Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School - Old School Meets New Age Spirit In Forming The Musician of the 21st century

It’s that eventful time in anticipation of summer break and at the Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School, kids conclude their school-year with some unique highlights. While some are busy preparing for their participation in the Kaufman Center International Youth Competition, the winners of the Special Music School’s High school Concerto Competition get to indulge in an exciting firsthand experience on stage: performing as soloists with an orchestra.

Under the baton of David Bernard (photo), in the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony‘s  second collaboration as accompanying orchestra for the soloists, the mostly 9th and 10th graders showcased their talent, earning the devoted attention of their teachers, the school’s director Igal Kesselman, their parents, other participants and Kate Sheeran, recently appointed Executive Director of the Kaufman Music Center. “I have been proud to see the Special Music School grow into the gem it is, within the educational fabric of NYC, and it is our pleasure to provide its students with important concerto performance opportunities with full orchestra. In contrast to the single movement concerto competition held at school, Bernard had invited Special Music School students to additionally qualify for a full concerto experience, performing as soloist at the orchestra’s final season concert this May.

This year’s winner, 15-year-old Adam Jackson, performs the first movement of the Schumann Concerto with great gusto. (photo: Adam Jackson with Igal Kesselman)

A previous “ambassador” for his school with a mature and amicable personality to match his talent and drive, Adam is on the fast track to follow the career path of a concert pianist, adding Juilliard’s Pre-College division’s intense training to his already busy schedule next year.

“The Special Music School has offered amazing possibilities for Adam,” says his mother, “he really flourishes and is eager to partake, always wanting more.”

Special Music School is New York’s only K-12 continuous educational roadmap that accelerates proficiency in music as its core subject, and, being run by the Department of Education, qualifies as a New York City Public School; the school boasts a rigorous academic, Regents-based curriculum and an exceptional 100% graduation and college admission rate. “Special Music School was founded in 1996 with gradually following up grades and adding the high school in 2013; it’s truly miraculous it ever got started,” admits Kate Sheeran. “There are four moving parts to the Kaufman Music Center,” she explains: “Besides the Special Music School, we incorporate the Lucy Moses School with its longstanding extracurricular music, theater, and dance programs; “Face the Music,” Kaufman’s Music Center’s contemporary music education program for teenagers dedicated to studying and performing experimental, new-classical, new-jazz & avantgarde music written exclusively by living composers—the only program of its kind in the country; and then of course, there is Merkin Hall—complementing all performing activities and offering a broad schedule for attending local and international concert performances,” she explains.

In addition to the venues around the corner from its prime Upper West Side location, Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School, the school collaborates with many of New York’s high-profile performance spaces around the city like National Sawdust, Roulette, The Jazz Gallery, and BAMcafé, offering opportunities for mentorship, performance, and promotion, aiding the development of its young performers.

It takes a village, and the professional network behind the scenes of the Special Music School is impressive on many levels, but what really makes this rare amalgamation of limitless exploration and a nurturing musical home-base environment work, (Kaufman Music Center caters to an all-encompassing student body of ca. 3000) is the passionate group of people behind the vision.

As the longtime Director of Lucy Moses School and Music Director of the Special Music School, pianist and educator Igal Kesselman fulfills the definition of the man behind the curtain. In addition to overseeing the music curriculum of both the professional and amateur branches of the Kaufman Center, Kesselman teaches as an active member of the piano faculty, and has implemented many of its attractions including its International Youth Competition, which takes place every other year.

Kesselman joined the faculty of Lucy Moses School in 2006, when the development of the Special Music School was just evolving, bringing in his formative experiences from Israel’s prestigious S. Rubin Academy of Music in Tel Aviv and the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. “The foundation of the Special Music School’s curriculum orients itself, like the one at the Rubin Academy, on the first-rate structured framework modeled on the Russian Schools, with music being the core subject. Integrating lessons during schooldays, including ear training and theory, and being around leading musicians with an emphasis on true musicianship,” he names among the imperious qualities at play in the making of a musician. “The personal exchange with fantastic musicians like violinist Guy Braunstein (2000-2013 concert master of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) pianist Tomer Lev (Director of the Buchman-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv) or cellist Zvi Plesser (Professor at the Jerusalem Academy for Music and Dance) were decisive influences and left deep impressions during my education at the Rubin Academy,” he says. “There was a constant, and uplifting exchange of ideas; this is how true inspiration is born,” he says.

In 2006, he became the Lucy Moses School’s director and it seemed a natural progression to join the faculty of the Special Music School, where he was ultimately asked to step in its leadership role three years ago. “The wonderful thing here is the special ecosystem, and its unique crossroad between education and performance. Kids that study here move fluently between our different programs, and Merkin Hall’s performance space offers the perfect element of connecting performance as an educational tool.” Kesselman’s Tuesday matinee series is the longest-running effort at Merkin Hall, focused on providing performances for exciting young artists on the brink of their international careers. “Many renowned artists have had their debut here at Merkin Hall, and beyond our work with the very young, it is wonderful to have an impact on these promising careers; to see life transformed by music is always most gratifying and it’s of course wonderful when this becomes full circle,” he says, mentioning violinist Alice Ivy Pemberton as an example: “I have known her since she was seven years old,” he says smiling. “Next season she will perform at Merkin Hall, forging her career. It’s all about creating a thinking artist, giving young musicians the tools to make their decisions, and the possibility to make a life in music, through excellence and access to everything available in this expanding field,” he explains.

“Our DNA is in both education and performance, as well as the confluence of the two,” says Lydia Kontos, Executive Director Emeritus, under whose lasting leadership of forty years,  the Kaufman Music Center has developed into a cultural landmark and educational institution of distinction, since she started as the director of the then called “Hebrew Arts School.” Building on this commitment and further effecting its “distinct multi-pronged mission,” Kontos’ and Sheeran’s goals rely on a fluent transition in shaping the musician of the 21st century.

For the musician (Sheeran is a horn player) and educator, former Dean and Provost of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and former Assistant Dean of Mannes School of Music, succeeding at the Kaufman Music Center looks like “an integrated curriculum, that brings out the human story in music and allows a shared perspective, [and] levelling the playing field of being a small institution with a big vision,” she says.

With a strong emphasis on contemporary music, working with living composers, new technology, new trends in presentation, and a broad range of ensemble work and improvisation, Sheeran breezes some fresh air into cultivating new and exciting collaborations and outreach concepts, and incorporating them into the excellence of traditional music education.

What she appreciates the most, though, not unlike Kesselman, is the personal relationship between the students and faculty, and the synergy of the different parts of the Center all coming together: “We have a lot of new exciting artist residency programs in the making, which will impact a wide theme of transformation. Having great performers among the parent body is a great asset, as well. But what warms my heart is when the kids cheer for their charismatic theory teacher when they meet in the elevator. Where does this happen anymore?” she asks.