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A Place Music Calls Home
Making Music A Part of Everyday Education

atasha Bogin, 9, says she enjoys her school because of the performances like last December's Bach Festival, which all students were involved in. The school Natasha attends, The Special Music School of America (SMSA), stresses music education of all types, including instruments and voice. Founded in 1996 by pianist Vladimir Feltzman, the SMSA is based on the Russian "special school system." In the former Soviet Union, these special schools would comb the country for talented children, and groom them for musical success. These special schools continue to train young musicians across the former Soviet Union to this day.

Dmitry Rachmanov with his piano student George Kiladze, 10.

Located at 129 W. 67th St. in Manhattan, the SMSA offers a rich musical education thanks to a blend of public and private funds. The school is a collaboration between District 3 of the New York City Board of Education and the Elaine Kaufman Cultural Center, a private nonprofit arts institution. The district pays for the academic portion of the program and the Kaufman Center raises the funds, about $6,000 per child, for the extensive music program. This funding from the Kaufman Center makes possible free tuition.

Natela Mchedlivshvili, who hails from Tbilisi, Georgia (the country), teaches piano at SMSA. Both her sons, George and Alexander Kiladze, are enrolled in the school. This is unusual, as not all the students’ siblings can get in unless they pass the entrance exams. In an average year, 300 children will apply for 15 places. But once accepted, there are only 15 children in each class, and each student receives two private music lessons per week.

Natasha Bogin is one of Mchedlivshvili’s 10 piano students and is already playing "Waltz in A minor" by Frederic Chopin.

The hallways at the school resonate with music. One kindergarten classroom is practicing a song and in another class, George Kiladze, 10, is having a private piano lesson with his piano teacher Dmitry Rachmanov.

Mark Lakirovich, the school's music director, hopes more schools will follow the SMSA's example.

Students study and draw about composers at the Special Music School of America.

"This school is unique, it is the only one of its kind in the U.S.A.," he says. Lakirovich, who is originally from Baku, Azerbaijan, says the SMSA program requires total dedication on the children’s and parents’ behalf.

The 90 children at SMSA are from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and between them speak more than 25 languages. They come from every borough of New York except Staten Island. Children at the school love music and feel that it is an essential part of their lives. They practice the piano or violin up to two hours a day after school.

But not every child who is musical can get into the SMSA. There is a rigorous three-step acceptance process that assesses musical talent. Four-to five year olds are tested for rhythm and the way they respond to music with clapping and different movements. Older children may apply if a place becomes available.

Most students enter in kindergarten and stay until the fifth grade. Next year there will be a middle school for grades six through eight.

oving further up on the East Side, Dr. Walter Turnbull, 31 years ago, wanted to start a choir for young black boys in his neighborhood of Harlem. Now, one of the most famous children’s choirs in the entire world, the Boys Choir of Harlem on Madison Avenue at East 127th Street, is also a full school affiliated with the New York Board of Education for grades 4-12. According to Dr. Horace Turnbull (Walter’s brother who is also an administrator at the school), 1,500 to 2,000 students each apply year for 100 to 150 slots.

To apply, students must have good grades and be able to reproduce a pitch with their voice. In three information sessions with parents before the student is admitted, the school explains the rigors of the program.

"After they learn what kind of commitment they would be getting involved with, many of those who apply become no longer interested," says Horace.

After completing a normal school day at 2:30 p.m., students then must stay for rehearsals that can last until 6:30-7 p.m. In addition, classes are year-round, traveling for concerts around the country is constant, and students must attend an intensive summer music institute.

The rewards of this work do pay off at graduation time, according to Horace, who says 98 percent of the senior class goes on to college.

Due to this success, many cities across the nation are following the Harlem choir model. Chicago plans to start their version next year.

"Colleges and scholarship committees recognize and reward our students because they know that they are extremely dedicated and have developed a craft," says Horace.

Next: "Stop! What are you doing? Waiting for a bus?"

Photos: Susana Seijas