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Rich Training Ground for Budding Musicians

Students come to summer institute for lessons in college-level music.

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October 8, 2008
Evanston resident Sherryanne Robertson knew that her son, James-Grant, had a good voice. He sang in several local church choirs, even as his voice changed. But when he started hijacking his sister's professional singing lessons, Sherryanne began to wonder.

"Everyone tells a mother that her child has a beautiful voice, but one never really knows," Sherryanne said. "Was Grant's the voice of a church choir singer, a wedding singer, a living room soloist or an opera star?"

Seeking a professional opinion, Sherryanne turned to Northwestern voice professor Elizabeth Fischer Monastero, a former mezzo-soprano at the Lyric Opera. After listening to Grant sing, Fischer Monastero said, "There's something there."

She became Grant's mentor and led him to the University's summer music program, the National High School Music Institute (NHSMI).

Through the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music, NHSMI attracts more than 150 bright young students each summer from around the country for a close look at a university-level music program. The curriculum resembles the first year for undergraduates. It includes classes in listening and history, as well as rehearsals, personal instruction by renowned faculty musicians and an introduction to the range of career opportunities.

NHSMI students can be as young as 14 years old, an age when most children are still evolving academically, trying to identify their talents and discovering what they like or dislike. This is when NHSMI can make an impact.

"It's a special program because it helps talented students decide whether or not college music is right for them," said Ryan O'Mealey, associate director of admission and financial aid for the Bienen School.

He estimates that nearly 60 percent of NHSMI students decide to study music in college. But whether they take their training to a higher academic level or simply maintain it as a hobby, participants benefit from the advice of counselors -- current Northwestern music students -- who impart the realities of music education.

"It's not just sitting around and playing an instrument," O'Mealey explained. "You have to be a scholar as well as a performer."

As for career options, there are more than some students think. Beyond teaching and performing, participants learn about all types of jobs, from conducting to technology to administration.

Along with four-year NHSMI participant Grant Robertson is John Miller, another Evanston resident who has flourished recently in the program.

Miller, now a junior at Evanston Township High School, began playing the flute in the fourth grade at Dawes Elementary School. When his older brothers turned him on to rock, he took up the bass guitar. Having worked on the upright bass over the summer at Northwestern, he plans to perform in a student jazz combo at ETHS this year.

Miller explained the experience of being the local tour guide to fellow NHSMI students from across the nation. "It was strange to be one of the few kids from Evanston," he said. "But I enjoyed showing them around town."

NHSMI dates back to 1931 and is the oldest and largest university-based program of its kind. It offers programs in instrumental or voice performance, music composition and music education and conducting. With applied music being a top priority in the five-week program, students can participate in more than 20 concerts each summer that feature solo, chamber and ensemble performances.

NHSMI is one of six divisions of Northwestern's National High School Institute, which enrolls approximately 700 of the nation's most accomplished students each summer in the areas of journalism, theatre, speech, film and video, and debate.

Go to www.music.northwestern.edu/precollegecommunity/nhsmi/ to see a list of notable NHSMI alumni and audio selections from past institute concerts.
Topics: University