Students pursue music with pre-college weekend programs 


Neeva Patel and Sophie Rukin

“As long as we don’t have a Hell Week, giving up eight hours of my Saturday to attend cello class isn’t too hard to manage,” Daniel Jeon (10) said. 

As a student at the Manhattan School of Music Precollege program (MSM), Jeon spends every Saturday taking classes and playing in the school’s orchestra. Jeon began playing cello eight years ago when he saw his friends playing instruments outside of school, he said. “I tried cello for a month or two and I really enjoyed it, so I kept pursuing it.”

Jeon was accepted into MSM in seventh grade and has attended the school ever since. He sees MSM Precollege as the best fit for him because of the great community his professors and friends provide, he said.

The application process for music schools, including Juilliard Precollege, is very competitive, violist Jisang Kymm (10) said. “There were two audition rounds; first, I submitted a video for the pre-screening round which wipes out about 50% of applicants,” he said. “Then, I submitted a video for the second round which is usually held in person, but because I auditioned during COVID, it was held online.”

Applicants play around 15 to 20 minutes worth of pieces during auditions, and in preparation, Kymm took about six hours of recordings, he said. “It was a pretty painful process; I practiced for a year and a half before the audition.”

Similarly to the intensive process of Juilliard auditions, Jeon found the application process for MSM very challenging and rigorous. Every applicant attends an initial round of pre-screening auditions; then, selected students are invited to and must pass callback auditions, he said. Both steps were equally stressful for Jeon because he was competing against extremely talented musicians in the tri-state region, he said.

Although students do not have to re-apply to MSM each year, they do have to apply for higher levels of orchestra, Jeon said. The MSM orchestra consists of four levels: Concert, Repertory, Symphony, and Philharmonic. Once a student is admitted to MSM, they are either placed in Concert or Repertory; in order to get into Symphony or Philharmonic, an audition is required, Jeon said. “It is really hard to get into the highest level of the orchestra, Philharmonic, since there are around 300 cellists in MSM and only about ten [are] admitted to the highest level,” he said.

Luca Pryor (12), a piano student of ten years, decided to choose MSM over other music programs because it was a balance of both competition and learning, whereas other schools seemed too intense to him, he said.

The MSM program runs every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but some classes last until 7 p.m., Jeon said. “Everyone is required to take Ear Training and Music Theory classes, and then I have two hours of orchestra,” he said. 

Another piano student at MSM, Federica Italiani (12), sees the program as similar to college since classes can be held at any time of the day, she said. “In past years, I have been there from 9 a.m to 5 p.m., but this year my first class is at 12 p.m. and I end at 4 p.m., so it’s a little shorter.”

In addition to required classes, Pryor is enrolled in the Piano Literature elective and a Harp Workshop, he said. “I actually have a paper due this week for Music Theory, which is a huge pain.”

Italiani is currently enrolled in the Advanced Piano Literature elective and a music history class where students learn about different composers each week, she said. “Level one is Baroque, level two is Classical, and now I’m studying contemporary and lesser-known composers.”

Jeon is required to take tests and midterms for his Music Theory class in addition to performances in recitals for the Orchestra, he said.

Pryor also performs in recitals and competitions at MSM, and has taken part in the Concerto competition a few times, he said. At MSM, competitions and recitals are not required, but they are encouraged, Pryor said.

At the Juilliard Precollege, students are required to perform in at least two recitals with the program per year, Kymm said. “I usually end up doing eight or nine more performances outside which are not a part of the program,” he said.

Like Pryor, Italiani has also taken part in annual competitions and recitals at MSM. However, the program recently updated its rules regarding performances, she said. “It used to be that you could just sign up for a concert and play in a performer showcase, but now it’s more of an honors recital so your teacher has to recommend you, and then you can play.”

Jeon hopes to enroll in higher-level electives and ensembles at MSM, but often finds it difficult to achieve because he constantly has to practice to maintain his skills, he said. “If I don’t put in a lot of time each week to practice and study the course materials, the teachers might notice it and get angry,” he said.

Pryor finds that when he is struggling with a piece, the MSM teachers are helpful, he said. “As far as skill, they have stuff for everyone,” he said. “No matter what your level is, they have a teacher who is going to be right for you or challenge you.”

Similarly to MSM students, Juilliard Precollege student Anya Sen (9) spends 11 hours every Saturday playing percussion instruments and attending classes. Her classes begin at 8:30 a.m and end at 7:30 p.m. Throughout the course of the day, Sen and other students are given multiple breaks to go off campus for lunch or to hang out with friends, she said.

Sen plays multiple percussion instruments including the marimba, the xylophone, and the snare drum, which she has been playing since age five, she said. “My family is very music-oriented. My mom likes to sing and my sister plays the guitar and piano, so when I heard someone playing the drums when picking up my sister from her music class, I decided to give it a go,” she said.

