How frighteningly good do you have to be to get into Curtis?

How frighteningly good do you have to be to get into Curtis?


norman lebrecht

July 30, 2017

Our violin diarist Anthea Kreston returned to the Curtis Institute this week as a teacher. She finds it’s even tougher now than it was in her day.


I am sitting backstage at the Curtis Institute of Music, my Alma Mater, waiting for the concert to begin. I have spent a remarkable week here in Philadelphia – in awe of students, faculty, and the amazing school which has nurtured and inspired generations of musicians, and provided a welcome home to many of the past century’s finest performers, who found here a place to continue their life’s love of music through teaching, passing on their legacies to the next generations of musicians. 

Curtis is different now – they have a new building – with 5 levels of dorm rooms, a cafeteria, 3 floors of rehearsal/teaching space and a large concert hall. In addition there are the original buildings – three mansions which belonged to Mary Louis Curtis Bok Zimbalist.  The only child, and heiress to a fortune built from the publishing industry, she purchased three neighboring mansions in the 1920’s to house a tuition-free school for musicians. The school she founded is still tuition-free to all 175 students – ensuring that artistic promise, and not financial situation, is the sole consideration for acceptance. 

With Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1912 to 1941, and the Polish pianist Josef Hoffmann, the Curtis Institute of Music was born. The violinist Carl Flesch and opera star Marcella Sembrich joined the faculty. From the first moment until closely before her death at age 93, Mary Luise Curtis Bok Zimbalist was a daily presence at Curtis – it was her vision which created this international, inclusive school where musicians learn by doing (over 200 concerts a year are produced at Curtis).  Every morning, it is said, Mary was dropped off at Curtis in her maroon limousine, with her chauffeur decked out in matching colours. Her tradition of Wednesday Tea and the decadent Christmas Ball are still a beloved part of the Curtis experience. 

My time here has been spent teaching private lessons (the level is incredible – 120 students from age 14-22 who have been accepted into this three-week summer program) – these kids come in slinging the big guns – Brahms and Bartok concertos are no sweat for them. Afternoons are chamber music coaching, masterclasses and orchestra. This program is six years old. Only seven students have moved from this camp to being accepted as students at Curtis. It makes me wonder – how good do you really have to be – how can your Brahms Concerto rise above the others? Today, a young violinist from England asked me for advice on how to get into Curtis – this year there are only 2 violin openings. I encouraged him to continue to search for his truth – to follow his heart and find his voice. 

When I flew here to audition as a young woman, I was full of vim and vigor – having passed the first round (a video of Bach, Paganini, Mozart and Sibelius concerti), I was eager to play in person.  I had experienced enough success to have confidence in my abilities – to know I knew how to prepare and be able to lay down a solid and passionate performance. It all turned out well – I got one of the few coveted spots, and was heading to Curtis in the fall, to work with Felix Galimir and be immersed in the true European traditions of classical music. 

Sitting here, backstage, talking to the other alumni and performers on tonight’s mixed program, I began to ask questions. As a student, the confidence that brought me through that audition process quickly disappeared. I felt lonely, isolated, insecure, and unworthy. Surrounded by a swath of seemingly larger-than-life superstars, who entered Curtis with recording contracts, management, first prizes from the Tchaikovsky Competition, I was frozen and unable to even practice at school, afraid that I would be exposed as a charlatan.

It turns out that all of us backstage felt the same way – these incredible musicians with whom I have played and taught beside all week – they were crushed by self-doubt, overwhelmed by the newness.  But, they said, maybe going through this then was good for us – toughened us up and gave us the tools we needed to succeed. Maybe everyone goes through this, but we just did it a little earlier than other people. They, like I, pushed through these feelings and forced ourselves to perform, to go out there, and learned to curb fear, to harness our doubts and use this to our advantage. You learn to stop caring what other people think at some point – you are forced to become a clearer and more defined and honest version of yourself. I guess, in the end, that is what Curtis is looking for. The germ of individuality, the determination, the ability to think for yourself. 

The concert is over – I have not been that nervous in many many years – my bow was even shaking at one point during the Janacek Sonata. But, I decided at that moment to use that sound, develop it – it was such a tender and frail sound, just as Janacek might have wanted at that moment. I owned my shaky bow, and was proud of it. 


  • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Thanks for the view of Curtis, especially the relatively new Summer program. You mention the relatively small number from the summer program who have been accepted as full-time Curtis students. Since Curtis accepts about 5% (sometimes lower) of applicants each year, this is not surprising. But it does tell me that the summer activities are an enrichment program and not necessarily a feeder program for the regular academic year. I’m glad to hear that so many young alums are involved as teachers and coaches but I wonder whether this “in-breeding” perpetuates one of the major criticisms of schools like Curtis: a closed shop, not very open to outside influence. I would also be curious to know the level of diversity (ethnic, economic, etc) among this year’s 120 “campers.

