The World on a String

As the San Francisco Conservatory of Music moves to fancy new digs, its students struggle with a shrinking professional marketplace.

"When you look at the history of conservatories like this," she says, "going all the way back to the first training schools in Italy, throughout history they have evolved with the demands of the job market. They have trained people for the job markets that were available and evolved with that market. That evolution stopped completely in the 20th century."

When she talks about what it will take for students to survive after graduation, she offers a much different picture than most of the school's other administrators.

"I certainly think that the students who are going to make it are really going to make it, and have happy lives in music -- not bitter, angry lives, not full of regrets, not driving themselves so hard that they don't have time for families and friends and bottles of wine. Those students are well organized in their thinking; they are driven; they are relatively well balanced emotionally.

"I do agree that a kid can have all the talent in the world, but they will be disappointed if they think that that is all it will take," she says. "It will take discipline. You have to be able to plan ahead. You have to have [that] kind of personality. And it will take vision on our part to help them see what the world around them is really like."

In her own way, student Star Holder agrees. "We classical musicians tend toward neuroticism," she writes. "I think it's pretty good for us to be in a space where we can have the sunlight streaming through the practice room window, trees blooming outside, a short walk to Ocean Beach, that sort of thing. Something to remind us that yes, there is a whole world outside the next ... étude, or whatever."

Even Murdoch admits that it is essential for the conservatory to look beyond past methodologies. "One mother of a prospective voice student asked me, 'Why do you have to, at age 18, decide that you are going to be an opera singer or a coloratura or a Mary Poppins singer? Why can't you just study the voice?' She said that we are living in the Dark Ages, and to some extent all conservatories are living with their head in the sand in that way. But I think we are emerging. In some ways we are trying to change that."

Tim Day, the symphony flutist and teacher, agrees. "In these post-9/11 times, we're seeing this thrust of humanity to the arts, to music, to expression. Throughout history mankind calls on the arts during turbulent times to teach us about the world. The conservatories are a continuation of that searching. When it comes to my students, I can't discourage anyone from following their dreams. But I can help force them into a position where they have to know how to create their own careers from those dreams."

Judging by the look on his face, David Southorn might actually bedreaming. He's finally come to the fleeting sixth movement of the Dvorák trio that he has spent many hours practicing and many more hours worrying about.

Southorn and his trio are performing in Hellman Hall to an audience of about 40 -- mainly teachers, students, and a few silver-headed seniors from the neighborhood. For most of the last minute, his eyes have been closed as he raced through the music from memory. His posture is rigid, and he leans forward in his chair so forcefully that it looks as if he might stand up at any moment. The precise point where his bow meets the string of his violin creates a fulcrum that his body appears to strain and rise against, even as it produces a sound -- furious, loud, and breathtakingly fast -- that seems to be the only thing holding him in his chair.

When the piece comes to a close, there's a silent moment before the audience awakens from the spell of the music and begins clapping and calling for curtain calls; before Southorn's face breaks into a relieved smile, wide with wonderment and exhaustion; before the student takes his instrument from his chin and again becomes the soft-spoken young man with an unlikely goal. For the audience and the musicians alike, the performance that has just unfolded on the humble stage makes anything seem possible. For that one second, Southern is still and silent, sitting straight with his eyes closed, looking into the future.

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