Pressures Greater for Juilliard Graduates
Tuesday, May 23, 2006; 1:11 PM
NEW YORK -- Violinist William Harvey is leaving the Juilliard School with a diploma from one of the world's finest training grounds for musicians, dancers and actors _ following in the footsteps of alumni like Wynton Marsalis and Robin Williams.
But his immediate future isn't so glamorous.
"I'm moving into an apartment with two other guys _ I get the living room. And then, I hope my cell phone rings _ with jobs," says the 23-year-old from Indianapolis.
This is Juilliard's 100th year, and Harvey is one of 263 students set to graduate Friday at Lincoln Center.
For the graduates, "the pressures are greater now than, say, 15 or 20 years ago," said James DePreist, 69, conductor of The Juilliard Orchestra.
"People are waiting in line for the few jobs that do exist. The situation is precarious." A graduate auditioning for a seat in a major American orchestra these days typically faces 100 or more competitors for the same job.
Still, Juilliard produces graduates as much in demand as any in the arts industries. About 75 percent end up working in the field they studied _ whether as elementary teachers or Carnegie Hall soloists. But the road to a creative life is sprinkled with blood, sweat and tears.
"Someone has to die before you find a practice room," Harvey jokes about the rooms that ring Juilliard's fourth floor.
In this assembly line of windowless cubicles amid Manhattan's urban sprawl, students spend endless hours practicing while others circle the hallways _ sometimes as long as an hour _ just waiting to nab a room the minute someone exits. A young woman finally finds one, only to have to squeeze her mammoth harp past a Steinway grand into a tight corner. She looks thrilled, even if her harp plucks mix with the faint sound of a cello wafting through a wall.
"It's like prison _ with cellos," Robin Williams quipped about the school he attended, speaking on video at Juilliard's centennial gala performance this spring, televised live nationally.
It's hardly prison, but rather a life chosen by about 800 students from around the world who competed fiercely to get into Juilliard. And as this year's graduates leave, they face a world where classical music represents only 3 percent of the recording market.
"You're spending every waking hour of your life throwing yourself at a profession with absolutely no guarantee of any monetary reward. But you do it because you love it," Harvey said.
It's also a grueling life. Dancers' overtaxed feet bleed, sweat trickles down a violinist's brow in a practice room, pianists find themselves weeping alone at the dorm after missing too many notes at a concert. Technical perfection is the norm here _ and flaws are easily overheard by keen ears waiting outside practice rooms.
Harvey survived some withering Juilliard competition. "One day, this guy walked into my practice room and said, 'Your octaves are out of tune. I can play the best octaves in the world.' And he lifted up his violin and showed me."
"Everyone here is driven _ by ego or commitment or obsession," said Kate Hirstein, a 23-year-old from Dubuque, Iowa, who has been dancing since she was 9 and is now busy auditioning for dance jobs. "It's easy to let other people's energies affect you. You must separate your own skills from what others are doing."
Among next year's graduates is Aaron Diehl, a jazz pianist whom Marsalis _ this year's commencement speaker _ has dubbed "the Real Diehl."
At 20, the jazz whiz from Columbus, Ohio, is already getting prestigious gigs. He played for several nights with a combo at the new Jazz at Lincoln Center complex in Manhattan's Time Warner building, after dashing around Juilliard all day in his formal evening suit.
"That was nice, I enjoyed that!" he said, beaming at a saxophone player as they rehearsed in a tight practice room, topping the time with a lush improvisation on a tune by the pianist and composer Hank Jones.
The kind of career promise Diehl enjoys is shared by perhaps only a few dozen others in the graduating class _ some getting bachelor's degrees, others post-graduate diplomas.
Violinist Tai Murray, a 23-year-old from Chicago who spent two years getting her artist's diploma, is also among the lucky ones. She had a budding career before she got to Juilliard, starting with solo concerts when she was 9. She now has a New York manager and a CD on the way, and she lives in her own Manhattan apartment on money earned playing concerts.
"For me, Juilliard was a haven. It gave me a base to hold on to in the bigness of New York," said Murray, who recently returned from an appearance with an orchestra in Denmark.
In the end, said Harvey, each Juilliard graduate must leave with a very personal definition of why they take on the challenge of an artistic profession.
His answer came after Sept. 11, 2001, when he played the violin for an Army regiment that had just returned from rescue work at ground zero.
"At Juilliard, kids are hypercritical of each other and very competitive," he said. "But this wasn't about that. The soldiers didn't care that I had so many memory slips I lost count. They didn't care. I've never seen a more appreciative audience, and I've never understood so fully what it means to communicate music to other people."
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