Charlie Albright ’11 does not look superhuman. He looks tall. He looks young, or younger than 20 at least. He sits up straight and answers each of my questions politely and honestly.
“Don’t you ever feel stressed out?” I ask. “Don’t you ever feel overwhelmed?”
“It’s hard sometimes,” he says, matter of fact.
You might not guess that Albright is a consummate pianist. He hails from Centralia, a town of about 15,000 people in Washington. His piano teacher, Nancy Adsit, taught him for free.
Albright is one of a select few. These are Harvard students who manage an intensive schedule of highly advanced music and academics. As part of an accelerated dual degree program, the sophomore attends both Harvard and the New England Conservatory (NEC). He plans to earn both a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Music in five years. In between classes, papers, and problem sets are lessons, concerts, and—the mainstay of any serious musician—hours upon hours of daily practice.
Albright’s Web site lists a fearsome litany of international awards, from first prize at the 2006 Eastman International Young Artists Piano Competition to Best Performance of a Liszt Study in Stage I at the 2008 Sydney International Piano Competition. If he knows a song well enough to hum it, he explains, then he can play it on the piano.
“I won this international piano competition,” Albright remembers. “As an encore, I played my variations on Jeopardy.” Though he remembers winning these prizes, memories of his musical beginnings—at the tender age of three and a half—are fuzzy. His mother fills in the details for him.
“My mom was in the kitchen, and I started pecking out ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ by myself,” he explains, a little bemused.
“I was very surprised,” says his mother, Hyesoo Albright.
Albright still competes and performs regularly while taking five classes at Harvard as an economics concentrator. He’s also pre-med.
Rising stars of the classical music world such as Albright face a peculiar set of challenges—besides a need for ruthless time management. Along with the delicate balancing act between music and academics, between NEC and Harvard, there lies as larger question. And perhaps this question is the eternal dilemma of the young: what will I do with my life?
This is especially pertinent for young musicans in Albright’s position: those who are considering a career in an art that is losing its mainstream appeal.
“Classical music is dying. Ticket sales are always declining, symphonies are always begging for money,” Kenric Tam ’12, a joint program pianist, says. “If you go to a concert, you’ll see a lot of white--haired people.”
“Even though I have done well in piano, there’s no demand for it,” Albright says. In part because of this ageing fan base, classical music is not seen as a stable career choice. “I don’t feel safe putting all my eggs in that one basket.” He attributes this more to a lack of connections than a lack of talent.
As it turns out, merely possessing and honing a prodigious talent does not make life choices any easier.
TWO INSTITUTIONS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
The Harvard/NEC program, founded in 2005, allows students to pursue both academics and music at two of the nation’s most prestigious institutions. For the first three years, students take weekly lessons with an NEC instructor. The fourth year, when participants are seniors at Harvard, they are required to play in an ensemble, a requirement often filled by joining the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. They also begin requirements for a Master’s degree at NEC, while finishing concentration and core requirements in Cambridge. The fifth and final year of the program is spent exclusively at NEC. The joint program is highly selective by any measure. Applicants must survive Harvard’s infamous admissions gauntlet along with getting the nod from NEC’s admissions committee. Beyond that, applicants could receive the thick envelope from both Harvard and NEC separately and still be rejected from the joint program itself.
So what distinguishes the crème de la crème from the merely über-accomplished? It all comes down to the audition, which isn’t always guaranteed. There is even a pre-screening process for the more popular instruments, such as violin and piano. NEC aims for a class of four to five each year, according to NEC’s Dean of the College Thomas W. Novak. Novak reports 133 applications to the program this year, a bump from the usual 80-100. He attributes the school’s increased popularity to recent high-profile hires, such as the NEC’s new President Tony Woodcock. There are similar programs at Columbia, with Julliard; Yale College, with the Yale School of Music; and Johns Hopkins, with the Peabody Institute.
BONG-IHN KOH ’08: THE POWERHOUSE
Bong-Ihn Koh ’08, one of the joint program’s inaugural participants, counts Yo-Yo Ma ’76 among his personal friends. The two met at one of Ma’s concerts in Germany. Koh introduced himself to Ma backstage. “[Ma] just handed me his cello and asked me if I wanted to try it.” Koh and I settle down in one of the Cabot House sitting rooms, which doubles as a practice space for Koh. He is currently an “Artist in Residence” for the upper-class house.
Koh is calm, really quite serene. He patiently explains both his scientific research and music. He corrects me only once—I accidentally say “celloist” instead of “cellist.”
