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Beginning Instruction at San Francisco Conservatory of Music

September 6, 2012

Prep classes for kids at S.F. Conservatory of MusicThis is, of course, one of the great music schools in the country — and where both Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin studied as children. In recent years, the collegiate program has expanded to include a preparatory division for children ages 4 to 18. There are 450 to 500 students in the preparatory program.

There are both certificate and non-certificate programs; levels include beginning, intermediate, advanced, and young artist. Early childhood classes focus on First Steps at the Keyboard and Dalcroze-Eurhymics. (Emile Jacques-Dalcroze was a Swiss educator and musician who was interested in the relationship between music and the senses, and developed ways in which students could learn rhythm kinesthetically. In effect, Dalcroze-Eurhymics is the study of music through movement. See SFCV’s article.)

We spoke to Director of Preparatory and Adult Extension Divisions Joan Gordon and asked about the auditions that all applicants must take to enter the conservatory’s preparatory program.

The audition is not too intimidating. It involves playing before a panel and myself. We ask children to play two pieces that represent their current level of development. Beyond talent, potential is a huge thing. And, of course, also the level of commitment they might be capable of. And so we weigh the number of years studied, whether their development seems appropriate for their age, how often they practice, and whether we feel our program can help them. Most of the time we all tend to agree on what a child might be capable of. As for very young students, we tend to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Gordon added, “We are looking for children who really want to make this a part of their lives. And while we recognize that any child these days may have many interests we ask that they makes this a priority.”

She has noticed that over the years that the younger children she sees seem more well-rounded musically. “They not only learn the craft but they’re more accomplished when it comes to sight reading, music theory, and music history. They seem to have more of a context for their art, they understand what they’re doing and it shows. When I was growing up there were lots of kids who had physical aptitude and may have had some rather dazzling technique but the musical understanding came much later. What I’m hearing now in some students is a maturation that’s quite outstanding. Clearly, it's the result of more comprehensive study, which I credit to various prep programs and orchestras.”

Prospective students are encouraged to choose a teacher for private instruction from the conservatory’s faculty. “ I have asked our faculty,” says Gordon, “ to include statements of their teaching style in their bios. We ask parents to request teachers they’re interested in and, as much as possible, we try to honor that.”

Students from the prep program tend to do well academically in their high schools and go on to not only to the best music schools but also to top universities and colleges.

Tuition in the certificate program ranges from $730 for one class to $1050 for two classes. Dalcroze-Eurhythmics and First Steps at the Keyboard tuition is $450 for the former; $475 for the latter. "We try to make it attractive to take private lessons plus other classes," says Ms. Gordon.

The preparatory program lasts a full year and the fall semester has already started; there’s no way to enter in the middle of the program, say in January. However, there are auditions for private lessons in December.

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is