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.

A strange transformation happens to David Southorn just after he puts his violin under his chin and just before he begins to play. Without the instrument, the slight, fair-haired 20-year-old student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music seems like many college sophomores: slouching, slightly gangly, and a little shy. But with it, he changes quite suddenly. First he rolls his shoulders around in their sockets to ease tension, then he sits up straight at the edge of his chair, places the instrument below his chin, and takes a deep breath. Not a second later, when his bow meets the string and the reverberation explodes out of the violin, Southorn -- or at least the sound he's making -- takes over the room.

"Would you like to hear a little something?" he asks, then begins an enthusiastic onslaught. Today Southorn is practicing under the harsh lights of a classroom at the conservatory, playing material -- mostly the loud and fast parts -- for an upcoming recital. His tones bounce off the tile floor, the blackboard with its permanently painted music staff, and the metal chairs in which he sometimes slumps during the school day. The music is deafening, but Southorn has his eyes closed and doesn't seem to mind; he has a fondness for playing at full volume. The way the notes echo makes it seem like there are three of him performing at once; it's not until he stops for a moment and the ring of the instrument fades that the sounds of other people practicing throughout the cramped, worn-down building enter the room.

Southorn takes the violin from his neck and holds it loosely at his side -- again becoming the sheepish kid -- and looks expectant. "What do you think?" he asks.

David Southorn.
James Sanders
David Southorn.
The future home of the San Francisco Conservatory of 
Music at 50 Oak St.
James Sanders
The future home of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music at 50 Oak St.
David Southorn practices with the other two members 
of his trio, pianist Teresa Yu and cellist Adelle-Akiko 
James Sanders
David Southorn practices with the other two members of his trio, pianist Teresa Yu and cellist Adelle-Akiko Kerns.
Collin Murdoch, president of the SFCM.
James Sanders
Collin Murdoch, president of the SFCM.

Just as the violinist does when he picks up his instrument, this young musician's future is about to change. Come fall 2006, Southorn's school is moving from its current address in the Sunset District to an $80 million complex in the Civic Center area, in the hope that the new digs will help establish the conservatory as one of the top music schools in the country. Southorn, one of its most promising students, may know that the move won't affect his nearly impossible dream of being a professional violinist in the way that administrators are promising, but he hasn't given it much thought: After all, playing violin has been his main focus for almost half his life.

Given the poor odds of a performance career in a diminishing professional field, the future of students like Southorn is as much of a rough sketch as the construction site at 50 Oak St. The arcane system of conservatory education floods the tight market with one fairly unemployable graduating class of single-minded violinists and bassoonists and flutists after the next, and audiences for classical music have been shrinking for years. As the teachers and administrators of the SFCM prepare for this move, they also have to prepare pupils for what conservatory President Collin Murdoch calls "very, very high-risk career goals." The school cites increased synergy with the performing groups based at Civic Center as a key reason for the move, but more than the new location, facilities, or interaction with downtown organizations, the success of these students relies on the conservatory's ability to adapt its curriculum to the realities of professional music today -- and, perhaps, to help students like Southorn redefine what they see in their own futures.

A few steps from the discordant intersection where Oak Street, Market Street, and Van Ness Avenue meet, there's a small building of sandy brick and vaguely neoclassical columns currently under renovation, encased within a grid of steel beams.

Built in 1914 by the San Francisco Archdiocese as the Young Men's Institute and later known as the International Center, the structure is in shambles -- its cavernous ballroom gutted, its interior rooms imaginable only through the marks where walls once stood. Stretched across the beams that hold the exterior facade in place is a mesh net to protect those below from falling debris; beneath it the facade still bears the image of two young singers, frozen in the throes of an operatic moment. A posted announcement states that this building will soon house the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; its slogan calls the campaign "The Future of Music."

By autumn of next year, the $80 million facelift at 50 Oak St. is scheduled to be complete, and the SFCM will move from its overcrowded campus in the Sunset District to one of the most state-of-the-art training facilities for young classical musicians in the country. With acoustically immaculate practice rooms and three recital halls that promise to be the best in San Francisco, the new facility will change the culture and reputation of the school -- and the character of our classical music community. The new location, scant blocks away from the city's cultural heart, is an address that school officials promise will make for closer relationships with the professional ensembles of the Civic Center, including the San Francisco Symphony, which in recent years has risen to become one of the most well-regarded, financially successful municipal orchestras in the United States under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas, credited by many as the most important American conductor since Leonard Bernstein.

