As back-to-school season crept up on us and the few precious days left of summer were trickling away, fifteen of my fellow teenage string players and myself decided to spend them sweating it out in Atlanta at the Robert McDuffie and Friends Labor Day Festival for Strings!
The Festival is five days long, carried out over Labor Day weekend. Sixteen kids, rising juniors or seniors in high school, were treated to an all-expense paid preview of conservatory life at the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings, a two-year old program at Mercer University in Macon, GA. Mr. McDuffie, an internationally acclaimed violinist who trained at Juilliard, founded the center in his hometown, bringing in distinguished faculty from around the US, including Center Director Amy Schwartz Moretti; David Halen, concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony; and renown cellist Andrés Díaz.
The Center, with 11 students so far, is small, but with a caring, family-like atmosphere, in which the students and teachers often play chamber music together.
Our small group was treated fabulously; we stayed at a beautiful hotel on the Mercer campus and got to work with the Center's all-star faculty. Along with being coached intensely on a movement of a quartet, we had orchestral excerpt classes, master classes, vocal coaching, and got to perform a Mozart Divertimento side-by-side the faculty in the final concert.
The Center has a unique philosophy about the way a conservatory musician has to prepare for surviving in the real world. The faculty gave a short lecture before the final concert, explaining to students and parents what their beliefs for this preparation process were. I spoke with Mr. McDuffie on the phone after the festival to get a clearer idea of their values.
"There are already plenty of big, successful schools out there; why would I want to start another high-level string conservatory? Well, I wanted to do something that was relevant and meaningful, that would truly affect kids' lives. At the Center, you receive training from what I think is among the very best faculty in the country. But once they leave the school, we want the kids to not only have learned a great deal about music making, but to have benefited from a comprehensive curriculum as well; to have gained entrepreneurial skills to pursue happiness in their lives after school, and deal with the real world."
Over the years, it has become harder and harder to be a very successful conservatory grad. Everyone is vying for the same two orchestra spots, or trying to make it as a soloist. I asked Mr. McDuffie what he thought was the best path for success.
"You have to become your own salesman," said Mr. McDuffie. "You can't really depend on others to make it happen for you. Some people get lucky and land great opportunities by chance, and god bless them. But you need to have the skills to be able to market yourself. You need to know how to raise money, read a contract, write letters, and how to negotiate with some of those sleazy violin dealers out there!" That's why each Center student gets a liberal arts education that focuses on developing entrepreneurial skills such as business, finance, new media, IT literacy, and English."
Sabina Thatcher, one of the Center's viola teachers, added, "The happiest musicians I know are those who got an education."
Aside from the curriculum, the faculty at the Center is very devoted to the students on a personal level. "We certainly do not want to discourage any one from pursuing their dreams," said Mr. McDuffie. "The teachers at the Center are ready to go to the mat for a student, whatever their dreams are. Our rolodexes include the contact information of every conductor of every major orchestra, every manager, every presenter. If there is a kid who we believe deserves to be heard, we will make the calls and make it happen for them.
"A student at the Center doesn't just have me, or Mr. Diaz, or whoever teaches their instrument, as a mentor. We work as a team, and we care about each student individually. We meet and talk as a group about each student, and again, if a student deserves to be heard, we know everybody in the business and are ready to help them out. At the Center, not only do you get total immersion and full service teaching in an intimate setting, but you shape your curriculum and have a really important weapon. You're a better string player, but you also have the tools you need for overall happiness."
So what does Mr. McDuffie think about the big brand-name schools? "We're not competing with them. We're a smaller group. I'd like to cap it at 26 students, and we accept four to five each year. We want to build a very strong foundation here. We've gotten a great response from people in the business, such as teachers from other schools. Some have said we're ahead of our time."
It was refreshing to hear the vision of the Center. Being a musician doesn't just mean that if you play well, you'll be successful and things will come to you. Aside from being a wonderful player, you have to work at it in other ways. To be able to communicate with others, propose ideas, and work at making deals and bargains with people, are all essential tools for a musician.
Our violin orchestral excerpt class was given by Mr. Halen, concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony. There couldn't have been a more fitting person to tell us what lay ahead if we pursued jobs in orchestras. Mr. Halen told us that it was most important to always follow your dream, whether it be as a soloist, a member of a quartet. He said that he once had his heart set on being in a quartet, but that life in an orchestra was much more consistent in terms of schedule and pay, and that most conservatory grads' first step is to audition for open orchestra spots. He gave us a taste of what preparing excerpts for this kind of audition would be like, and what kind of level would be expected. At the Center, a lot of emphasis is put on preparing students for orchestral auditions.
This five-day long, tuition-free festival was a great way to introduce conservatory applicants to the program at Mercer University. I got to play with extraordinary young musicians from all over the country, and to work with some excellent teachers and coaches. I’d encourage any serious high school string player to send in an application for next year’s Labor Day Festival by the deadline in May, 2009.
Here's an article about the Festival that was in the Macon Newspaper, with a picture of my quartet's performance.