I am currently in my second year of a clarinet performance master’s at the University of Stellenbosch. As this is my last year of studies at this university, and with my upcoming final practical exams ahead, I decided it would be a good idea to get some international experience with regards to my playing.
I had always wanted to go on an exchange program, but due to the fact that I have to work to help fund my current studies, such an opportunity was never realised. A week long summer course was ideal.
After some research on possible courses offered and the pros and cons of each one I decided to apply at the Belgium Clarinet Academy. The Belgium Clarinet Academy started in 1996 and is a week long international course which focusses solely on clarinet. The course allows for master classes from three different leading pedagogues on international level. The three teachers this year were Dr. Robert Spring (USA), Dr. Deborah Bish (USA) and Professor Eddy van Oosthuyse (Belgium). Besides receiving and observing master classes, I would also gain the chance to play in a clarinet specific quartet and have coaching in a chamber music context.
Before I got too excited over the possibility to attend this course I realised I needed funding. Luckily a fellow student just returned from his summer course and he told me that I can apply for a travel grant from the International Office at the University of Stellenbosch. The application was online and was easily accessible. The application process was very straight forward, but it did require an acceptance letter from the desired course. A personal tip would be to communicate as soon as possible with the attended course coordinators and get detail with regards to what exactly is expected from you to be accepted and how long you will have to wait for feedback. Also enquire about what exactly is included in the course fee and what is not. In my case they provided lunch and arranged for the participants to live with host families who also provided breakfast and dinner. There were also no extra travelling costs to get to the conserve from my host family and back every day. If your course does not make provisions for the above it can add quite a lot to your budget.
In two weeks I received the news that my travel grant application was approved and that I can go ahead with my plans to attend the Belgium Clarinet Academy. My VISA application and flight ticket was next.
Again I would advise to start as early as possible to get all the documents ready for your VISA application. Usually they require a detailed itinerary of your whereabouts and this can take quite some time. Try to have all your documents before you go to apply for your VISA to save petrol and time given that most consulates are in Cape Town and have specific hours for consultation.
This year it was held from 8th to 14th July at the Conservatory at Sea in Ostend, Belgium. The coordinators requested that the participants arrive a day early to audition for placements and settle in with their host families. My host and I had been corresponding via email and I was looking forward to meeting her in person. I also took some proudly South African gifts for her – a bottle of pinotage and also some honeybush tea.
The daily schedule entailed us playing from 8:30 to 18:00 every day. Every day started with a half hour group warm-up session. This was followed by three 75 minute slots for private lessons and quartet coaching with one of the above teachers before lunch. After lunch there were again two 75 minute slots, followed by a 90 minute clarinet choir rehearsal.
The Belgium Clarinet Academy was a wonderful opportunity to meet other clarinet players from all over the world. It was insightful to debate clarinet and music related topics with people from other parts of the world. This really broadened my understanding of certain topics. Although this can be achieved in daily life as a Stellenbosch University student, I think these realisations are just so much more intense and more plentiful when you are in a different environment. I also gained incredible knowledge about my clarinet playing, ranging from interpretation to technical aspects such as my embouchure.
The course was luckily not all work and no play. We had a well-deserved off day on the Sunday and my host took me to see Ieper and Leuven. It was also delightful to experience the Belgium culture, although I will pass on the maatjies (a raw fish eaten while dangling form a raised hand) in the future.
Through the Belgium Clarinet Academy I also received an invitation from Professor Eddy van Oosthuyse to study with him in another master’s in clarinet performance at the University in Liege in Belgium starting in October. This is a prospect I have never even dreamt of, but would definitely not have happened if it was not for the opportunity to attend the Belgium Clarinet Academy.
Returning home after such a mind opening experience was quite exciting. I could not wait to see my family and friends again and also to tell my current lecturers about the knowledge I had gained. It was also a humbling experience that motivated me to work harder on my art. The Belgium Clarinet Academy served for great inspiration to prepare and complete my current master’s while I am pursuing my plans to start at the University of Liege in October.