Transitioning from a kid who spend his days playing football and eating sunflower seeds with his friends to someone who used every waking moment to better himself as a guitar player by forfeiting all of his free time was a bizarre experience. The process was made even more confusing by my decision to enroll on a three year BA music course at the National University of Music in Bucharest. While I naively thought that learning ‘the rules of music’ was the way forward, the situation at the finish line was not what I expected. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I realized while writing this paragraph that the first year is the one which I remember the most — particularly the first semester. The change from high-school, with its unending uninteresting lessons, to a schedule that involved (almost) exclusively studying music was nirvana. It was also a tough time, as I was colleagues with people who studied music all throughout their formal education. I’m not a competitive guy, but the pressure of keeping up with everyone was palpable at the beginning. There were three main episodes that made me realize that I was now surrounded by actual musicians; I had to start thinking like one.
The main task of my first music theory seminar was sight singing a very simple solfege. Out of its roughly thirty notes, I only got about four right. It was embarrassing on so many levels, but, thankfully, I had the fortune of having Prof. Olguta Lupu as my Theory teacher (who’s the best teacher in UNMB by a very long shot.) She had the patience and inspiration to send me home to study and try again the following week. The shame of not being able to sing something that basic and her giving me a second chance were a catalyst to start paying more attention to the inner workings of music. ‘That’s what I was there for, remember?’, I thought to myself. I came back the following lesson fully prepared and aced the test. Theory and solfege eventually became my favorite subjects. Well played, Prof. Lupu!
My inability to solfege was matched only by my inability to sing. Singing was a requirement, and we had several hours of choir each week. I had pretty good pitch and rhythm but had a horrendous tone and technique. Choir exams involved vocal quartet pieces which we often practiced during regular classes. In one of the first sessions, I and three other colleagues were asked to perform one of the simplest and most puerile songs in our repertoire .(I later found out it was a secondary school song!). I was so bad I actually started laughing half-way through the performance. The teacher wasn’t as amused, though. He told me off in such a way that I froze on that little stage we were on and realized how unfunny and, quite frankly, disrespectful my behavior was. Why didn’t I practice? Beats me, but that was the last time it happened. After that episode, even if I wasn’t on top of my game vocally, I went through the songs and learned and sang my parts as best as I could, given my somewhat limited vocal chops. Well played, Prof. Golcea!
The final revelatory moment came during a piano lesson. (Everyone had to do piano, by the way.) The teacher was a concert pianist who I suspect didn’t really want to be there teaching the likes of me. And I didn’t make his life easier. I started playing the piano only a year before enrolling in the program, but I learned everything by ear (mainly pop classics — first one being ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of all songs!). I was severely bad at reading sheet music and I didn’t have a proper technique. On top of that, at that time, I could not stand Bach’s music, which incidentally, was mandatory. (Relax, relax, fellow classical music enthusiasts — I love it now!) I was learning the D minor invention at a snail’s pace. On the second or third lesson, I basically showed up completely unpracticed, thinking that I will compensate in the lesson. He wouldn’t have it, though. He stopped me from butchering the second bar and said: “OK, it’s obvious you haven’t done your homework. The lesson’s over. Go home and come back next week, but only if you practice properly”. That was such an embarrassing moment, one where I realized that I was not only wasting his time, but also mine. Some might have seen that remark as a way of him getting rid of me so he could continue his practice (he was always playing. Always!), but I actually understood where he was coming from. I came prepared every lesson afterwords. Well played, Prof. Maxim!
Why was I there? Why wasn’t I giving it my all? Wasn’t this what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and at the highest level? Of course it was! So I had to do something. My approach needed to change. This was the big boys’ league and I had to adapt and evolve. And that I did, in spades. When end-of-semester exams were done, I had managed to earn the highest GPA, something I maintained all throughout the rest of the program. (This was also the moment I stopped waking up before 6am. For some reason, I couldn’t sustain that sleep patter anymore. I even remember the day I last did that — before the first Music History exam.) I took those three embarrassing moments and looped them in my mind. I never wanted to be in the same situation, so I constantly pushed myself to improve.
The rest of the year flew by. I learned a lot and made great friends along the way, some of whom have become my closest friends. This was also the year I discovered opera, taking advantage of the fact that music students had free entry to any performance. You had to sit on the stairs or whatever seat was left, but I loved opera so much I didn’t care. I lived 5 mins away from the Opera House, so I was always there. I averaged 3 operas a week. It was glorious. (Ah, how I miss Turandot!)
It wasn’t all honey, of course. We had quite a few weird and unnecessary lessons that year. We had gym, where we sat around and played ping-pong with teacher who when asked where the liver was replied: “once you’re inside, take a right”. Wow. As you can probably imagine, misogyny was rampant at the time at the National University of Music (hopefully it’s improved since?). There were no women heading any of the conducting departments, there was never a woman dean, and senior male professors were customarily addressed as ‘maestro’, while women were, of course, only referred to as ‘miss’ or ‘missus’.
We also had pedagogy lectures that were the worst thing one could sit through because of how dated the curriculum was. You had to regurgitate what an ‘operational objective’ was rather than actually learn how to teach. The seminars were even worse, as instead of at least making sense of whatever we had talked about in the lectures, the teacher often discussed the latest in weight-loss pills and diets. The worst thing about it was the fact that this course was compulsory. I was on the teaching track, so I had to sit through all of these time-wasters. And, sadly, while they gave you certification to work as a music teacher in Romania, the diploma was all but useless in the UK (but more on that in a future article).
