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Chamber group on Baldwin Auditorium stage
A string quartet performs on the Baldwin Auditorium stage. Photo by Duke University

Classical Immersion

Duke student musicians get a taste of conservatory life via a unique exchange program 

Who knew that 18th-century Austrian music scribes were unreliable? 

Learning that blew Aram Lindroth’s mind. On a 2022 fall break trip to the New England Conservatory in Boston, he found out that not only were some early manuscripts of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and other works riddled with errors, but that the master composer actually used his own sophisticated dynamic markings. Those marks were too sublime for the scribes and didn’t make it into transcriptions. 

“Beethoven was deliberate in using these,” says Lindroth, a classical pianist and a senior. “He had his own special system that was more refined than the standard one.” 

When NEC professor Nicholas Kitchen presented the students with manuscripts in Beethoven’s hand that were free of mistakes, modifications and modernizations, it was a revelation to violinist Myles Bell, too.  

“I learned so much from that really in-depth class,” Bell says. “We were playing a piece by Beethoven at that time, so that really changed our outlook and the way we approach the piece.” 

Bell and Lindroth were in a group of Duke chamber musicians who got the deep-dive opportunity, thanks to the Duke Arts Exchange, a program dreamed up by Duke music faculty. For students who considered the conservatory route but decided on a liberal arts education, the program allows them to experience NEC classes and mingle with students and faculty. Musicians on the inaugural trip described the experience as once in a lifetime. 

“It was really intense,” says junior Alicia Yang, who plays viola. “I had never thought about music in the way that Professor Kitchen was talking about. It really opened up my eyes.” 

Hsiao-mei Ku, a longtime music professor, and Caroline Stinson, director of chamber music at Duke, collaborate on many of the university’s chamber classes. They realized a few years ago that social distancing whetted Duke student musicians’ hunger to play together. That experience also focused Ku’s long-held belief that many players want to be challenged at the highest level possible. 

“The Duke admissions office really pays attention to the artistic side – the level of instrumentalists is just incredible,” Ku says. “Some of them could enter any conservatory in the country, but they choose to come to Duke. We want to give them experience that will be compatible and perhaps match that level of intensity and satisfaction while they still pursue other possibilities.” 

Ideas for expanding the program to a true exchange include having graduate students from NEC, Curtis Institute of Music, Julliard School, or other conservatories come to Duke to perform for or collaborate with students. 

“Students, regardless of their age or experience, can work really positively together,” Stinson says. “We're really trying to have an environment where everybody's learning from each other.”