The school's 2004-2005 course catalog explains the move directly: "The Symphony, Opera and Ballet, which present the highest quality performances (and provide future career opportunities for Conservatory graduates), host the finest performers and performing groups from around the world."

By drafting the rising national profile of the San Francisco Symphony and its cherished leader, conservatory administrators hope to give their students the same kinds of benefits offered by Old Guard, elite institutions like New York's Juilliard School, Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, and the Cleveland Institute of Music, all of which have intimate ties with their famed hometown orchestras -- and woo prospective students by touting better orchestral placement rates for graduates.

The image of Tilson Thomas appears on banners that adorn telephone poles and lampposts in the neighborhood of the conservatory's new home. The photograph is substantially larger than life, showing Tilson Thomas' distinguished sweep of gray hair, youthfully twinkling eyes, and winsome half-smile, not so much smug as it is self-assured.

His phantom presence looks on during the "topping off" ceremony at the construction site on a clear March day. The ceremony has brought together the school's benefactors and administrators to sign a white-painted steel beam that will, after the signing and a few speeches, be raised by a crane and dropped into place atop the still-skeletal addition to 50 Oak St. For the event, the paved lot next to the building -- usually used to accommodate lunching ironworkers -- has been swept and prepped to form a makeshift picnic yard. Conservatory brass, donors, and a few public officials wander up in twos and threes, wearing white construction helmets, for champagne and petits fours (decorated with musical notes) under the shade of a pristine catering tent. A quartet of trombones, made up of conservatory students, sweats in the sun as it performs in front of the tent; few of the benefactors pay attention, as the refreshments are quite good and former Mayor Willie Brown has just arrived for a few photos.

After the speeches, when the big moment arrives, the trombone quartet bursts into a fanfare, and the suits crowd to the front of the tent, straining their eyes toward the beam, dangling and rising at the end of the crane. The fanfare bounces and swells as the beam ascends, and as it comes nearer to its destination the four brassy voices end in harmony.

The trombone players look up. The crowd looks up. The beam continues to travel. No one is sure whether to clap, so the leader of the quartet shrugs and signals the group to begin playing the fanfare again. This time the performers play it a little more deliberately, slowing dramatically at the end and looking skyward, as if they might coax the piece of steel into place.

There's a lot of hope embedded in the school's big move -- for better teaching, the chance to wrangle guest conductors and instructors from the pool of musicians employed with the major outfits at Civic Center, and the opportunity to make the SFCM "world class" -- but the effect on student life too often seems like an afterthought, especially at this ceremony.

The trombone quartet finishes playing the fanfare. Silence.A few moments later, the white beam bearing the names of donors finally reaches its mark. Applause.

David Southorn was born in the Bay Area and, according to his own estimation, "got off to a late start" by taking up the violin at age 9. (Some students in the conservatory prep programs started as early as 4 -- rather like Olympic hopefuls.)

"I mean, I wasn't playing the big concertos in high school like some of the kids you hear about," he says, and then adds with a slight blush that his first concerto was a relatively simple (by his standards) work of Mozart.

He is, in most ways, a typical conservatory student -- hardworking, devoted, perfectionist -- but because of his particular talent and drive he may have a stronger chance to perform professionally than other students, regardless of the conservatory's move. ("You could drop a kid like David in the middle of a rural school in Texas and he would succeed," says Mary Ellen Poole, the SFCM's dean.)

Southorn's mother was a singer in the San Francisco Opera chorus, and his father is an Episcopalian pastor. The family (he has a younger sister) moved to the Portland, Ore., area when Southorn was an adolescent. He now lives in the East Bay with friends of his family and occasionally attends the church he went to as a kid. He decided to come to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music because, out of all the schools at which he auditioned -- the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Cincinnati Institute of Music, Northwestern, and a few others -- it offered the most financial aid.

