Put It in the Books: My Freshman Year at MSM

It’s finals week at Manhattan School of Music. Juries took place last week, so all of the practice rooms are silent and empty. Even the hallways are quiet because classes are over and everyone is busy cramming in their own quiet places. I’m currently sitting in the library staring out at a blooming Riverside Park and thinking about summer. I’m also thinking about leaving this place until September and it’s making me feel really low.

How is it that freshman year is over? I’m now a quarter of the way through my undergraduate degree and I still haven’t gotten used to people calling me “collegiate”. Looking back, I feel like I’ve changed a lot since high school and that I can do so many more things now than I could have a year ago. For the longest time I was deathly afraid of riding the subway, and now I have the entire map memorized – even the trains I don’t ride. Picking up a phone and calling, now a fellow, adult is second nature. I don’t even think twice anymore about jumping at opportunities, musical or nonmusical, for which last year I would have gotten cold feet. Musically, I can’t even fathom how much I’ve changed: In both vocal maturity and mindset.

I think back to September when I got up to sing in my performance class for the first time. I sang Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade”. I was so nervous introducing myself that I pronounced “Spinnrade” like an ignorant American would say “spin class”. My nerves allowed me no dynamic contrast, so the whole buildup to hysteria that the song is known for was not there. After sitting down and watching other people get up and naturally express themselves, I felt so behind.

Now I think back to last month when I got up in front of over a hundred people and sang several intense, long runs of coloratura in Handel’s famous “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” from Messiah at the Spring Vocal Recital. After eight months of building up support, stamina, musicianship, technique, expression, language, and countless other factors with my teacher, I felt comfortable enough to get up and sing a challenging piece, which everyone and their mother knows, in front of a large number of people. I even sang it at a faster tempo than normal, which felt all the more exhilarating. I later did the same at my jury in front of a faculty filled with former iconic Met artists like my teacher Mark Oswald, Mignon Dunn, and Catherine Malfitano to name a few.

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Performing “Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen” from Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz’ at MSM with my mom (Susan Spector) on November 7, 2015

In between September and April, I did a few other things of which I’m pretty proud: I organized an arrangement, with the help of my mother Susan Spector, Second Oboe of the Met Orchestra, of “Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen” from Weber’s Der Freischütz for soprano, oboe, and piano to perform at the Fall Vocal Recital. A prominent oboe obbligato is orchestrated in the aria, so we took advantage of it. We also performed a recit and aria from Bach’s Wedding Cantata for my Baroque History class along with a couple of classmates of mine on cello, double bass, and even harpsichord. I played Principal Horn on a soundtrack of Don Giovanni for an NYU film project and for the MSM Senior Opera Theater’s production of Delibes’ Le Roi l’a Dit, which was an American premiere! As a member of Symphonic Chorus, I performed with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra led by Jacques Lacombes in Berlioz’s Lélio at NJPAC and in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, one of my favorites, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with Kent Tritle leading the MSM Symphony. I took a fun, but challenging, course on Richard Wagner, my favorite composer, and his Ring Cycle. The class was so enjoyable, as we had such engaging discussions and listened to Georg Solti’s brilliant recording, that it didn’t feel like work. Not to mention that last semester I earned straight ‘A’s and a 4.0 GPA. Do you see why I’m going to miss this place over the summer?

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Kent Tritle conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Photo: Sally Benner

I’m also going to miss the incredible friendships I’ve made. Unlike high school, I feel like I’ve finally found common ground with the classmates I see everyday and an ideal place to make friendships that last a lifetime. It may sound cliché, but what they say about music bringing people together is true. I find now that when I am with a group of friends, I think in terms of instruments we have for chamber music rather than names. Some of my favorite nights at MSM were spent laughing and accompanying my friends on piano for fun while they rehearsed their pieces for lessons. Other nights we’d go out and take advantage of the city by going on subway adventures downtown to try the newest trending dessert places or go to the Met. Since most of my new friends are from outside New York or even outside the United States, I’ll have to wait until September for more adventures.

I not only learned from my teachers and my friends, but living in New York has enabled me to go to countless performances at the Met, David Geffen Hall, and Carnegie Hall. I got to witness live the premieres of the Met’s two best productions of the season, in my opinion, Lulu and Elektra. I also managed to see several of my favorite orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, who brought a cycle of Beethoven symphonies to New York in the fall. Before their concert featuring Beethoven Symphonies No. 4 and No. 7, I attended a master class by Fourth Horn Sarah Willis, after which everyone who brought a horn got to participate in a flash mob. Not just any flash mob, however: In this flash mob, we played on the roof of Carnegie Hall, followed by the offices inside Carnegie where we played for Executive Director Sir Clive Gillinson. Even by getting outside the conservatory, New York helped me to learn more about music and performing this year by welcoming professional artists from around the world to its stages.

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“Flashmobbing” on the roof of Carnegie Hall with Sarah Willis and twenty-five other horn players, November 20, 2015 ©Rob Davidson

I know this probably sounds like bragging and shameless self promotion, which it probably is. However, I only wanted to express just how happy I am with myself about completing my first year of college and why I will miss MSM over the summer. Many say the transition from high school to college is one of, if not, the hardest in one’s life. I’m happy with my results.

One other tidbit I am proud of from this year is an amazing opportunity I am going to have this summer. In March, I interviewed for an internship position at Opera News, and, well, I got it! For eight weeks this summer I will be working at Lincoln Center in the Opera News office, assisting F. Paul Driscoll, the Editor-in-Chief, and other staff members. Afterwards, I’ll be returning to MSM in the fall to begin my sophomore year. Who knows what next year will bring?