NEAR MIDNIGHT ON THE WOODSY FRINGE of Faribault, in southern Minnesota, the sound of music emanates from deep inside a limestone building. The same tunes, over and over. Piano, cello, violin, viola. Early in the morning, too, and on many afternoons. The musicians are young—a handful of teenagers from around the world. But they rarely watch television, they eschew sports, and they fill their iPods with music most kids wouldn’t recognize. They inhabit practice rooms like monks in their cells, and they sleep just yards away in dormitories. They eat together, goof around together, and may someday play together in the world’s finest orchestras.
They are the first class in a new pre-conservatory strings program at Shattuck–St. Mary’s School (SSM), a boarding school that has been around for 150 years. The program is likely the first of its kind in the country, preparing students with an almost Olympian intensity for the elite music conservatories—Juilliard, Curtis, Peabody—that could vault them to the top of the classical-music world. “We make no bones about it,” says the school’s headmaster, Nicholas Stoneman, of the program’s pretensions. These kids are being groomed for stardom.
The orchestral universe is notoriously rarefied. Of the 51 orchestras represented by the largest musicians’ union, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, less than two dozen offer full-time, year-round employment. In the top 15 orchestras, there are perhaps 1,500 musical positions—when they’re available. Fewer still are the international touring and recording stars, such as Yo-Yo Ma or Lang Lang. And the conservatories whose graduates tend to ascend to these positions accept only a tiny fraction of applicants. The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, for instance, annually receives about 700 to 800 applications for perhaps 40 to 50 open slots. “The level of competition is higher than it has ever been in the history of musical performance,” asserts Alexander Braginsky, a Minneapolis pianist and instructor enlisted by SSM to teach the pre-conservatory students. “Particularly with China and Korea entering the stage in the last 10 years, you have to be fantastic and then perfect on top of it and then even more perfect than that.”
Yet the students practicing away in Faribault may have an unusual advantage, one that has nothing to do with the arts. In fact, it has everything to do with hockey.
For anyone spellbound by the Harry Potter stories, Shattuck–St. Mary’s School feels familiar from the moment you enter its 250-acre campus under a high stone arch. A neo-Gothic clock tower presides over a clutch of classroom buildings, a chapel, and a mahogany-paneled dining hall, hung with wrought-iron chandeliers, in which the school’s founder gazes down upon the tables from an enormous oil painting. This year, SSM is bustling with the highest enrollment in its history: 434 students in grades 6 through 12. But just a decade ago, SSM was down to fewer than 200 students. For centuries, boarding schools existed to pave the way to Yale, Harvard, and other elite universities. In the last 50 years, as those universities broadened their avenues to admission, enrollment at boarding schools began a steep decline that continues to this day. To distinguish itself from its tweedy East Coast competitors, SSM turned to that most iconic of Minnesota pastimes: ice hockey.
The school recruited a former Minnesota North Star to develop a hockey program. It built a new athletics facility and hired the best instructors. Hockey students are on the ice at dawn and are excused from one school activity each day to concentrate on their training. They practice together, study together, and stick together. SSM is now on the map as a producer of pucksters. (ESPN has dubbed it the “Hogwarts of hockey.”) Wayne Gretsky sent his son here, and other pro players and coaches have followed suit. Top picks in the NHL draft are now often SSM alumni: At one point, three players on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ roster alone had graduated from the program.
Encouraged by their success with hockey, SSM officials developed similar training programs for figure skaters and soccer players, and eventually set their sights on making the leap from athletics to music. The school had long had a small but notable arts program (Marlon Brando was inspired to pursue acting here—before he was booted for chronic misbehavior). For advice on how to grow the program, the school consulted Bruce Coppock, then the president and managing director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, whose stepdaughter attended the school. Coppock used his connections to assemble a team of top private music teachers in the Twin Cities, who in turn identified a handful of promising teenage musicians around the world. The kids practice three hours every day, mostly on their own, rehearsing as an ensemble two or three times each week. On Fridays, they’re driven to their lessons in the Twin Cities or at St. Olaf College in Northfield. And every so often, they’re taken to hear musical performances in the Twin Cities or, occasionally, New York City.
The program is intended to compete—on a small but intensive scale—with the music programs at the top private arts schools in the country, such as Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school in Michigan. Headmaster Stoneman, a former investment banker on Wall Street, earmarked enough student aid to fund full or partial scholarships for the first class of recruits (tuition for international boarding students at SSM is otherwise nearly $38,000 a year), ensuring the school’s claim on the next generation of potential virtuosos.
Whether a pre-conservatory background will actually help a young musician get into a top music school is hard to predict, since so much depends on the quality of the student’s teacher and how well they work together, says Christopher Hodges, admissions officer for the Curtis Institute of Music. And in the end, what matters most is the audition. “To be very blunt, we’re simply looking for good musicians,” says Hodges. And the top talent is as likely to come from the Juilliard School, he says, as from a public high school in Topeka, Kansas. That said, students with pre-conservatory training “tend to audition well, and to be accepted,” says David Lane, admissions director for the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. “They are among our more sophisticated applicants.”
On a fall morning, Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis is roaring—much of the SSM student body is here to listen to Magdalena Müllerperth, a pianist in the pre-conservatory program, play with the Minnesota Orchestra as a guest soloist. At 16, the native of Germany has already won some 35 prizes at piano competitions around the world and performed across Europe. Alexander Braginsky, her teacher, calls her “star material.”
The pre-conservatory students at SSM have widely varying backgrounds. Derek Huang, who plays the violin, grew up in Mankato and aced the math SATs when only a high-school freshman. James Zabawa was discovered playing a junky plywood violin in Texas, the son of a single mom who struggled to find academic challenges for him. If he hadn’t been noticed at a competition by Sally O’Reilly, now his violin teacher in Minneapolis, he’d be “watching Jerry Springer and eating pizza on the couch,” he says.
Despite their differing backgrounds, the students are united in their devotion to classical music. Their heroes are obscure, often dead, such as violinist Jascha Heifetz, who remarked, “There is no top, there are always further heights to reach.” In the van on the way to Friday lessons, they debate which soloist has best played Shostakovich. Only Müllerperth, however, harbors the grand vision of traipsing across stages to applause—“I want to perform all over the world,” she says. The others, inspired by their teachers’ examples, more modestly hope to also become teachers, playing on the side.
As Müllerperth emerges from the wings, the audience whistles and the tall teenager acknowledges them with a practiced bow. She plays flawlessly, with the flair of a true soloist, her fingers occasionally rising high above the keys, her ponytail shaking. When she finishes, she bows again. And even the orchestra members, who have hosted plenty of stars—shoot her approving glances as though she were indeed one of their own. MM
Tim Gihring is the senior writer and arts editor for Minnesota Monthly.