He wakes every morning at 6 and makes his way through Bay Bridge traffic so that he can get a couple hours of practice in before classes and rehearsals start. His instrument, one of the four or so made each year by young German violin maker Anton Springer, is wrapped in green satin when it's inside the small coffin of a case that Southorn keeps slung over his shoulder. He's currently the student of both Camilla Wicks, who is retiring from the SFCM's faculty this year (Isaac Stern called her "the greatest violinist who has ever lived"), and Wei He, one of Wicks' former students.

Last year, Southorn sat in the back of the orchestra, a position usually relegated to lesser musicians, but after a year of ardently following the conductor's instructions, he moved up to the top of the section. When asked what he likes to do that is unrelated to music, he thinks for a moment, smiles sheepishly, and responds, "Does going to see the symphony count?" He has a 4.0 grade point average and practices his violin about 40 hours a week, and his goal is simple: "Play in an orchestra. I'd rather just do chamber stuff, but you kinda need to play in an orchestra to make a living." Southorn doesn't acknowledge other options for his future, even if the statistical likelihood of playing violin in a full-time, professional orchestra is about one-third that of an NCAA Division I linebacker playing football for a full-time, professional team.

A few days after the topping off ceremony and a few miles from the site of the new building, Southorn sits in a classroom at the conservatory's current campus, going over Antonín Dvorák's "Dumky" Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor with the other two members of his trio, cellist Adelle-Akiko Kerns and pianist Teresa Yu. It's a slightly manic piece that alternates melancholy sections with brisk Slavic-themed dances. Within the world of chamber music, it's extremely well known. The trio will perform this piece in a couple of months in Washington, D.C., by special invitation from the Kennedy Center, but it also has to execute the challenging work tonight, at one of the 300-plus free concerts the conservatory offers to the public every year.

It's about five hours before the concert, and no one feels ready. The players speak to each other with a kind of urgency, go over difficult sections of the piece, and break to scribble notes on their sheet music. During these short conversations, Southorn is very much the new kid; he's often corrected or overruled by the two other members of the group, who are both graduate students at the conservatory and have played in ensembles together for years. But when the three of them play, the dynamic changes: Southorn, whose instrument often provides the dominant voice to the ensemble, is very much a leader.

"Let's do it again," Southorn says after rehearsing a particularly difficult part that requires him and Kerns to play together in perfect synchronicity. They start over, and their quiet unison -- a passage of only a few bars, a detail that will be lost in the chaotic, emotionally explosive landscape of the piece -- is slightly out of sync and rhythmically frayed. Without bringing the violin down, without slouching, Southorn repeats, "Let's do it again." The rehearsal continues in this way for 10 minutes. When asked later about the practice, Southorn, now without his instrument, explains his fixation with the few bars of music: "That passage is so beautiful. It's so beautiful. There is only one way you can play it. It has to be perfect." To perhaps everyone except Southorn and the other members of the group, it already is.

In 1917, two pianists named Ada Clement and Lillian Hodghead opened the Ada Clement Piano School in the remodeled addition of Hodghead's parents' home on Sacramento Street. The humble operation had three pianos, four studios, two blackboards, and 40 students. Because it was the only institution of its kind on the West Coast, enrollment increased rapidly, and in 1923 it changed its name to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. With early students like violin virtuosos Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin and famous composer Ernest Bloch as an early director, the school saw its international reputation grow quickly. It relocated from Sacramento Street to the corner of 19th Avenue and Ortega Street in the Sunset District in 1956, and according to Collin Murdoch, its current president, it had outgrown the Mission-style building (originally built as an orphanage) before it moved in.

Sitting with his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap, Murdoch articulates the school's history in the tones of an academic giving a lecture. His white eyebrows dart above the heavy black rims of his square glasses at the points of the story he seems to feel most ardently about.

To him, moving out of the Sunset is imperative to the future of the institution.

"Fundamentally, the need for a move was qualitative," Murdoch says. "Simply put, there were not enough practice rooms for the students, so they can't practice here, so they cannot become as good as they might become. There are not enough classrooms, so that things that needed to be taught could not be taught. We cannotbe a truly world-class institution here."

In 1999, at the height of the dot-com bubble, Murdoch and the school's board of directors made the same speech to potential money-givers as they presented an enterprising plan to move downtown.

