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Music Schools Attract International Talent

By Christopher Connell | Contributor | 30 September 2013
Image of string quartet (Courtesy Eastman School of Music)

The Eastman String Quartet (Markiyan Melnychenko from Ukraine, Kelsey Farr and Hyeok Kwon from the U.S. and violinist CheHo Lam from Hong Kong) played for President Obama following his second inauguration.

Most international students attending U.S. colleges and universities pursue degrees in business, the sciences, math, engineering and computers. But talented young musicians from China, South Korea, Japan and other countries also flock to renowned music schools and conservatories such as Eastman and Juilliard.

Some of these young pianists, violinists, composers and conductors are already among the best of their generation back home. China has an estimated 40 million piano students. Why seek an American college degree?

Violinist CheHo Lam of Hong Kong, who performed with an Eastman School of Music quartet for President Obama after his second inauguration, chose Eastman “to grasp firsthand information from professors who are closest to Western culture.”

Lam auditioned for the New York school, part of the University of Rochester, after a master class in Hong Kong with an Eastman professor who had studied with “all the legends,” including David Oistrakh, Isaac Stern and Fritz Kreisler. “These are people you can only watch on documentaries or DVDs, but your teacher is one of their students,” Lam said. He recently signed a performance contract in New York.

Fang Zhang, 34, who has degrees from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and Eastman, was also motivated to study in the U.S. after taking a master class from an American professor. A native of Shenyang, China (also the birthplace of pianist Lang Lang), Fang Zhang said that living and studying in the U.S. “is really good for our career, especially because we’re learning Western culture.” Top U.S. music schools “have really great music professors, musicologists and artists,” he said. They also offer a wide array of opportunities. Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana, for example, boasts six orchestras, 13 choirs, eight bands and numerous chamber ensembles, and stages 1,100 performances a year, including seven operas and three ballets.

Espen Jensen came to Bloomington from Norway in 1998 for a master’s degree in classical guitar. Three degrees later, he is dean of admissions. “The structure of the American university suits international students well, especially at the graduate level,” said Jensen. “Master’s degrees tie in nicely with doctoral programs, which typically do not exist in many other countries.”

Performing arts diplomas do not call for all the other academic courses universities normally require, and students may be admitted with lower written and spoken English skills. Universities and conservatories compete for the best graduate students with tuition waivers and teaching stipends. Fewer scholarships are offered to undergraduates.

Chinese pianist Zhang Zuo, 24, who performed a recital recently at New York’s Lincoln Center, completed a bachelor’s degree at Eastman and master’s at the Juilliard School. Already the winner of international competitions, Zhang Zuo told the Julliard Journal her professors broadened her playing technique and “completely changed me.”

While Lam and Zhang Zuo have embarked on performance careers, many international graduate students see their future in teaching the next generation, as Fang Zhang is doing. He directs keyboard studies at Renmin University of China.

Robert Cutietta, dean of the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said: “I often kid that when I get into the elevator, it’s as likely I will hear Chinese or Korean as English. If you go back half a century, every artist had to have a European pedigree. Times have changed. Now Asians feel their coming of age is to study in the United States.”

Man conducting orchestra (Courtesy Tan Lihua)

Tan Lihua conducts the Beijing Symphony Orchestra.