As a high school student, Koh attended an American-German school in Berlin while enrolled at a conservatory for young musicians. There, he studied under legendary cellist and teacher David Geringas. Upon graduation, Koh was accepted at Harvard and intended to enroll in the joint program.
“People thought I was committing suicide by leaving that teacher first of all, and dividing my time between biology and music,” he says of his move from Germany to the Cambridge.
“People were calling me crazy,” Koh says, smiling. “People still call me crazy.” Though “crazy” may seem a bit excessive for a musician with high aspirations, Koh’s plans involve another, equally ambitious element. He hopes to make it as a world-class cell scientist as well as a world-class cellist.
His acknowledges that there are only 24 hours in the day. But he already has the next few years mapped out. After he earns his Master of Music, he plans to attend graduate school and pursue stem cell research, continuing to practice cello while decreasing performance commitments. These days, Koh has orchestra practice at NEC three days a week for three hours at a time. He’s in the classroom four days a week, until 6:00 p.m. After all of that, he spends long nights essentially volunteering at the Scadden Lab he worked in as an undergrad.
“Whenever I’m not in NEC, I’m in lab,” he says. Luckily, Koh attributes his scheduling skills to his mother. As an undergraduate, he would practice the cello as his lab experiments incubated. Now, in the fifth year of the program, he says he uses a Google Calendar to arrange his busy days.
For Koh, the hectic schedule feels necessary. “I think I really can’t survive without one of the two,” he says. “I think I would utterly depressed. I would be lacking a significant part of me.” He has no plans to choose between his two passions after graduating from the joint program.
I ask Koh if he’s ever had any regrets, any instances when he’s doubted himself. He goes quiet for moment.
“When I was thinking about my colleagues from my German days, I kept following his careers, wishing that [this could be me],” he admits. It’s the closest he comes to sounding sad.
“But then I would come to the conclusion that I’m pursuing my own happiness and mine is a unique road.”
SANDY M. CAMERON ’09: THE FREE SPIRIT “I really don’t want to do anything other than music,” Sandy M. Cameron ’09 says without hesitation. “I live and think and breathe it.”
Cameron is petite, her curly brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She flashes an impish smile. A silver “S” dangles from the black cord around her neck, near a dark smudge where she constantly holds her violin.
“Sandra is notable for her enthusiasm and her effervescence,” Professor of Music Robert D. Levin says of his former Music 180 student.
Along with Koh, Cameron is part of the joint program’s inaugural class. Koh says of the early years: “To be honest, the program wasn’t really formulated. I really felt like we were being treated like guinea pigs.” Every so often, students would meet with NEC administrators to flesh out what was and wasn’t working in the program. Cameron says that change was understandably slow.
“There’s the disconnect between administrators and students,” she says. “As undergrads, we don’t have as much contact as we’d like, and they don’t understand what’s going at Harvard.”
However, one of the biggest issues—the misaligned academic calendars of the two institutions—is being resolved with calendar switch next year.
Before, Cameron would miss lessons because of the two schools’ different spring breaks. With lessons set at a fixed annual price, “It sort of felt like you would get cheated a few lessons here and there,” she says. Novak points out that communication between the two schools could be improved. And since students only take lessons their first three years in the program, interaction with NEC is limited.
“[It’s] very hard to make them feel like part of the community here,” Novak says. “There are no easy answers.” Demanding Harvard schedules prevent members of the joint program from experience life as an NEC student.
“I would race to [the Number One bus] and race back,” Koh says of his bus commute each week.
The $6,000 yearly fee for lessons also presents an added financial bruden for some. Novak says that NEC grants every joint program student a scholarship, but there’s little, if any, funding for the difference. Cameron says the program has come a long way. “Just about the all the problems have been fixed,” she says.
Though Cameron knows the classical music world is tough, she wouldn’t consider doing anything else.
As she practices a duet for an upcoming concert, she tells the pianist, “I think we need a change of color.” She associates each note with its own color, though she doesn’t literally see them: “E flat major is a nice burgundy. C major is kind of blue-ish,” she says.
As we leave the music building, she discovers it’s snowing. Cameron dances in a little circle in her four inch heels and lime green coat. “I love snow!” she shouts.
In a later interview, Cameron turns to me. “I realized since I was twelve that I wanted to be a violinist and do music for the rest of my life.”
