James Kahane: With freedom comes responsibility for your development

Could you tell about your background?
I’m 20 years old and I come from Paris. I studied conducting at first in France in a private school, with Adrian McDonnell. After finishing high school I went to Tel Aviv University’s Buchmann-Mehta School of Music to study in the bachelor’s programme for orchestral conducting. After two years there I decided to apply to Sibelius Academy and got accepted to study orchestra conducting. Right now I’m in my first year in the programme.

Could you tell about your study programme?
In the conducting programme, there are three things that I find really interesting and feel that make the academy stand out.

Firstly, we have orchestra practice twice a week, i.e. paid musicians coming to our classes who we can conduct. After each session we review video recordings of ourselves with our teachers. We get a lot from watching each other and ourselves conducting and it’s an extremely important tool to improve ourselves. To have an orchestra to work with and to be able to see how we’ve done afterwards is something that really pushes us forward.

Secondly, about every two weeks we have an invited conductor visiting us. It can be an official part-time teacher from the academy, or an international conductor from outside the academy. We see many different ways of working and teachers with differing pedagogical methods. Such diverse exposure helps you improve your own work.

Thirdly, being able to work here at the Music Centre (Musiikkitalo), we have access to rehearsals of RSO (Radio Symphony Orchestra) and Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Because the Finnish music community is very open, we have constant formal and informal exposure to other musicians.

What drew you to conducting?
I started playing piano at the age of six. Later at fourteen, I became really interested in conducting and in the symphonic repertoire. From there on all I have done in music is work towards becoming a conductor and improve my overall musicianship.

How did you initially hear about Sibelius Academy?
Initially I heard of it from my father. He was acquainted with the head of the Paris Conservatoire, who praised Sibelius Academy’s conducting programme. Moreover, I visited different schools around Europe to explore my options and when I asked around about studying conducting in an international school abroad, Sibelius Academy was a name that often came up.

What has it been like to live in Helsinki so far?
Most people I have met here are really nice and polite. What I enjoy about Helsinki, among other things, is the fact that the centre is quite small and it is easy to get around; the public transport works quite well and also, the city is very beautiful.

What have your studies been like?
My studies have exceeded my expectations. There is a nice variety of profiles among the conducting students, which also makes our styles of conducting very different (and therefore particularly interesting) from each other. Our teachers Atso Almila and Hannu Lintu have also been extremely supportive and helpful. The overall atmosphere in the academy is very warm, relaxed and informal, which is very helpful when getting to know other musicians.

In addition, we are really free - even encouraged - to develop our own ways of doing things. There’s a certain motto that I’ve heard quite often among the conducting teachers: “As long as it works, as long as it’s clear and the musicians feel comfortable, you can do whatever you want”. There is freedom but with that comes responsibility for your own development.

What has been your favourite experience in your studies?
My best experience was a week [during fall 2015] when Sir Roger Norrington visited the academy. During the week, each day after he would rehearse with the Radio Symphony Orchestra or with us, he would warmly invite us students to sit and eat and talk with him. He is a fascinating person and a very special conductor with very specific and unique ideas. The week ended with an amazing master class and a concert.  The whole week was life-changing for me.

What does your future look like?
In the short term I hope to get more opportunities to conduct here in Finland, and at the same time improve myself as a musician and as a conductor. In the long term I’m not ruling out working - or even studying more - abroad. The field is global in the sense that you can work anywhere.

What advice would you give an aspiring art student?
Go for it. It doesn’t cost you anything to try. You might be positively surprised. The examiners don’t evaluate you solely on your skills, they also evaluate you based on your potential and what you have or want to say about the art.