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Musicians and leaders: Salt Lake school seeks to educate, inspire through music

SALT LAKE CITY — It takes only a look at a few of its alumni to understand the mission of the Gifted Music School.

Shenae Anderson practiced her violin five hours every day in high school — one hour before school, 1.5 during a free period and 2.5 when she got home.

When Rebecca Epperson was young, her mom tired of fighting with her over practice and started to take her violin back to the store. The young girl ran onto the driveway, crying because she didn't want to lose her music.

This year, Josh Whisenant has competed in the 4A swimming state championships, played the piano in the Utah Symphony Youth Guild recital and been named valedictorian at Highland High School.

Anderson, Epperson and Whisenant are all 2015 graduates of Gifted Music School’s conservatory. Founded in 2008 by Vera and Eugene Watanabe, the school seeks to bring cultural education to the forefront of Utahns’ minds.

“Our goal is to define music education, and we feel that music is a really important part of a child’s education,” Eugene Watanabe said.

The Salt Lake City school boasts a faculty of about 30 professional musicians from around the world. Gifted Music School encompasses the conservatory that Anderson, Epperson and Whisenant attended as well as a preparatory school that teaches lessons and classes to children and teens in the community.

The 35 students in the conservatory are accepted on full scholarship after auditions. They attend public school during the week and come to Gifted Music School every Saturday for rehearsals, lessons and classes that last about as long as a regular school day. The preparatory school is open for children ages 3-18 to take lessons from the faculty. In total, Gifted Music School has about 300 students.

The conservatory students are gifted and dedicated musicians. This fall, Epperson, a violist, will attend Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, where all students accepted are on full scholarship. Anderson will start at the Juilliard School in New York City on violin. Both Epperson and Anderson have performed with the Utah Symphony, as have fellow Gifted Music School students.

This year’s graduates aren’t the only talented Gifted Music School students. Violinist Maggie Ivory, 17, will be one of 21 students competing this week at the Thomas and Evon Cooper International Competition at Oberlin, a prestigious international violin competition for students.

Watanabe, who himself double majored in piano and violin performance at Curtis, emphasized how impressive it is for students from a small Utah school to be accepted into the nation’s most prestigious music programs.

“If you look at the pre-college programs, (Gifted Music School is) one of the premiere programs in the country,” he said.

Watanabe pointed out that Gifted Music School is more about shaping students’ lives through music than it is about producing professional musicians. While Epperson hopes to have a career in a quartet and Anderson wants to travel the world as a soloist, pianist Whisenant is headed to Stanford University and considering a major in engineering.

“The mission of our school is not necessarily to raise musicians but to raise kids who are well-rounded and will become future leaders,” Watanabe said.

In its seven years, Gifted Music School has created a musical community where students and faculty work together in what Whisenant called “a positive feedback loop.”

“Our kids succeed and our faculty are gratified, so they push the kids, the kids work harder, there’s more success, we draw kids in,” he said.

If Watanabe’s goal was to cement music appreciation into his students, he has found success with Epperson, Anderson and Whisenant.

Epperson said she is grateful for the relationships she has built with her classmates at Gifted Music School and that the school had become like her home.

“Through music you can make connections with anybody, no matter your age,” she said.

Anderson, who loves to solo with orchestras, said that even if being a soloist doesn’t work out, she knows music will be some part of her career.

“I could be in an orchestra … or a teacher, or wherever music takes me,” she said. “But I’m sure wherever it does take me, I’m going to love it because I just love music.”

As for Whisenant, music has changed him fundamentally.

“It has taught me to appreciate the things that matter in life,” he said. “And I feel like music and art in general connect you with that thing that’s hard to put your finger on that defines human value.”