In Praise of Specialist Music Schools

John Robert Brown

Violinist Hilary Hahn entered Philadelphia's Curtis Institute when she was ten years old. In 1999, when she was 19, she graduated, though Hahn had completed Curtis Institute's university requirements by the time she reached 16.

Curtis is one of the world's leading specialist music schools. Admission is extremely competitive, partly because Curtis students receive a full scholarship and partly because enrolment is small. Hahn was one of only 160 students. Her first album won Diapason's 1997 'Prix d'Or of the Year', spending weeks as a bestseller on the Billboard classical charts. By 2001 she had been named America's best young classical musician by Time Magazine.

In Hilary Hahn one could find no better example of a musician who is the product of a specialist music school. In the DVD Hilary Hahn, A Portrait (2007), a sort of classical music 'road movie', we see Hahn travelling to various appearances around the world. As you'd expect, Hahn plays in distinguished venues, from Abbey Road studios in London to the Philharmonie in Berlin, to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. Hahn also takes the cameraman on an impromptu tour of the Curtis Institute.

Of course, one can be fooled by a video documentary, but in this portrait Hahn appears to be self-sufficient, self-disciplined, broad-minded, well-educated and well-mannered. Her teacher Jascha Brodsky, who taught at Curtis until his death at the age of 89, being the last surviving student of the great Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe, is always referred to as 'Mr Brodsky' by Hahn. Where else in today's world would one hear such charming deference?

We hear Hahn speaking excellent German. The documentary was shot by a German crew. Apparently she also speaks French, and is learning Japanese. Hilary Hahn is no clone!

The question we have to answer is whether any non-specialist school can provide such an appropriate environment for someone like Hilary Hahn? Could any other type of institution do better in shaping such a well-rounded human being at the same time as nurturing such an outstanding - and individual - talent? Could a non-specialist school cope?

Of course it couldn't. Indeed, the standard educational system can be a disaster for an exceptional young musician. During three decades of conservatoire-level teaching I witnessed many sad examples. Perhaps most memorable was the modestly talented young percussionist who battled towards higher education from a tough inner-ring comprehensive. On the way he suffered all the gibes and derision that are inevitably heaped on those who dare to be different. His teacher told me that he was the most talented musician ever seen in her school. He was no clone.

Alas, it was only when he entered music college at eighteen that the unfortunate chap realised that he was barely good enough to gain college entrance. Devastated, he couldn't cope, failed to work hard, and eventually gave up music.

Let's not be concerned about producing clones. We couldn't if we tried. Let's just provide the best possible music education.

First published in Classroom Music. Used by kind permission.
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