Prized private school music scholarships up for grabs

Knox Grammar music scholarship student Kevin Fan with his mother Vivian Rong Xu.
Knox Grammar music scholarship student Kevin Fan with his mother Vivian Rong Xu.  Photo: Supplied

Special report

Kevin Fan started playing piano at four, violin at seven. Talented, accomplished and keen to pursue his artistry in high school, Kevin auditioned and won a place in year 7 at Knox Grammar School on Sydney's north shore.

Fan has since toured China with the Knox Symphony Orchestra, plays in its chamber strings ensemble, performed at the Sydney Eisteddfod and been appointed a junior ambassador for radio station Fine Music FM102.5.

And he's only in year 8.

"I mostly play violin in ensembles and orchestra and I've played piano accompaniment in several pieces," Fan says, including accompanying a friend's recent solo violin piece at a school concert. "It was great fun for both of us," he says.

All independent schools' music scholarship candidates audition, with a select few chosen for the next step, the interview. Some key schools require music candidates to sit an academic entrance test too. 

Depending on the school, and the scholarship, some candidates may be offered a place with all fees waived, others a scholarship that covers music tuition costs alone. 

Some schools target certain instruments, so playing an in-demand one may boost a candidate's chances of scholarship success. 

James Brice, Knox's head of performing arts, says the school looks for musicians to mentor rather than candidates to fill ensemble seats.

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The school has more than 45 senior ensembles rehearsing each week, he says, and offers private lessons for more than 30 instruments.

Shore's Merewether Music Scholarship, covering 50 per cent of academic tuition fees, is a bequest awarded for entry to year 7 which preferences a boy with outstanding ability playing French horn or percussion.

"The donor's brother was quite an eminent French horn player," says Shore headmaster Tim Wright. 

Targeting an ensemble-based instrument makes sense, he says, because Shore wants music scholars to lead other music students. 

"We are less likely to award a piano or guitar scholarship than one to a student who expresses their musical talent playing bassoon, trumpet or violin. We want them to set a standard and underpin the performance of others."

At Ascham School in Sydney's eastern suburbs, scholarships are means-tested, the selection criteria includes performance in a scholarship written examination, the musical needs of the school, audition and the co-curricular profile of the candidate. 

"We are looking for a standard that is a minimum of Grade 7 for strings and piano, and a minimum of Grade 5 for woodwind and brass instruments," the school's website notes.

If shortlisted for audition, a candidate needs to play two contrasting pieces of no longer than five minutes per piece. 

At PLC Croydon in Sydney's inner west, several key music scholarships are offered each year. One, a years 7-12 music scholarship for 2018 entry, covers the cost of tuition fees for up to six years and is available to those who play either the double bass, bassoon, oboe, French horn or tuba.

Philip Pratt, Trinity Grammar's director of music, says his school varies the number of music scholarships offered each year.

Trinity has more than 20 groups, ensembles and orchestras. Some years, a few auditioning students may be so extraordinary, extra places are offered.

 "What I am looking for, in one word, is potential," Pratt says.

 "There may be a boy who auditions with a perfect performance who, while very well-prepared, has been well-coached, rather than coming with an inherent gift or love of music."

Trinity's music scholarship interview takes the form of an informal chat, where Pratt hopes to uncover a student's genuine connection with music. He recalls one interview with a boy whose audition had not been outstanding, where this became evident.

 "During the interview I asked about the composition work mentioned on his application. His eyes suddenly lit up as he told me what he was doing and I asked him to play something he had written. At the piano, he was a different kid."

Leon Liang, a year 10 Trinity student who joined the school aged four and started playing piano and violin at age five, was awarded a music scholarship in year 6. He remembers the scholarship interview as "very brief" but the audition sticks with him: his violin pieces were Massenet's Meditation and a movement from Vivaldi's Concerto in A Minor, and he played Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 on piano.

Violin is his "main" instrument, he says.  "I'm part of the symphony orchestra, as well as two string ensembles, a string quartet; oh, and I play piano as part of the big band."

Being awarded a scholarship was a big deal. "It gives me an obligation to really progress and expand my skills and knowledge of music and contribute to music events," Liang says. 

With the help of Trinity's composer in residence Dr Andrew Greenwell, Liang wrote and performed his first original composition, a short serenade for piano and string.  "I'm very interested in taking my music further and perhaps going into film," he says.

Kevin Fan recalls his scholarship interview last year as being friendly and low-pressure. "They asked about how long I had played my instruments and about some of my achievements in music," he says. Thrilled to receive the scholarship, Fan is evolving his musicianship to play more diverse styles and with different musicians.

Life isn't all about music, however: while Fan practises violin and piano daily, he also studies, does homework and has a swimming schedule as he's on the school swim team, too.