"Early on in this project a lot of people thought, 'Eighty million dollars?'" Murdoch recalls. "'The Conservatory of Music? You have to be kidding me.'" Yet as of press time, the fund-raising for the project is on schedule.

Of the total cost, $15 million comes from the sale of bonds and $65 million from private sources, who have contributed nearly $50 million so far and will, according to Murdoch, almost certainly come through with the rest. The most generous donors already have spaces in the new building that bear their names: the Kimball Green Room, in honor of Mr. and Mrs. William Kimball, and the Osher Salon, honoring Bernard and Barbro Osher, whose names also adorn a sculpture garden in the city's new de Young Museum, a handful of medical research centers around town, and a center for religious pluralism in Jerusalem.

With such deep pockets behind him, Murdoch is free to pursue his vision for the school's future, one in which his students become more professionally competitive. "In order to be prepared to play in a big orchestra, they need to be performing very big orchestral works now: Mahler, Bruckner, Beethoven's Ninth. Right now, that's simply not possible. If we did Beethoven's Ninth, the chorus would have to sit on 19th Avenue."

Today and earlier, during the speech at the topping off ceremony, Murdoch often mentions how synergy with other performing groups is a key reason for the move.

"The opportunity for interchange for all of those organizations is phenomenal, and it was clearly one of the objectives in selecting that location," he says. "The profile of the institution will rise considerably." Murdoch also notes the increase in popularity of the San Francisco Symphony and the celebrity status of its conductor, Tilson Thomas.

"I think he has quite a bit of bearing on our success," Murdoch admits, noting that Michael, as he calls him, visited the mayor to lobby on behalf of the conservatory and has presided over certain school events. But that "bearing" may be more wishful than practical: After more than a month of repeated requests, the conductor was unable to provide any comment for this story.

"It's the kind of situation where your friend moves into your neighborhood," says Karen Ames, the S.F. Symphony's director of communications. "Do you hope that you'll have dinner more with them after they move? Of course. Is that going to happen for sure? Not really. We love the conservatory and are excited about it moving down here, but that synergy is their goal, not ours."

"I wonder a bit about whether the administration of SFCM is moving partly as a symbolic move into a more competitive world," e-mails Star Holder, a freshman French horn player. "But my hope is that the administration really makes an effort to preserve that supportive, family feeling as they are attempting to move into a more large-scale arena."

That arena is one dominated by East Coast schools that the conservatory competes against for students, just as SFCM grads compete for jobs -- Juilliard, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and, in particular, Curtis. Within the 25 North American orchestras, 226 members -- or about 15 percent -- are Curtis-trained, 72 of them holding top chairs. Almost half of the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra are alumni of Curtis.

But such high placement rates are rare in the classical world, and those schools' educational model -- which focuses on the single-minded dedication and discipline of practicing one's instrument, to the exclusion of other areas of study that might be more practical in today's job market -- is becoming more and more of a liability. According to Jack McAuliffe, the chief operating officer of the American Symphony Orchestra Guild, the supply of students coming out of top music schools is far too great for the demand created by the ever-shrinking number of professional symphonies.

"It's a different situation for these kids than it was 20 or 30 years or even a generation ago," McAuliffe says. "Back then, you had fewer schools and more professional opportunities, so if you trained at a really top place in a metropolitan city, there was a good chance that you would be able to work in a professional orchestra in that city. Now, things are much different. Last year [Boston's] New England Conservatory graduated, what, 40 violinists? There hasn't been a single violin opening in Boston for the last two years."

"There is a greater and greater number of really strong conservatories turning out extremely talented musicians," says Brent Assink, executive director of the S.F. Symphony. "What is becoming challenging for that group of people is that the size of the audience is not growing significantly or proportionately to support the music that those people are playing. But yet people who play it are so passionate about it, they want to find other ways to do it. But even if they don't necessarily find their way to a professional orchestra, they find other ways to express that passion."

"Making a career in music is not a pretty picture; it's a very difficult picture," admits the SFCM's Murdoch. "And it takes a great deal of courage in order to start that journey at the age of 5, as many of them do, and continue on to 18 or 22. And yet for them, they have to do this. This is what is singularly important to them, and they are prepared ultimately to accept failure if failure should come their way. But they have to do this."

