Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Juilliard School - Portraits of a Dream

It starts with a fire in the stomach, and keeps many aspiring artists awake at night long before they recognize the drive toward performance excellence. This call to arms knows no geographic boundaries and speaks many languages. For every artist who seeks a career as a performance artist, there are no guarantees of success, which does not deter thousands of students who apply to and audition for The Juilliard School each year.

This venerable institution attracts students who come to pursue their dreams as performance artists, and a world-renowned staff of working professionals who provide an enviable education. The admit rate for the past year of undergraduates was 7.6%, the year before it was 6.8%. This makes Juilliard more selective than Harvard. Students accepted into the rigorous program attend for various reasons, primary among them is to create and sustain a career. Embarking upon a career in the arts isn’t an easy path to travel, and one that requires serious thought given the number of other talented people vying for the same jobs in orchestra pits, theatres, and opera houses around the world. The understood mission of The Juilliard School is to level the playing field for their students.

Located in New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, one of the major hubs of culture, arts, and resources, Juilliard sits among The Metropolitan Opera, The Vivian Beaumont Theater, and New York Philharmonic. The school’s façade is unassuming, yet within minutes of ascending the escalator or climbing the stairs to the main entrance, the energy changes. On the upper level, The Juilliard Bookstore comes into view, as do faculty and students going about their classes and rehearsals. Beyond the security checkpoint on the first floor, students convene in the lobby outside Paul Recital Hall with their peers or review musical scores and librettos. There are no set criteria for a successful student at Juilliard, but discipline, persistence, and the ability to work well with others in an extremely competitive but creative environment are prerequisites.

The Juilliard experience isn’t right for everyone. Students must discover who they are inside and outside of the rehearsal studios and recital halls. Apart from the school’s reputation, it is wise that young artists chart their own path, and prepare themselves for the realities of the outside world. One of the hardships students might face upon graduation is a professional lull after an intense four or six year program, for which some aren’t prepared after emerging from The Juilliard Bubble. In today’s society, the supply is larger than the demand for musicians, and the Office of Career Development does its best to prepare the students along the way and after graduation with professional seminars and workshops.

The emerging artists introduced here have similar traits and belief systems. They are dedicated to their instrument, practice and performance schedules, and realize that Juilliard is a resource. At the end of the audition or competition, the best player gets the job or award, not necessarily the person from Juilliard.

Prior to the undergraduate and master’s programs, students as young as seven years old begin their formal music education in the Music Advancement Program, M.A.P, and if successful, continue into the Pre-College Division. Young prodigies come to Juilliard with a reputation and assorted fanfare, yet once inside, the scales are balanced. Everyone has the same opportunities and access to faculty, mentors, and state-of-the art facilities.

Students roll out of bed everyday and practice their instrument, not worrying about the revolving door of others coming through. Certain students feel a career in music is a predestined path; it would go against their nature to do anything else. There are no student molds at Juilliard. Each pupil is an individual, in attendance for technical, emotional, and professional discovery and growth. Unlike traditional academic programs, students are able to speak through their instruments, channeling nerves, insecurities, and fears into their music.

Natalie Joachim began playing flute at the age of nine. Natalie credits the school district requirement in her New Jersey hometown that all students play an instrument in fourth grade as a step toward leveling the playing field artistically. It was her female classmates who initially chose the flute that figured into her choice – she thought it was a girl’s instrument.

Ms. Joachim doesn’t fit a role or in a category, unusual for pre-packaged artists in many genres inside the hallowed halls of Juilliard and in the professional world. “I’m more than a Juilliard student, I’m an artist living in New York,” she cautioned. To achieve this goal, she starts her day at school as soon as the doors open at eight in the morning and often times remaining until eleven at night or later. Her performance career began at Juilliard, but she has specific goals to combine her musical gifts with multimedia. The training is an important component to the future success of most students, but it isn’t enough to ensure a job upon graduation. She continued, “I’m a well-trained classical artist who wants to introduce my generation to music.”

Students are protected at school, within the bubble, but some don’t plan beyond graduation. It takes more than a formidable education to fulfill goals as a musician. There’s no sense of entitlement among the students, yet more of an understated expectation that Juilliard on a résumé will open or knock down doors at auditions and in competitions. There are no scientific predictors for future success. Artists who step outside the box, and challenge the status quo are more likely to etch a career as a musician.

