By Emily Wright | From the September-October 2021 issue of Strings magazine
In the fall of 2015, the Juilliard School announced a staggeringly ambitious plan to build and operate a satellite campus in Tianjin, China, one that would offer graduate students from all over the world access to superlative programs in orchestral studies, chamber music, and collaborative piano. In June 2017, construction broke ground on the campus, nestled into a curve in the Haihe River in the bustling Binhai district. In 2020, during the wild uncertainty of a global pandemic, Tianjin Juilliard welcomed its first cohort of 39 students from 11 countries. By all accounts, this fledgling enterprise, backed by a pillar of the classical world and approved by the Chinese government, is going to shift expectations of what a music school can be.
An Unexpected Beginning
The campus is an architecturally striking 350,000 square feet of space for teaching, practicing, and research, with large communal areas designed to invite the public in. The large concert hall seats close to 700, the recital and “black box” theaters seat 299 and 225, respectively. This is a campus built for growth and contribution to the music community in China. A 35-minute high-speed train ride to and from Beijing makes it an attractive destination for the roughly 15 million residents of the greater metropolitan region. As the pandemic surged across the globe, plans to host faculty from the United States had to be reconsidered. Like so many conservatories, Tianjin Juilliard scrambled to pivot to online lectures and master classes from faculty outside China, and relied heavily on instructors already in the area for limited in-person activities. After riding out the immense adversity of COVID together—spending holidays in China instead of with family—this group of students and faculty have formed an indelible bond.
Vision, Curriculum, and Faculty
Tianjin Juilliard is actually comprised of three schools. The main school confers a master of music degree, with majors in orchestral, chamber music, and collaborative piano studies. The pre-college section caters to 8–18-year-olds, and professionals and other adult learners can enroll in numerous continuing education programs. In keeping with Juilliard’s reputation par excellence, this new venture is staffed with veteran conservatory faculty from China, the U.S., and Europe.
Wei He, dean of the school and professor of violin, describes the ambitious scope of the project: “The Tianjin campus expands Juilliard’s vision of educating the next generation of talented young musicians and empowering them to become global citizens of the arts.” The location was primarily chosen to make the most of the fastest growing classical-music industry in the world. This campus will provide the infrastructure for the necessary pedagogical and cultural exchange to serve and expand the sector, as well as offer new prospects to graduates.
He explains the uniquely collaborative qualities of the graduate school: “The three majors overlap with one another to offer a focused and comprehensive experience for any graduate student. Many of our students feel like they are in a double-degree graduate program. While orchestral-studies majors are working on their excerpts, playing great repertoire with the orchestra, and preparing for mock auditions, they also take weekly private lessons to continuously hone their instrumental skills.” Orchestral major students are provided with frequent opportunities to serve as concertmasters or principals through each orchestral cycle, often playing side by side with faculty.
The same applies for chamber-music majors, who participate in some orchestral concerts while continuing to focus on small ensemble repertoire. They are often joined by resident faculty in chamber groups or are invited to play with the Tianjin Juilliard Ensemble, the flagship chamber group comprising resident artist-faculty members.
Out of the three majors, only collaborative piano mirrors what Juilliard offers in New York, where pianists participate in chamber music with strings and winds, as well as with the orchestra or large ensemble when piano is needed.
In the Classroom
As a touring musician and educator, one of the things Shanghai Quartet cellist Nicholas Tzavaras noticed during his travels around China was the way young musicians would talk about their goals. A lifelong lover of chamber music (some of his early memories are of his mother getting together with friends to read through new repertoire), he recalls hearing student after student talk about being a soloist, and then, perhaps if that didn’t work out, an orchestral musician. There was little thought to chamber music being a viable career or consideration given to what playing in smaller ensembles could do for those vaunted solo and orchestral careers. So, when he heard that Juilliard was going to devote an entire degree program to chamber-music studies, he wanted to know more.
“This was exactly what I have always hoped to see at the very top level of all music schools—and certainly in China, where this would be a first among the best national conservatories,” says Tzavaras. His prior experience in Asia as a member of the Shanghai Quartet, combined with the school’s mission and facilities—which he calls “amazing and inspiring… second to none”—made Tianjin Juilliard a perfect match for Tzavaras: love at first and second and hundredth sight. From his teaching studio, which looks out on the river as it hugs the campus, Tzavaras works with students (almost entirely in English) and has a feeling of being part of the continuing reinforcement of a world that has allegedly been in its death throes for a century. “[China is] a country with the future of classical music in its hands,” he says.
Early most mornings, students arrive from lodgings to get in a few hours of practice before academic classes begin. The tight-knit group will usually go to a favorite restaurant together and then back to the practice rooms to prepare for the lessons, coachings, ensemble rehearsals, and performances that make up the rest of the day. It’s a fairly typical schedule, but the setting and personnel create an elevated experience. “It’s typical to have a class, followed by a lesson with your own professor in the morning, attend a rehearsal with a famous conductor in the afternoon, and later in the evening, perform in studio class for the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic,” says Dominique Valenzuela, a violinist majoring in orchestral studies.
Life in Tianjin feels radically different to many non-Chinese students, but friends are easy to make, and the environment is more collegial and less competitive than American students are accustomed to. “I think the most striking and unexpected aspect of study here is that the school community is very supportive of one another, and it feels as though we are constantly growing as a team,” says Valenzuela. “There is a true sense of collaboration that thrives among the student body, so everyone works together to make sure no one is left behind. The students here take the extra step of helping each other outside of class to ensure that we can all individually succeed.”
Outside of school, students cook for each other (often sharing favorite dishes from their home countries), play video games, and battle in casual table tennis tournaments. Valenzuela has also become a fan of Chinese opera, evangelizing about the merits of the singing style and different instruments. These activities, combined with day-to-day interactions with locals, have given him a sense of shared humanity and a different view of China than he received in the United States.
“My mindset has really changed about the world, and I believe this kind of mental shift can only be possible when you are removed from a comfortable setting and placed into a world where you must relearn almost everything.” Dean Wei He echoes this sentiment: “In a world separated by the pandemic and divided by conflicts, music and art serve as a bridge to bring us together regardless of our differences.”
Since 1905, Juilliard’s Manhattan campus has been a beacon for devoted students of music, beckoning them to study in a place steeped in the cultural and historical forces that shape music itself. Tianjin Juilliard is the natural evolution of that original vision.