded. It remains entirely state-run, offering basically free tuition. But it faces the same budget cuts as every other sector.

The school remains dedicated to an age-integrated system of education, taking pupils from seven (exceptionally six) to 19. Most of them then go on to the affiliated Chopin academy.

Like Ms Kawalla, many staff double as lecturers at the academy. This means a very close one-to-one relationship can have lasted for up to 16 years, when students leave the academy at 24.

The school's teachers still use East European as opposed to Western methods. Though grouped by age, student ability is not held back because of the almost one-to-one tuition. Technique is developed according to the needs of each pupil, rather than on a particular overall method (in contrast to approaches such as the Suzuki method for violinists).

It remains to be seen how long children caught up in the rarefied world of young musical talent can cope with the financial and other pressures. What does seem certain is that the debate about the how far one judges the health of a society as a whole against the health of an artistic elite will only intensify here.

Mark Soole

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