The Curtis Institute of Music, based in Philadelphia, USA, is perhaps the most competitive and elite music school in North America. With a student body of only 175 (compared to Juillard’s 850) during any given year, each student who makes the grade is mentored and guided by a teaching staff of 115 faculty members, most of whom are top, working, professional, classical musicians. The school counts luminaries such as Lang Lang, Yujia Wang and Leonard Bernstein as just some of its esteemed alumni.
We sit down with Roberto Diaz, the CEO of The Curtis Institute of Music, student cellist Jean Kim, and Curtis’ Grammy Award-winning faculty member, guitarist Jason Vieaux, during the school’s recent concert tour in Hong Kong organised by Premiere Performances of Hong Kong, to talk about what it takes to make it in the prestigious institute, and how your little one could become the next Lang Lang.
How hard is it to get into Curtis?
Roberto Diaz: Curtis only accepts only 3 percent of applicants. [The school] is certainly the toughest in North America. There also has to be a space for a student. The students are selected to constitute an orchestra. Thus, the number of openings can vary from year to year depending on who is leaving. It’s actually harder to get into Curtis than to win an elite international musical competition. A lot of times, members of the piano faculty judge international competitions, like the Tchaikovsky or Chopin competitions. When it comes down to the final round of applications [based on live performance at the school], the calibre of applicants will be the same. Some applicants are young professionals who already have recording contracts.
What makes Curtis different?
RD: Curtis is a performance school with an ethos of learning by doing. Participating in orchestra, chamber music and solo performances, the students are constantly on stage. I played in one master class in the four years I went to the New England Conservatory of Music. In a month at Curtis, I would have gotten more performance opportunities than in four years of attending music school. All students are on full tuition scholarships. Talent and potential are therefore the ONLY criteria for accepting a student.
Jean, what does a day in the life of a Curtis student look like?
Jean Kim: In the mornings, I attend lecture-based classes. I want to consume knowledge in a classroom where someone more knowledgeable than me is teaching. At Curtis, there are lots of classes unrelated to music, like philosophy, existentialism and others. I love liberal arts and literature, and I need another outlet. These have helped me discover my identity, especially [through studying] the artists in the Western World class. [The music and liberal arts balance] is 70/30. After class there’s practice and coaching, then orchestra from 4-7pm. I can be overwhelmed by the amount of musical intake, so it’s important to be exposed to other subjects.
What’s the most challenging thing about going to a school such as Curtis?
JK: It’s hard to keep long-term relationships. There’s always an element of competition. For example, the main question before the end of the school year is, what are you doing for the summer? It’s a question about what festivals, what concerts, what competitions, not 'how are you?'. It’s hard to develop trust when everything you talk about causes comparison and competition.
What does it take to become successful as a classical musician in today’s day and age?
JK: It doesn’t have to do with how well you play, but how you socialise and present yourself. And how good you are at social media. You need to win three major competitions to make it.
Jason Vieaux: Don’t forget we’re talking about the very best musicians here, so musical excellence is already a given. There’s too much competition for very few spots. Word of mouth is the most powerful [element of success] – more important than social media. That, from people inside the business, is gold. You have to be ready to do a lot of things. Your talent is a small part of it. There are many different paths.
Why have we seen an explosion of interest in classical music and instrumental training in China?
RD: A lot of parents seek success for their youngsters by referring to Asian superstars such as [Curtis alumni] Lang Lang or Yujia Wang.
JV: One of the signifiers of success is playing classical music. It has middle class cachet, asking the question, 'What instrument does your child study?'. Interest in the guitar is exploding in China.
JK: At a community engagement event [in Hong Kong, we learned that] piano doesn’t even count as an instrument because everyone plays the piano already. And you need to choose another instrument to qualify. At Curtis, half the cellists are Korean. More than half the pianists are Asian. I sometimes have to speak Korean in some of my studios!
How do we get young generations interested in classical music?
RD: Contemporary music is the way to attract younger audiences. You have to curate and present music according to their preferred mode of consumption. They may want to see the score projected on the wall, they may want to have a drink in their hand, they may want to be able to talk to the musician during or after the performance. They don’t want to just sit there and consume passively. It’s also about training musicians to be more open-minded and entrepreneurial and then sending them out into the world to become soldiers and advocates of their art form. When young people see that the performers are their age or younger, they go, 'wow!'.
By Joanne Ooi