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Music education isn’t a priority in the U.S. How this Utah school is doing its part to fix that

Salt Lake City musician says he hopes his hometown is remembered for ‘famous music school’ 50 years in the future

Makenzie Hart, left, Eliza Hart, Dora Meiwes, Gabrial Coombs, Avery Gunnell, Evelyn Meiwes, Mathew Lee, Ellen Hayashi, Sarah Kendell and Megan Tandar (not pictured) are the 2019 Salute to Youth performers. They are pictured here in Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019.
Makenzie Hart, left, Eliza Hart, Dora Meiwes, Gabrial Coombs, Avery Gunnell, Evelyn Meiwes, Mathew Lee, Ellen Hayashi, Sarah Kendell and Megan Tandar (not pictured) are the 2019 Salute to Youth performers. They are pictured here in Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — There are a lot of things Eugene Watanabe could’ve talked about.

He could’ve talked about how he debuted with the Utah Symphony when he was 9 years old. He was a fourth-grader then, and he performed a Vivaldi violin concerto. But that was 40 years ago, and he shrugged it off with a laugh.

“That’s not important,” he said quietly. “Me playing then is insignificant.”

He could’ve talked about how at 17, he was accepted to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music — one of the most selective schools in the United States (on average, Curtis accepts 4% of applicants each year, and all are accepted on full scholarship). Watanabe was the first person to double-major there, graduating with degrees in both violin and piano performance.

Gifted Music School director Eugene Watanabe works with the school’s orchestra in Salt Lake City on April 13, 2014.
Gifted Music School director Eugene Watanabe works with the school’s orchestra in Salt Lake City on April 13, 2014.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

But the Salt Lake City native quickly brushed over that feat, saying, “I went to music school back East.”

He could’ve talked about the competitions he’s won or his performances abroad, but again he laughed, lightly joking that he was performing in cities that were the European equivalent to Heber City, Utah.

Here’s one thing Watanabe was visibly excited to talk to the Deseret News about: The time he went to the Salt Lake library, found a 300-page how-to guide for starting a nonprofit and stayed up until 2 a.m. filling out a 501(c)3 form.

Because that’s when his dream came to life.

It’s been 10 years since Watanabe and his wife, pianist Vera Oussetskaia-Watanabe, founded the Gifted Music School. From the street the school doesn’t stand out. A couple of blocks from the Salt Lake Regional Medical Center, the tiny brick building used to be an allergy clinic. But these days, 500 young musicians come and go through those doors for private lessons, rehearsals and classes. Many graduates have gone on to attend some of the most prestigious conservatories in the country.

Now, seven musicians from the Gifted Music School will perform on Sept. 24 at the 60th annual Salute to Youth concert, sponsored by the Deseret News. Gifted Music School students make up 70% of this year’s Salute to Youth performers, whose ages range from 12-18.

“It’s one of the most productive pre-college music training programs in the country,” Watanabe said. “My hope is that in time, 50 years from now, they’ll say, ‘Salt Lake City, that’s where they have that famous music school.’ And the people of Utah can say, ‘That is one of the Juilliards of the world. It’s right here in our city.’’’

Setting a standard

Oussetskaia-Watanabe came to Utah from Yekaterinburg, Russia, for what was expected to be a two-week visit. But she started performing, met Eugene Watanabe and never went back.

She was shocked to learn music education wasn’t an established part of public school systems in the United States. There were local, state and national standards for what kids should be learning when it came to language arts, history and STEM subjects.

But music didn’t have those guidelines. In fact, more than 1.3 million elementary school students across the country don’t have access to a music class, according to the Children’s Music Workshop.

“Vera comes from a country and a culture where music education is integral to raising kids in general. The children’s music education is just as much a part of a well-rounded education as learning math or learning history. It’s just a given,” Watanabe said.

So the Watanabes formed the Gifted Music School to help set a standard for music education.

At the top level, there’s a conservatory that 45 musicians are currently attending on full scholarship (not including private lessons). This merit-based program has produced many Salute to Youth performers over the years. These committed musicians practice anywhere from two to seven hours daily, Watanabe said.

The Gifted Music School’s pre-college conservatory is one of several in the country — most of which are associated with powerhouse names like The Juilliard School.

One big difference is that students in Salt Lake City aren’t paying $13,300 — The Juilliard School’s pre-college tuition for the 2019-2020 academic year. Funding from Salt Lake County, the National Endowment for the Arts, and local businesses and foundations help cover what would otherwise be an expensive education for young musicians.

“We’re a scrappy nonprofit. ... It’s highly unprofitable,” Watanabe said with a laugh, adding that much of his living comes from private teaching.We’re scrapping for every dollar.”