Sen chose Juilliard because she liked the wide range of classes offered through the program, she said. “It’s not like you just have a private lesson and you’re done,” she said.“They also have Music Theory and Ear Training classes, a professional ensemble, and an orchestra, which are both great communities.”

Every Saturday, students at Juilliard are required to participate in a series of group and private classes, Sen said. “For Music Theory, we are given worksheet homework, which isn’t too excessive, and for the two Ear Training classes I’m in, you have to prepare certain pieces to recite or perform for next week,” she said.

In May, Sen will be required to participate in “juries” where she will play pieces or rudiments, and receive grades from teachers based on the performance, she said. 

Kymm finds juries to be less stressful than other performances because it is more of a personal recital rather than a strict test, he said. “However, I practice for my own pride and ego because I want to feel good about my own performance, so in that way it is stressful,” he said.

To prepare for juries, he practices three pieces every day, ensuring that he memorizes them fully, he said. Kymm also practices his pieces at Juilliard every Saturday to receive advice from teachers about what to improve on for the next week, he said. “At juries, I usually perform pieces I have already been working on for a while, and I prepare anywhere from half a year to a full year in advance,” he said.

Juries occur at both programs, as students at MSM are also required to participate in these assessments at the end of the year. Each year, students have an end-of-the-year playing test which is used to ensure students are practicing effectively throughout the year, Pryor said.

Pryor also recently performed in a Senior Recital that all students graduating MSM perform, he said. During this recital, performers were allowed to play for up to 45 minutes and chose the pieces they played, he said. “The preparation was intense and very time-consuming, and in my case, it was also rushed because I picked up some new repertoire shortly before the recital,” he said. Despite this, Pryor sees his Senior Recital as a nice way to wrap up his experience at the program as it was more personal than past performances, he said.

Italiani is currently preparing for her upcoming Senior Recital on May 14th, she said. “It’s a lot of stress preparing, but I’m excited to play for all my family and friends. I think it will be a really good close to MSM,” she said.

At school, Sen plays percussion in the school’s Wind Ensemble and enjoys practicing at school when she gets the chance. “If I don’t have a test the next day, I stay at school and use the music room to practice,” she said. “I usually take the late bus home and I do that most days of the week,” she said.

Pryor also makes use of the school’s practice rooms during the day, he said. “If I find myself in a high-pressure piano situation since I have a lesson or recital soon, I sometimes practice piano at school to take my mind off,” he said. While he is not a part of any in-school ensembles for piano, Pryor plays cello in the school’s orchestra.

Jeon also participates in music programs at the school such as Orchestra, Sinfonietta, and a chamber group that practices outside of school called HarMonia, he said. “Sinfonietta is a group of talented musicians who are more advanced than the orchestra level, and due to the relatively small number of people who play classical instruments, those with experience in the music field are usually accepted,” he said.

For in-school ensembles, however, Jeon feels that he is competing against fewer students. “The MSM program is much more strict than our school’s program because here, you can experiment with the way you are playing,” he said. “But, the conductors at MSM are way harsher; they give you a practice schedule to follow and if you don’t, they can tell.”

At first, Jeon found it difficult to balance schoolwork with MSM because he had to give up half of his weekend. However, with time, it has become easier to manage, he said. 

Kymm finishes all of his homework assignments on Friday and Sunday so that he can dedicate his time to music on Saturdays. “It’s definitely hard to manage my time, but I guess I just find a way to cram it all in, and it works out,” he said.

Pryor also finds it difficult to manage schoolwork and sometimes has to cut assignments out of his schedule to accommodate practice time, he said. “I try my best to make sure I practice piano before I start any of my homework because if I start my assignments, I will never be motivated enough to practice,” he said.

In contrast, if Sen has a test the next day for school, she will not practice her instrument. Whether she is studying or practicing, she makes sure not to switch between the two in order to stay focused, she said.

When Italiani came to the school her freshman year, she found that she could not participate in activities like Model UN or Debate because they would meet on Saturdays when she attended MSM, she said. “It’s an intense commitment; you are giving up all your Saturdays to go, so it does close up my schedule.” 

Although Italiani sees the program as time-consuming, it is still a great experience that has allowed her to meet many talented musicians, she said. Many students at MSM have expressed interest in continuing music beyond high school and are attending conservatories, specific colleges that prepare musicians for a career in music, she said.

Kymm also finds the students at Juilliard to be especially talented and dedicated, he said. “Although there are students there who are better than me, they just push me to work harder, the competitiveness of the program ends up for the better,” he said.

While Italiani admires many MSM students’ commitment to their instrument, she will not continue piano to the same degree in college, instead, she plans to treat it as a hobby, she said. “In the past, I have taught little kids music and played at senior centers, so using that as a way to give back and connect with other people has always been my favorite part of the art.”