Performance Majors: Reimagining Classical Music

Clifton Williams

Classical music performance majors have inherited an enormous challenge: how to revitalize classical music to protect its legacy and insure its longevity. Staring them in the face: audience decline, symphony bankruptcies, and questions about the relevance of the music and the way in which it is presented.  Solutions to these and other dilemmas demand new approaches to presenting classical music that every current and future classical musician must address.

Author and music journalist Nick Romeo decided to follow some of the country’s top young classical musicians along their musical journeys. In an effort to see how they have been faring in this age of classical music upheaval, he selected six of the 2,000 gifted young classical musicians who have appeared on NPR’s weekly radio show, “From the Top”. His book, 
Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys
, explores their paths both before and after their appearances on the show. He focuses on their unique approaches to re-imagining classical music to keep it vibrant and appealing to a mix of generations.

Each of the individuals highlighted in Driven has a vastly different story:

  • Soprano Nadine Sierra was 15 when she appeared on “From the Top.” At age 20, she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, considered the most prestigious of all voice competitions in North America. She was the youngest soprano to ever achieve this accomplishment.
  • Dasha Bukharseva, who grew up in Ukraine where she was living with her mother in extreme poverty, was discovered by U.S. travelers who made her dream of studying piano come true. She studied at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, was featured on “From the Top”, secured a spot in Juilliard’s pre-college program, and eventually got accepted to The Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
  • Charles Yang is described as a crossover artist. He grew up in a traditional Chinese household where he was groomed to become a classical violinist especially by his mother, also a trained violinist, symphony performer, and teacher. As a teenager, however, Charles found passion in rock guitar. He went to Juilliard as a strings major but managed to perform in both genres. His performances on the guitar and violin are equally electrifying and eclectic.
  • Greg Anderson and Liz Roe started performing together in 2000 as freshmen at Juilliard. Their website indicates that their mission is “To make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society” as well as “To free the world from the constraints of sleep-inducing concerts.” Indeed, their exuberance and musical risk-taking provide audiences with one-of-a-kind experiences that keep them coming back for more.
  • • Clifton Williams, jazz pianist and Berklee College of Music Presidential scholar, grew up playing gospel and jazz piano in inner-city Washington, D.C. When he performed for “From the Top”, he had only been playing classical piano for three years. Music allowed Williams to transcend the harshness of the environment outside of his home and gave him something to reach for in his life.
  • Matthew Muckey was 17 when he was invited to “From the Top.” At the time, he had never performed on any kind of national scale. He went on to Northwestern University Bienen School of Music and at age 22 became associate principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic.

Romeo, a pianist himself, writes with the relaxed candor characteristic of his generation (he’s 27). He weaves creative takes on audience etiquette and performer/audience engagement with human interest stories of auditioning highs and lows, prodigy child/parent struggles, and the mixed experience of sudden acclaim. He also describes collaborative ventures and genre bending in which some of the six musicians are involved.

Romeo’s perspective offers valuable insights for high school and college musicians who envision a career in classical music. His persevering inquisitiveness reveals useful input for the rewriting of the classical music roadmap.


  1. Ruchitha

    I have completed my intermediate level 1 and I would like to go into a music field in which I will have an opportunity to become a singer. I”m confused which degree I should choose to become a successful singer without any struggle. I don’t know which college I should I join.

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