Violinist Natalie Boberg poses for a photo at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 6, 2018. For the 59th annual Salute to Youth concert, Boberg, 18, performed Mark O’Connor’s Double Violin Concerto with violinist Adrian Wu, 18.
Violinist Natalie Boberg poses for a photo at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 6, 2018. For the 59th annual Salute to Youth concert, Boberg, 18, performed Mark O’Connor’s Double Violin Concerto with violinist Adrian Wu, 18.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Gifted Music School isn’t a well-known entity like The Juilliard School. But the Salt Lake institution is starting to receive outside recognition, Watanabe said. Last year, student and former Salute to Youth performer Natalie Boberg finished her senior year of high school online, moving from Los Angeles to Utah to study at the conservatory with Watanabe. Boberg graduated in 2019, and now she’s attending the New England Conservatory of Music. Other 2019 Gifted Music School graduates are studying at Berklee College of Music, Indiana University, Colburn School, Columbia University and The Juilliard School.

The Gifted Music School doesn’t just produce what Watanabe called “the Michael Jordans of the world.” There’s also the school’s preparatory division, a tuition-based program tied to the belief that playing music enhances cognitive and social skills.

A 2019 study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology showed that high school students who take music courses score significantly better on math, science and English exams than their nonmusical peers. It also showed that students who took the most music classes were about one academic year ahead of their nonmusic peers, regardless of socioeconomic background, ethnicity or gender.

The Gifted Music School’s preparatory program currently offers 300 students lessons and classes from the school’s faculty (which includes Utah Symphony members and university professors).

And then there’s the school’s outreach program, Project Grit, which Watanabe believes is so important. The full scholarship program works with students at Mountain View Elementary — a Title 1 school — bringing instrumental training to kindergartners. From first through fifth grade, the kids are then enrolled in a two-hour music program at the Gifted Music School, Monday through Thursday.

The end goal, Watanabe said, is that many of these children from low-income families will go on to attend the school’s conservatory, which in turn will help them receive college scholarships.

“Kids that have exposure and opportunity to study music, they do better. They’re better people,” Watanabe said. “Our goal is to raise future leaders. We equally hope that they’ll become attorneys and accountants and CEOS and presidents and governors.”

Salute to Youth

The 10 young musicians who will perform on the Abravanel Hall stage Tuesday night represent a window into the power of music education.

One of this year’s Salute to Youth performers, Ellen Hayashi, asked Santa for a violin when she was 6. At 11, she began attending the Gifted Music School conservatory, where she said the list of things she’s learned from Watanabe has grown to be “longer than ‘War and Peace.’”

At the Gifted Music School, Hayashi has taken music theory classes and private lessons, worked with renowned violinists like Arnold Steinhardt and Midori, and formed a string quartet that received national titles last year.

Now, the 16-year-old junior at Cottonwood High School practices anywhere from four to six hours daily.

2019 Salute to Youth performer Ellen Hayashi in Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019.
2019 Salute to Youth performer Ellen Hayashi in Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

“You’re working constantly, you know, no matter if you have a performance coming up or not,” she said. “To be able to play with an orchestra like the Utah Symphony, it’s just a really huge reward, I think, for all of the work that we’re putting in. And I’m just so glad that I get to experience something that the big-time players do.”

Watanabe said the annual Salute to Youth concert is a milestone for young musicians like Hayashi in Utah, describing it as a “musical prom.”

“It provides a goal for all these students to have a date with the Utah Symphony,” said Watanabe, who did Salute to Youth three times. “It’s the biggest dance to be invited to for the students.”

And it’s a dance Watanabe believes any dedicated musician in Utah should have the chance to attend, which is why the Gifted Music School conservatory doesn’t just consider level of training and accomplishments when accepting students.

The school also recognizes passion, discipline and potential.

“We want to keep the conservatory available for those students that want it badly enough,” he said. “It’s not just based on privilege. By and large, if the kids try hard enough, there is a path.”

Appreciating humanity

Watanabe is quick to deflect credit, often steering the conversation toward his wife and other faculty members. As he sits by a piano in a practice room, his humility defies the typical flair and showmanship of a concert artist.

But in his soft voice are bold statements about the power of music education, including his belief that music can help to heal an increasingly divided society.

“If we all had piano lessons — I’m convinced if we all played music here and that was part of our education — we would have shared values,” he said. “You could be in a string quartet where the violist is a Republican and another musician is a Democrat, but you’re still making beautiful music together. That’s what music and the arts teaches in so many ways, that appreciation of humanity.”

And that’s what Watanabe hopes the Gifted Music School is passing on to its students, and that’s what he believes Salute to Youth represents. Running a nonprofit hasn’t gotten easier — even after 10 years — but for Watanabe, sharing his passion for music with a rising generation is a pursuit worth every challenge.

“The problems get bigger; it’s like raising a kid,” he said with a laugh. “But I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. ... It was Vera who woke me up and said, ‘Look, you love teaching. You can actually change people’s lives doing this.’ And you know, she was absolutely right.”

If you go ...

What: 60th annual Salute to Youth concert

When: Tuesday, Sept. 24, 7 p.m.

Where: 123 S. West Temple

How much: $15

Web: utahsymphony.org