    “I encouraged him to continue to search for his truth – to follow his heart and find his voice….” Good advice indeed to which one might add: Broaden your horizons regarding the schools to which you apply, search for the best teachers and schools in-sync with your talent and goals and understand that no school is perfect for everyone.”

    • anthea kreston says:

      Dear Mr. Fitzpatrick,

      Thank you for these comments – you were the Dean at Curtis when I was at school, but at the time I went by a different first name (Sarah).
      To answer your questions – the diversity of the student body was wonderful – international (there were even sisters from Peru – one of whom was just accepted to the Interlochen Academy), a mixture of Caucasian, Hispanic, African-American and a wide variety of Asian-background. It looked like America – one of the things I miss the most since moving abroad. I can’t speak to the financials, but I do know that the program works with students to insure they can attend.
      In regard to the young violinist seeking advice – I did tell him that the school doesn’t matter as much as his own development of his love of music. I told him I was kind-of a miserable failure at Curtis as a student, and that the places I grew the most were places like Cleveland State University, where I earned a Women’s Studies Degree.
      I would be happy to leave tickets for you anytime, Mr. Fitzpatrick – let me know if you see my quartet in town and would like tickets….
      Warm wishes!

      • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

        I appreciate your clarifications, Anthea, especially concerning my senior moment over your name as a student. I remember you, your sister Aimee, and your mother, who did fine work in Chicago with the youth orchestra. Glad to hear that you found your way to a successful performing career through an interesting and diversified path. Thanks for the kind offer of tickets should our paths cross.

    • Josafat Rosales says:

      Hello, I’m a community college student in California interested in pursuing opera performance. Do you know if sight reading is a must for the under graduate program at Curtis? I feel very strong about my abilities for a beginner but I can’t sight read notes. Thank you

  • Remy Kahn says:

    Curtis has opened its doors. The strings program is far from what it used to be, as the faculties at other conservatories have become considerably more selective. From what I’ve heard, it’s not so unusual for a cellist or violist to choose NEC, USC, or Juilliard over Curtis these days.

    As far as education, I don’t see the lure of Curtis beyond some sort of networking institution. The students arrive at a very high level (Curtis isn’t measured by its best players, it’s measured by the high standard of its “weakest”) yet there’s not much going on beyond playing. One need only read David Jacobson’s account (Lost Secrets of Master Musicians, 2016) to see how things are going, compared to the good old days.

    The current president has done a wonderful job opening the building and “experience”, expanding the campus, and hiring great new faculty, but it’s not the diamond it was just fifteen years ago.

  • Fred M says:

    “yet there’s not much going on beyond playing.”

    This says everything about what you know about making top level musicians. With due respect, the rest of your post is platitudes and conjecture.

  • Jaime Herrera says:

    Imagine if Curtis became even more egalitarian and Liberal and used Affirmative Action as part of its admissions policy. Diversity has its advocates but, in the musical arts, it would simply destroy all semblance of quality as we know it.

    • Robert Holmén says:

      Yes, just “imagine” something they are not doing so you can raise dark alarms about what would happen if they did.

    • Lourdes Demers, Vice President of Artistic Programs & Performance says:

      To equate diversity with a lack of quality is simply untrue and unfortunately part of unconscious bias that so many people suffer from. Unlike affirmative action, today’s efforts in the realm of diversity, equity and inclusion do not select based on race. Instead, initiatives are focused on providing additional resources and encouragement to those with whom are underserved and do not have acesss to quality experiences.

      Young musicians who applied to Curtis Summerfest were accepted based on their audition video and talent. Once accepted by faculty, many students received financial support to make their attendance at Curtis Summerfest possible. 2017 marks the first year that Curtis has secured funding to more broadly offer financial support to underserved communities. And as such, this summer reflects a more diverse population of participants, incredibly (if not frighteningly) talented musicians and the largest amount of interest we’ve ever had in the program. We plan to significantly increase financial support in the years to come, as we work diligently to assist young, promising musicians who have a desire to participate in our summer programs, with the hopes of helping create a more equitable playing field.

  • Marg says:

    Thanks for sharing your fears and struggles as a student Anthea – we hear this over and over again from people who have ‘made it’. I recall being so amazed that the wonderfully relaxed diva Renee Fleming went through so much self doubt it nearly ended her early career. She writes of it in her autobiography.

    • Anthea kreston says:

      I don’t know if I ever thanked you (and Bruce and a number of others) for your kind words in the comments section. I hope all is well down under and that we meet some day!

  • David Blumberg says:

    Making Curtis on Clarinet (I am a Clarinet teacher) is extremely difficult, as the combination of there only being 4-5 Clarinetists there at one time, and the very high number of players auditioning make it a long shot at best for even the most elite players. Curtis is one of the very few Schools that students attend on Full Tuition Scholarship – that makes the competition even more extreme. Diversity wise, there is quite a lot of Asian and Asian American Musicians compared to European American.

    Talent is one area that the player’s ability and nothing else should be the factor in admittance.