Brandon Lee is a trumpet player in the Jazz Studies program who remembers being musical since he was two or three, singing in his father’s church. His parents laid an early foundation for his burgeoning musical career back in Texas. His interest in Juilliard began when he was a sophomore in high school and traveled to New York City to compete in a jazz competition. He set his goals on New York City, regardless of institution. He knew he needed to be in New York to study and perform. He was given a preview to the program back in 1999 by legendary trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and bided his time until 2001. Brandon has the distinction of being one of the pilot students in the jazz program. His earliest influences were the brass section of his father’s high school band and Wynton Marsalis’ recordings.

An advantage of a Juilliard education is the one-on-one instruction with faculty and visiting staff from the world over. “It doesn’t matter who comes into the jazz program, it’s what they can get out of it.” Juilliard strives to create well-rounded artists and citizens of society, combining liberal arts courses with the intensive performance arts curriculum.

Seattle native Jumaane Smith is reserved in person, yet when he’s on stage warming up or performing, he comes to life with trumpet or coronet in hand. He communicates through his instruments, and evokes feelings and emotions that might otherwise evade him. Jumaane feels at home in the conservatory because of the level of musicianship among his peers, but doesn’t mix words: “There’s much more to life than music, but music can be an expression to the life you lead.” It’s a given that most have artistic gifts, the dividing factors are formulating and execution for those who will forge ahead.

Students aren’t able to see family and friends as often as they’d like due to the ten or more daily hours of rehearsals, performances, recordings, and professional gigs. Jumaane echoes that artists must have an unrelenting desire to stand above the rest. “There are five hundred people in a five block radius that can do the same thing I can. What separates them from me is my training.”

Audrey Flores plays French horn in what she describes as the New York style a rounder, heavier, and darker sound appreciated in select orchestras. Audrey is a maverick of sorts. She recounts singing, acting, and community service among the high points in her personal development prior to arriving in the brass section in the Juilliard Orchestra. Living off campus pushed her outside the protective membrane, forcing further growth from a student accustomed to being a pioneer. “I need my space from the bubble. Music is personal for me.”

There are more female brass players at Juilliard than in the professional world, a fact she bears in mind as she nears graduation. The variety of people and spice of life in New York has kept the creative fires burning inside, not an easy feat for a young artist who suffered the loss of her father four years prior to picking up a horn, and being in Manhattan during the 9/11 attacks.

Ms. Flores is a composed and confident person, who wants to provide music for the less fortunate around the world. The Texas native feels that seventy percent of the students at Juilliard are gifted, and thirty percent want to achieve more than anyone else. “If those people work harder than you, they’ll surpass you. You are the best teacher and motivator for yourself.”

Christopher Guzman is a second-year pianist in the Master’s Program, who credits his mother with his auditioning for Juilliard. “Juilliard is a great and competitive place to be. You love and hate it at the same time.” His passion for music makes it worthwhile. “There’s a lot of backstabbing in the music world, loyalty doesn’t exist.” He feels important that all aspiring musicians prepare themselves for not being a superstar, and the likelihood of not being hired. There’s an underlying sentiment of an educational imbalance in the conservatory, perhaps owing itself to the singular vision of performance excellence. Juilliard isn’t a liberal arts school, yet some students would benefit from a broader spectrum of courses and social experiences not available in the current curriculum. After a brief pause, “Juilliard isn’t how the real world works. Students need to learn how to be practical.”

The musicians profiled are aware that the odds are stacked against their future success, yet they are prepared for the long haul ahead. Juilliard can be a key to eventual success, but isn’t the key. It’s important to have a singular commitment to an instrument and the craft. Many seek careers as musicians, but what gives them an edge are personal and professional dedication and focus. Musicians who realize and are not upset by the possibility of there being someone better than they are on any given day, are those who have prepared for different scenarios. Today’s student peers are tomorrow’s professional competitors.

Artists who pursue a career as a musician must weigh their decision against perhaps more stable careers in arts administration, teaching, or leaving the field once the reality of the imbalance sets in. It’s a nontraditional career path, definitely not lucrative, and only a handful of musicians land steady jobs. The goal of the administrators and faculty at The Juilliard School is that the available individual and group training, extensive library, and access to artists in other mediums, will arm their students for years to come.

* This article originally appeared in the Music Mayhem Issue of unChín Magazine.

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