Interview with Joan Koenig, founder of L’Ecole Koenig – The American Conservatory
In 1986, Joan Koenig, a graduate of New York’s Julliard School of Music, founded L’Ecole Koenig – The American Conservatory, with a total of ten students. By the beginning of the following school year L’Ecole counted 100 enrollments. L’Ecole Koenig has never ceased developing and expanding its programs. Joan Koenig’s research and innovative work with music and early childhood, along with her talented teaching team, have earned the conservatory a solid reputation in the Parisian community. Today, L’Ecole Koenig – American Conservatory & Kindergarten comprises 400 students and 300 families.
Joan, you had been studying in America so what made you decide to open up a school in France?
I was already in France studying with a French flutist and I had been hired at a well-known French conservatory. I was quite shocked at the way music was taught in France, very top-down. I had the rather naïve idea of creating a private alternative music school, and this was the birth of the American Conservatory.
What is The American Conservatory?
It is a high level serious program of classical music and jazz, that is also terribly fun! Our program differs in that positive reinforcement and the opportunity to play together, and to perform in public is a big part of every child’s experience. In 2015 I handed the reigns to the conservatory to my longtime friend and colleague, the pianist Betsy Schlesinger.
What age group is it aimed at?
Baby Musiking is the first class, and it is indeed for babies (from 6 months old)! The program begins with this course, and moves through First Steps, then a multi instrumental atelier, onto a mini mono instrumental group class and finally at the age of 7 children begin private instrumental lessons. By the age of 7 they have already developed a high level of natural musicianship.
How does your philosophy differ from the classical teaching methods in the traditional conservatoires?
Making music is first and foremost a natural desire in most children. Young children have innate musical talent which needs to be developed naturally with embodiment. The child’s first instrument is his body. When you ignore this, you can actually stifle natural musical talent. Our program develops a high level of natural musicality preparing children for instrumental learning in a variety of styles.
What inspired you to open the Kindergarten?
I was seeing such amazing results with young children that I saw only once a week, that I wanted to see what would happen if children “lived in music” daily.
You use music as the foundation for innovative early childhood education. Why is music so important to young children?
Music develops concentration, self regulation, intuition, empathy, auditory and motor skills and the children can never get enough!
How can music help in developing confidence and building empathy?
When children prepare a song or a piece of music together, and then present it to their families, they take great pride. They are learning to “speak in public”, a skill which is often not dealt with at all in the French school system. Music cannot be made without absolute synchronicity: this requires extreme and visceral attention towards others. The connection that children build is intuitive and very sensorial, the self is blurred, and they become a “we”. This is the beginning of empathy, “thinking outside of me”.
Can your approach to learning help children who have learning disabilities or find it difficult to concentrate?
Yes for all the above reasons! Musical ability transcends many learning delays.
Can you tell us more about your multilingual approach to learning?
Language acquisition begins before birth. The more languages a child hears in the first few years of his life, the larger his linguistic potential becomes. We use French and English on a daily basis, and Mandarin once a week. The children take a world tour during their three years with us: they sing in over 20 different languages!
How do you select your teachers?
This is the hardest part! I reach out all over the world, and try to find the brightest and most creative people out there! We have several interviews, and we require the potential teachers to prepare and lead an activity with our students as well. One can get a very clear idea about the candidate via this process.
Can you describe a typical day in the Kindergarten?
The day begins with Circle Time, a 30 to 45 minutes musical wake up, and a moment of sharing and happiness. When children are happy, their brains are bathed in Serotonin, which creates the ideal condition for durable learning. During the morning, the children work on reading, writing and math, interspersed with small group music classes, and Mandarin.
Lunch time is communal, and then the children go to the park. On alternating days, the children practice yoga in small groups, and participate in a “becoming a citizen” groups. The day ends at 3pm, and we also offer a bilingual “After School” program.
What is the enrollment process?
Everything is on-line: the process includes a visit to the school with the child, and then an interview with the director and both parents. The selection process involves many criteria, including age, sex and dominant language. We try to create a balanced classroom in all these areas.