To be honest, I don’t really remember too many details from the second year nor the first few months of the final year, as it was more or less rinse and repeat. I remember the choir sessions and the fun we had in and outside the classroom, but nothing too specific. Of course, except the harmony and polyphony lectures and seminars. I loved both these subjects, but I had to learn everything on my own, sadly. Any question addressed to the harmony lecturer had an answer in one of his books, even when the text was on something completely unrelated. He was so bad that during one exam he devised a subject that could only be resolved through what I later find out were ‘Mozart’s fifths’. I gave up, handed in my exam and asked what the solution was. He said: “It’s very simple, Mr. Sora, you need to…” And then he froze, mumbled something about being in a rush and just left. Talk about deontology. It became quite clear that he was not the best guy to teach us harmony.
The polyphony teacher, on the other hand, knew her stuff. She also looked like someone who would have preferred to be anywhere else than in the classroom with us, but at least she was a good practitioner of music. Also a composer, her biggest mistake was mentioning her somewhat unorthodox compositions and her passion for the esoteric and for mysticism. She would spend huge chunks of the lessons talking about crystals and magic. All it took was a question and she would activate in a way that Palestrina and Bach couldn’t match. While I did end up learning a few tricks from her, the bulk of my knowledge again came from self-study. Thank goodness higher education is free (for the most part) in Romania!
Still, while all that was fine and dandy, as I hope you recall, the reason for wanting to go to university to study music was — beside my lack of skill in any other field — wanting to become a better guitarist. Well, that didn’t necessarily happen. I met Adi Manolovici after I got into the Conservatory and he warned me, half jokingly, that I’m at a risk of becoming a classical music fanatic and forget my roots in rock music. While that didn’t wholly happen, my focus was shifted dramatically throughout the BA program. I was pulled both by my desire to perfect my guitar playing and my ambition to learn as much as I could and top everyone at Uni.
The latter was a strange shift in my psyche, one that I still don’t fully understand. I suspect it was a combination of wanting to excel in a field I was passionate about and have people around me admire those accolades. While this is pretty common in music, the perplexing part was focusing on being the best in school rather than on my instrument and on stage. I would waste my time learning for the useless pedagogy course instead of honing my guitar skills. I forgot how to be a practitioner of music. Perhaps it was because this route was somewhat easier and already paved — you studied hard, get good grades, and then you get a good teaching job at the University. Guitar playing, the music industry, and everything in between, on the other hand, were part of a world of uncertainty that I most likely wasn’t prepared to explore yet.
Nonetheless, I eventually realized that this was going a bit too far, and in the final year of the BA I started practicing intensely about two hours before I left for school and however many I could, while also juggling school-work, after classes. I got really into Dream Theater at this time, and Mr. Petrucci had enough material to keep me busy. I didn’t really perform throughout Uni — was doing the odd pub stint and a few gigs here and there with Manolovici and his band, but that was about it. The golden days of touring Romania were in the past. Now, it was just me and my guitar in my room — back to the start.
While I enjoyed that period and learned a lot about guitar playing (and perfected my alternate picking!), the university pull was too strong and I went all in on that for the final semester.
Winds of change
Although I don’t remember much of the final year, I do remember feeling very comfortable. Bat then I started getting a weird itch. It was getting a bit too safe. I felt that if I stayed there to do a Master’s and beyond, I’d be running in circles. It wasn’t that I believed I had nothing left to learn there, quite the contrary, but I felt I needed to explore other ways of teaching and other methodologies and approaches. I started entertaining the idea of going abroad, something that was quite unusual for me. I don’t have any particular attachment to Romania other than that my relatives and friends were there, but I just never thought of leaving before halfway through the final year.
Since English was the only other language I actually knew well enough to be able to enroll in a University program and I didn’t want to go all the way to the US, I figured that the UK would be the best place to start this new phase. Moreover, I figured that London’s one of the music capitals of the world, so if I was serious about music in any way, going somewhere in close proximity to London would be my best bet. I was working on my BA dissertation at the time and discovered some interesting facts about pop music that I figured would work well as portfolio pieces for applications. (Part of it was passing the UNMB finals, which I did with flying colours, finishing top of the year.) I put everything together with the help of my cousin, Eugen, who studied history and literature abroad, and applied to 10 universities in the UK, including Oxford and Cambridge (who charged £50 per application, something I still find at least distasteful, but I digress). I got in to all of them but decided to got to Oxford, if I’m honest with myself, because it was rated highest at the time and, well, it also sounded pretty cool: “So, what are you up to, Andrei?” “Well, not much. Just going to Oxford to do a Master’s”. Little did I know that what had actually happened was I was duped — the university machine caught me in its clutches: I was given the immense honor of having to pay them thousands of pounds for a piece of paper. Quite a nice deal — for them — but that’s a story for a different time.
While this concludes the first chapter of my musical development, it is not the end of the story. The next article will explore the lessons I learned while being a Master student at the University of Oxford. In the meantime, you can follow my journey on Twitter @AndreiSoraMusic. Thanks a lot for reading!