NICO OLARTE-HAYES ’11: THE ARTIST
“I was practicing in Straus C basement,” Yuga J. Cohler ’11 says as he recalls how he met his future roommate, Nico A. Olarte-Hayes ’11. “It was about 3:00 a.m..I figured no one would be there. Then all of a sudden, someone barged into my room.”
This, of course, was Olarte-Hayes, a joint program cellist and Physics concentrator, who supposedly lived in Canaday, but may as well have called Straus basement home. “He prioritizes his cello over almost everything else in his life,” Cohler says.
Olarte-Hayes’s answers are immediate, eloquent, and honest. I ask him why he doesn’t do many competitions, and he replies, “I find it offensive to everything I do.”
Balancing school and music is still a work in progress. When he talks about the difficulties of fitting both in, he cuts a sharp contrast to Albright and Koh. There’s no talk of regular hours, of rigidly regimented days, no mentions of seamless, play-it-by-ear heroic time management.
“Last year, it was really difficult,” Olarte-Hayes says. “It was difficult to function normally...there would literally be weeks where I would see very little daylight.”
He describes practicing in Straus until four in the morning followed by solitary breakfasts at Finagle.
“Then I would go to sleep and do it all over again. It was really difficult last year. It was really lonely,” he says.
We walk up the stairs of Eliot tower, toward a pale blue practice room with a romantic Cambridge view. He opens the door, grabs a chair and pulls out the endpin on his cello. As he resins the bow, he lectures on the subtle differences between bows.
Like many classical musicians, he began training early in life. From the violin at three to the cello at six, Olarte-Hayes attended the Julliard pre-college program in seventh grade. There, he switched teachers three times to capitalize on their knowledge and learn as much as he could.
“What I strive for is four hours a day,” he says, of practice. “The total time commitment is like that of a full time job.” But he wouldn’t switch his life for that of a conservatory student.
“There’s just so much I want to learn. I wouldn’t be happy if I just played my cello all day long. I know that there’s all aspects of life that I’m missing out on,” he says. “Cultivating my interests now will lead to richer life experience in general.”
This is a point I hear over and over again: that while it is difficult to balance music and academics, the two complement each other. Cameron, who concentrates in Music, and Koh, who concentrates in Biology, both commented on this fundamental benefit of the Harvard/NEC program.
“Even if I’m taking a course on dinosaurs, I will find some link,” Cameron says. “Certain anomalies in dinosaur bones...could make me think of certain anomalies in Schubert’s writing.”
Academics can also translate in more tangible way. Oliver D. Strand ’11, a composition student in the program, says that studying literature has opened up new ways of thinking about music.
One time, Strand read poem by Professor Jorie Graham in his freshman seminar. “It described the sensation of looking at yourself in a mirror. I wrote a piece for guitar and harp,” he says. The piece is a musical reenactment of some of the poem’s themes and ideas.
Back in the practice room, I run out of questions for Olarte-Hayes. “How much longer will you be here?”
“What time is it?” he asks.
I tell him it’s It’s 10:57 p.m.
He thinks for a second. “Three.”
“3:00 a.m.?” He nods.
I leave him alone with his cello.
KENRIC TAM ’12: THE REALIST
“One of the constant questions during high school I was trying to figure out was: am I going to pursue music, or am I going to decide to go into academics and drop music?” Tam says between sips of his orange mint hot chocolate.
“I’m very disorganized,” Tam says. “I write down important appointments on a Post-It note if I remember.” Somehow, he catches about seven hours of a sleep anyway.
Tam is still in the first phase of the joint program. If possible, Tam comes across as even more laid back than Albright. He has a certain economy of motion and speech and doesn’t exhibit an ounce of nervous energy. He traces his musical history, from one national competition to soloing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as if he were describing grass growing. If he doesn’t emote much, it’s because it goes into his playing.
Hans Boepple, Tam’s piano teacher in high school, places him in the top 1% of his 400 students. “Music just runs through him like a current,” he says.
“I react to music emotionally,” he explains. “I’m very expressive with my playing.” Tam’s favorite composer is Frédéric Chopin.
Tam, like Albright, is pre-med. He reveals this in the middle of the interview, as if it were some trifling detail.
“I am giving myself choices for the future,” he explains. “I haven’t decided yet. I feel like I can still try to pursue music, but I have a backup plan.”
“I can’t imagine him doing anything in his life other than music,” Boepple says. “He can probably do anything he wants, frankly.”
Perhaps Professor Levin expresses it best: “These are uncommonly interesting young human beings,” he says.