Why music education should be free and universal

Elizabeth Sombart is the founder of Fondation Résonnance, which offers music education free of charge to anyone who is passionate about learning – without any entrance exams.

I’ve been passionate about sharing and teaching music all my life. I vividly remember discovering the difference between a minor and a major third interval when I was just seven, and the joy of the discovery prompted me to share it with everybody around me. I knew there and then that my life would be dedicated to teaching and transmitting my love of music. I gave my first piano lesson at the age of 14 and I have taught music ever since.

Fondation Résonnance takes that passion further. Through it I’ve achieved my dual goals of providing free access to music education for people of all backgrounds and bringing music beyond normal concert venues to places of suffering: prisons, hospitals, retirement homes, refugee camps and more. The philosophy behind the Fondation, which also permeates the way we teach and perform through the Fondation, stems from the connected ideas of inner development, unity and transmission. This is the phenomenology of music: the approach developed by the conductor Sergiù Celibidache. At the Fondation we are redefining the place and the mission of the artist in the world.

After 20 years of the Fondation, we have received official recognition for our work: the creation of a Diploma, ‘Artiste Résonnance’, which is going to be accredited all over Europe.

Access to music education was always a key part of the mission. I have played the piano in many places: Palestinian camps, war zones, prisons, in hospitals for elderly people, and for orphaned children – and some of these people had never seen a grand piano in their lives. It would be the first time they had heard classical music, and they would always be touched because classical music reaches the heart. So often people came up to me and said how deeply sad they were for not having had access to a piano, or not having had the means to pursue a musical education.

Playing in these farthest corners of the earth, I realised that classical music is universal. It belongs to everyone regardless of their culture, because of its capacity to speak to the heart. I never saw anyone not being deeply moved by Bach, Schubert or Chopin.

Affordability is certainly a barrier to music education, but it also creates a major psychological hurdle; namely the myth that classical music exclusively belongs to a certain social class – that of the rich and the educated.

These problems are compounded by the very negative idea that one can compete in music. I was nine when I won the first prize in the Bach Albert Lévèque Competition in Paris. After the other prizes were announced, I noticed as I was leaving the stage that so many of the other competitors and their family members were in tears. It shocked me so much that I decided that one day I would create a school where everyone would win the first prize. For me, the first prize goes to people who have given the best they can – and not for the fact they have played better than the other pianists.

In my opinion entrance and final exams have no place in music. Music tends toward unity, whereas all these exams create division.

In our schools, we nurture the excellence of the student and create in them their own sense of value.  As soon as a student knows a piece of music well, they play it at one of the institutions we are connected with. The emotional response and the gratitude they receive from the audience bring a totally new sense of value and purpose in the performers. For example, nine-year-old Isabella returned from giving one of these recitals, and stated with bewilderment: “my little fingers brought tears to people’s eyes.”

In order to improve access to music education, one must regenerate and reawaken the need for classical music. Restoring classical music education in schools at the youngest age, and reinstating choirs in schools would be the first steps. Making music together puts us in a relationship with one another, this is the unity that we strive to achieve. Music teaches us that we do not succeed alone or against another, but together and in relation to one another.

Elizabeth Sombart begins her Beethoven Piano Concerto Cycle at Cadogan Hall on 5 November 2019