As May 2020 approached, my masters degree finished in an instant, as though somebody bewitched the time to go double speed. Due to Covid 19, although the semester continues online, life at Juilliard has been cut short and ended on the 20th of March, just after spring break. I cannot help feeling more miserable than ever having to suddenly forced to go back home to Sydney and not knowing when will I see my friends again, some of them I had only became close with in a matter of months or even weeks prior or to! Nevertheless I would to share with you here, what it is really like studying at Juilliard.
As a master student, there is undoubtedly substantial workload. In the performance aspect, they include, weekly lessons and studio classes, performance classes, extra participation in masterclass by visiting world-renowned professors such as Robert Levin and Stephen Hough. (In this case for pianists) On top of performance, there are compulsory academic classes masters student must take, at least 4 credits of history and theory subjects for the degree, and chamber music of course. My teacher was Dr. Matti Raekallio. He was extremely good natured, humourous and extremely intelligent. He was big yet possessed a delicate ear that could discern footsteps of an ant, particularly when playing for him in the lesson. He was also unusually hardworking, teaching six days a week from 8am - 8pm with only one lunch break, had 35 students. He knew pretty much all the piano repertoire back to front and was always encouraging and optimistic no matter how well the student was progressing. He rarely says 'No that's not a good idea' but usually replaced it with phrases like 'ah that's a very good idea, have you tried even...' or 'This will become very good'.
There are of course other opportunities for performance outside of our own studio. Dr. Sachs is founder and organiser of the FOCUS festival, music festival held yearly at Juilliard school to showcase modern music written by composers all way the world. This year's topic was Pioneering Women Composers of Post War period. Thanks to him, as he was impressed by playing of Schoenberg's 6 Little pieces Op. 19, he asked me to learn and give the US premiere of Grete von Zieritz's Sonata at the FOCUS festival 2020, which you can listen to on my media page. Another program for pianists was called 'Piano Scope', founded by Dr. Aaron Wunsch, who was very young and one of the busiest teachers. He taught keyboard skills and sightreading, Evening division classes, several history courses and of course 'Piano Scope'. He brings out an particular topic for each semesters and will classes on that topic of music, its history, its trends, its style, and its interpretation. There will be performance and masterclass opportunities at end of that. I joined in the 1st semester and learnt about 'Angels and Demons' and he began discussing works of spiritual qualities to them, works primarily by Bach, Liszt, Scriabin, Debussy and Messiaen.
Top left - right: Dr. Matti Raekallio and his students celebrating his birthday; me and my chamber group after performance of Dvorak's Trio no. 3 Op. 65; me and my friends out in the street under the snow
Bottom left-right: me making recordings in one of the Juilliard Dance studios; me during my performance at FOCUS Festival 2020
History subjects at a masters' level include very focused topics related to one composer's body of work or an era. For example, over the 2 years, I took the following history subjects, more than required: Richard Strauss's Operas, Wagner's Ring Cycle, Mahler's Symphonies, Chamber Music from Home to Concert and Schumann at Work and finally Music after World War II. The first 3 subjects were taught by Dr. John Muller, who lectured passionately with an ultra in-depth grasp of the material combined with humour, which was why I decided to take his subjects for 3 semesters in a row and also due to the fact I was interested to pursue conducting in the future. Theory subjects on the other hand I found rather tiresome and required lots of writing, which is why I only took the following: Lieder from Brahms to Berg, String Music from Bach to Bartok. These subjects were very taught with close associated to harmonic analysis and structural analysis, nevertheless an essential skill to develop as a performing musician.
Other subjects I took that are neither history not theory, were practical subjects, which are extra musical skills less likely to be developed from playing our own instrument. For these I took: Musician as an Entrepreneur, Improvisation, Performance Workshop of Music in 20th and 21st century, and Conducting. All of which were fascinating and totally engaging. Musician as an entrepreneur was a class that was devoted to learning about the music business and cultivating ideas to how a musician may begin their career in unique and personal ways rather than the normal 'winning a competition' matter. Improvisation was taught by pianist Noam Sivan, a highly skilled pianist, composer and improviser. He taught systemically how to build short and long works based on motives or themes or a mode or a bass, and spent most of the lesson improvising with each player (only 4, me on piano, a violinist, a violist and a clarinetist), encouraging us to be creative, take risks and most importantly listen hard and react. Performance Workshop of Music in 20th and 21st century was one of the very popular classes which many students took mainly because there was no written homework and no final assignment. This class was taught by pianist and lecturer, Dr. Joel Sachs, who also taught the class Music after World War II. He did not teach in a conventional based on fact matter about the music of the modern era but rather on the telling stories of his own, about his meetings and talks with Henry Cowell, Sofia Gubaildulina etc, as well as his experiences of his performances and others too. Everyone was required to perform several times a semester, a work assigned by Dr. Sachs in front the class, where the work required performers to think deeply and try to understand modern composers' instructions and ideals on their compositions, rather than play the correct notes. It was a class for us to get out of our comfort-zone. Lastly there is conducting, taught by maestro Jeffery Milarsky. He was able to be extremely supportive towards our ideas on the music and even our conducting movements and sought to help us develop our own individuality in conducting. In other words he did not ever tell us that 'this is a bad way to conduct, you should do this instead' but often highlighted what our weakness was and what we could do to improve and fine tune it. He was able to be very encouraging but at the same time demanded a great deal from us.
Despite all the classes I found it necessary to take long walks around central park every weekend, to immerse myself in nature again, which I sorely missed being in NYC.
Life at Juilliard, I admit, is competitive and intensive. Everyone is not there to hate on each other, but always working hard to improve and strive to be the best of themselves. It is only fitting to be in that environment to also stretch one's musical abilities, knowledges and music contacts. I worked as an accompanist at Juilliard, for extra income as an international student, which I found was totally fulfilling. I got accompany a violinist and a singer of their lessons weekly and learn everything I could from their teachers; first one learning about strings techniques and interpretation and the other vocal techniques. There are almost 100 practice rooms in the Juilliard, they are first come first served, not required to be booked days in advance. The building closes at 12am and at 12.01, there are always a rush of 20-30 or so students finishing off their practice leaving the building - not a minute is wasted.
One of the great things about studying at Juilliard, is the direct location to the Metropolitan Opera, David Geffen Hall (1 minute away) and Carnegie Hall (10 minutes away) I love opera so I go to the Met 4-5 times a semester, sometimes with friends, most of time alone, just to indulge myself in the music and experience without distractions. It was a rather depressing time when told to leave NYC because of the pandemic, knowing there are so much great things to leave behind and not knowing whether it will the same again. Nevertheless it was a rather reminiscent moment just to think all the great things that have been in NYC in my masters degree. I should not be sorry to leave behind, but glad and lucky that I got to experience it.