Even as he says this, Murdoch seems to deny that his students have to understand their plight. Every year, for example, the top 10 ranked music schools in the United States (a list last compiled by U.S. News & World Report in 1997, which placed the San Francisco Conservatory of Music at a disappointing 26) graduate about 2,000 instrumental performance majors. Last year those 2,000 students saw fewer than 40 openings in full-time, professional orchestras in the U.S. Over the last five years, the number of semiprofessional orchestras in the country has dropped by almost half, while the graduating classes of music programs have nearly doubled.

"The fact of the matter is, if you want to play the violin seriously in a professional way, you don't have much time to do much else to get ready for that," Murdoch says. "And I don't think the conservatories have changed that much when it comes to that message. And they can't. If we were to say to a student who is aspiring to be a violinist, 'Don't practice so much, go do this or do that,' we would be doing that student a great disservice."

He doesn't mention that it might be an equally great disservice to send one graduating class after another into a working world for which they are woefully underequipped.

"I think basically there are students who are coming out of training today who have to be much more, let's say, resourceful to be successful," says Tim Day, acting second flutist of the S.F. Symphony and a flute teacher at the SFCM. "I was pretty much on an orchestral tack, with all my eggs in that basket. For most instrumentalists out there that is the goal. But to expect to these days can be unrealistic."

The halls of the conservatory are lined with grand pianos, its walls hung with pictures of some of the only household names in classical music -- Placido Domingo, Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma. Wearing victorious smiles, these stars drape their arms around students who graduated long ago, pupils who, in all likelihood, have since given up their aspirations of performing music to make a living.

Walking those halls, visitors pass the administration offices, a student lounge with vending machines, a disorderly sheet-music store called the Music Rack, a few classrooms (which double as practice rooms after hours), a hive of dedicated practice rooms on the second floor, and Hellman Hall, the only real performance space in the building. From one room to the next, sounds fade into each other: a snippet of a soprano's aria, a trumpeter's orchestral excerpts, the din of pianos and trombones. None of the rooms is soundproof. It's a beautiful and maddening place.

"We have all these open doors, and it's very easy to walk in and out, get the feeling of openness from the place," says the conservatory's dean, Mary Ellen Poole. "You can hear the openness," she explains, gesturing to the sounds that permeate her office. From this room near the center of the school, one can hear a handful of students practicing at once -- a cacophonous muddle of scales and melodies, in different keys and tempos, including the rehearsals of David Southorn's trio. Today, a thunderous piano in the room above plays scales over our conversation.

When Poole speaks of the impending changes the move will engender, she mentions with some regret the losses that the conservatory's culture will suffer through increased security -- a necessity because of the larger number of people in the new neighborhood -- and the "more corporate" environment, which will require visitors to sign in and wear guest badges. Yet when she discusses the move's benefits, she doesn't talk about professionalism or career options at first, but of humane perks: The students will have more options for food and living arrangements, and they'll be more a part of the thriving diversity of the city. "We tend to think of ourselves in a much more suburban way out here," she says. "When we move, [the students] are going to have a lot more choices to consider. It will be good for students to engage with a city, to become more worldly and less sheltered. That will be the greatest benefit."

She continues in a hopeful vein. "I want them to get a sense of who their neighbors are, and a little bit better sense of what it might take to get them to join their neighbors," Poole says. "Right now, we're a halfway house between their childhood and the professional world. I hope that by being at Oak Street, by mere proximity we'll have increased opportunities to do things like attend rehearsals, to bring in a guest conductor from literally right down the street. But more than that, I hope that it's going to give our students more of a sense of their place in the world and how that works practically."

Poole, a classically trained flutist, calls it a "not-so-secret priority" to introduce a new curriculum for students that better equips them for the realities of today's job market. Such a curriculum would include more required classes that focus on practical aspects of the professional musician's world -- from being prepared to teach to simple concepts of business and networking. Currently, the SFCM offers only one class that overviews such topics, called "Practical Aspects of a Career in Music," essentially a business class on the benefits of employing a manager or lawyer and mastering money management. The course is worth two credit hours, and it's required for seniors.

"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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