THE CURTIS INSTITUTE of Music is the most selective college in America. While Harvard and Yale can be awfully choosy, opening their doors to only about eight percent of applicants, Curtis is twice as hard to get into. The scale is different, of course. The conservatory accepts only enough orchestral instrumentalists to fill out a standard symphony — about 100. In addition, there’s a contingent of pianists, some organists, a few harpsichord players, enough singers to stage full-scale operas, and a smattering of composers and conductors, like Lenny Bernstein. So total enrollment comes to 160, give or take. In any given year, there might be 40 vacancies. Last year, nearly 900 people applied for them.
Besides reputation, there’s one big inducement for that: At Curtis, if you can get in, tuition is free. It has been almost since the school’s founding in 1924, when Mary Louise Curtis Bok used a big chunk of her inheritance from her father Cyrus Curtis’s publishing company (Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal) to purchase those three formidable mansions — one built for the Drexels, another for the Crapps, the third for the Sibleys — and endow a little school whose sole aim was “to train exceptionally gifted young musicians.” Mrs. Bok’s legacy, an unprecedented $12.5 million in pre-Depression dollars now valued at $132 million, helps fund the tuition of each and every student.
“You cannot pay to go to Curtis,” says Elin Frazier, a fine Philadelphia-based trumpeter who arrived here from Boston in 1960. “You cannot pay to go.” The point of her repetition is that you cannot buy, beg or steal your way in. Though it sometimes happens that the child of a famous musician attends, there are no spots kept open for legacies; the music world needs no George Dubyas. Neither is there a diversity program. “It’s all about how well they perform,” says admissions director Chris Hodges. “Curtis wants the best.”
And it gets them. If Curtis were a place where chefs or fashion designers of such caliber came to train, there would be a reality TV show about it. If the students played basketball at the level they sing and play fiddles and horns, the school would have an endorsement deal with Nike. “I’ve lived in Philly 20 years,” Hodges says. “And I’ve always thought this was one of the greatest unsung treasures in the city. If you were to ask the basic man on the street to name a great music school, they’re probably going to say Juilliard. And they are a great school. But if you were to ask a musician to name a great music school, they very well might say, ‘Curtis Institute.’”