The Meadowmount School of Music, with alums like Itzhak Perlman, proves that hard work can be more important than raw talent

Slide Show >>Instructor Hans Jorgen Jensen Bounds up the steps of a beat-up cabin filled with 12 cellists warming up, and suddenly there’s silence. “It’s showtime!” he proclaims, and technique class begins. The teenage musicians race through scales and shift exercises as Jensen, 56, calls out orders. With a shock of white hair ringing his head and a thick Danish accent, he’s an unholy pairing of Larry David and Arnold Schwarzenegger — a grinning drill sergeant. He singles out 16-year-old Alina Lim and tells her to do octave scales. The exercise requires her to play two notes at once, using the side of her thumb for the lower note. As Lim plays, Jensen twists a knob on her cello below the bridge, untuning her instrument — and making the exercise all the harder. “You should be practicing the feeling of knowing how to adjust,” he says, as she tries to keep up with the fast-sliding pitch. “You should be trusting your instincts, not memorized positions.”

Welcome to Meadowmount, Saturday, 9 a.m. Part summer camp, part music school, and part boot camp, the Meadowmount School of Music is strict, austere, and responsible for creating some of the top string players in the world. Though little known outside of music circles, the small, rundown camp in the Adirondacks has trained such luminaries as Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Lynn Harrell, and Yo-Yo Ma. Many more alums are players in top U.S. orchestras or chamber groups. Every summer 220 young violinists, violists, cellists, and pianists head into the woods with dreams of such acclaim.

I took the five-hour drive from New York City to embed myself at the camp for a few days to scope out this breeding ground for hypercompetitive musicians. A lapsed cellist myself, I wanted to understand what separates the truly elite players from everyone else, and discover why this place in the middle of nowhere helps create so many of them.

The camp is on a winding county road that’s zoned as part of Westport, N.Y. Founded 62 years ago by Russian-born immigrant Ivan Galamian, a legendary violin teacher and Juilliard School professor, today’s faculty enforce his strict timetable. Students must be awake and practicing by 8:30 a.m., and they must spend five hours a day in their tiny, un-air-conditioned bedrooms in individual practice. There’s no lake to swim in, few extracurricular activities, and only five working phones. Galamian built the camp with as few distractions from music as possible.

Many of the students are already top players for their age. One pianist I met, 16-year-old Russian Viacheslav Kiselev (or just “Slava”), performed 32 times last year. Several have appeared on National Public Radio’s From the Top, a show featuring promising young soloists.

But these kids, even the prodigies, face steep odds. Juilliard admits 8% of applicants and Curtis Institute of Music only 4%. Once they graduate, they face one of the toughest job markets of any profession. There are six qualified musicians for any open position today in classical music, according to one study. Base-pay for a major national orchestra averages $62,778 for a 39-week season, says the American Symphony Orchestra League.

A job in a top orchestra like the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington is even more selective. The last time that orchestra had one opening in the violin section (October, 2004), more than 320 violinists applied, and 124 auditioned. Nearly every student at Meadowmount is determined to get a job like that, or better. “Why else would you possibly want to spend your summer at this place?” asks one young violinist.

These students place an enormous amount of pressure on themselves. After a concert, 18-year-old cellist Audrey Nadeau sits by the front steps of the main house and lights a cigarette. She talks about how she struggles to make her cello sound “smooth,” practicing bowing for hours to get the sound she wants. She often plays late at night (tonight she will practice from 10:30 until about 2 a.m.), because her muscles are tired, and she thinks that, curiously, it makes her movement more fluid. Recently, she says, she fell on the road while jogging, right on the shoulder of her bow arm. “It hurt so much I could only play with the shoulder very far back. [I realized] that was where my shoulder should be.” Everything, even an injury, leads her to examine how she plays.

Yet her performance two nights before had sounded effortless. Afterward, her teachers marveled how she and the violinist, 17-year-old Juilliard student Elly Suh, matched one another’s sound in the Schubert E-flat piano trio. The group had practiced together at Meadowmount for only 2 1/2 weeks, but they performed as one. “That concert, in many ways, could have been the best I’ve ever seen here,” says Patricia McCarty, the viola instructor at the camp.

After the performance, I’d asked Audrey if she had planned how she would play each occurrence of a key phrase in the piece that repeats in different moods and contexts. No, she says. She listened closely to the other players and adjusted on the fly. It was a direct interface between her musical thoughts and the sound emanating from the instrument. Indeed, the performance of Audrey, Elly, and their pianist, 19-year-old Lawrence Osborne-Quinnette, seemed to come from pure, natural talent — something close to prodigy. These weren’t seasoned professionals, they were teenagers. How could it come from anything else?

Scientists have investigated this question of expertise — specifically, skill at a level that seems unobtainable by normal, motivated individuals. In one study, researchers led by Florida State University professor K. Anders Ericsson studied musicians at a Berlin conservatory. Students were divided into three skill levels, including one the faculty had identified as having the best chance of becoming world-class soloists. The researchers had the students keep diaries of their schedules and looked at such information as when they started playing and their practice habits as children.

The results were clear-cut, with little room for any sort of inscrutable God-given talent. The elite musicians had simply practiced far more than the others. “That’s been replicated for all sorts of things — chess players and athletes, dart players,” says Ericsson. “The only striking difference between experts and amateurs is in this capability to deliberately practice.” The group even determined the number of hours musicians must play to compete at the highest professional level — about 10,000, the equivalent of practicing four hours a day, every day, for almost seven years.

That finding made sense when I learned more about Audrey. Though she hadn’t played seriously until she was about 12, she had gone through a transformation. At 11, growing up poor in a small town near Montreal, she rebelled against her stay-at-home mother, who was obsessed with classical music. Yet she felt tremendously guilty: Around that time, she and her four siblings learned that their mother was dying of cancer.

So Audrey began practicing obsessively with a cello borrowed from school. “I tried to get back the trust she had for me,” she says. On weekends, she aimed to put in eight hours a day. During the week she practiced before and after school, and at lunchtime. She became very good, very fast. By 14 she had won a contest to perform in front of an orchestra.

Psychologists found a second attribute in elite players that is less obvious than sheer hours of practice. While most of us think of practice as the repetition of tough spots (and this is how many young people do practice), elite musicians, they found, took a different approach. They were intensely self-critical, identifying weaknesses at an incredibly detailed level. They examined the pattern in which they put their fingers down, the way their muscles tensed — and they continually experimented with ways to improve. In other words, they were not only musically creative, they were creative about solving problems.

This is what the teachers at Meadowmount call “knowing how to practice,” something Galamian helped pioneer. In his classic violin exercise book he breaks playing into several dozen fundamental skills. Each exercise is a targeted workout, a particular rhythm in the bow or finger pattern. Once all of these are mastered, the reasoning goes, you will have a complete set of skills to play any piece with relative ease. Says Ronald Copes, a violinist with the Juilliard String Quartet who had lessons with Galamian in the 1960s: “Meadowmount was training in how to listen, and methodically figuring out how to train yourself to reach what you were hearing in your head.” Ronald Lantz, a professional violinist who also studied with Galamian, says he found he “could learn passages in 10 minutes that used to take me three weeks.”

That approach, paired with constant practice and teachers who push their students every day, creates an intense environment at the camp. At one point during the weekend, director Owen Carman mentions that the camp allows only the very best students — about 60 — to perform in the camp’s concerts throughout the summer; everyone else goes home having paid the $5,000 tuition without one performance. The idea? The students see what’s possible to achieve but also that not everyone makes it. Then, with that mix of inspiration and anxiety, they get back to their rooms and practice.