Its the day before Mondays closing concert of the Robert McDuffie & Friends Labor Day Festival For Strings, and McDuffie has just finished listening to five of the best high school strings musicians in the country perform Johannes Brahms Viola Quintet No. 2, Opus 111 in a room at Mercer Universitys McCorkle School of Music.
It was a little cautious for me, the world-famous violinist tells the students. Its like you didnt want to mess up. Im looking for big gestures. ... Dont be afraid to screw it up.
Moments later, Josh Halperin, a cellist from Atlanta, accidentally delivers a big gesture -- he draws his bow so hard that he breaks the C-string to his cello.
Though not the intended result, its exactly the sort of passion McDuffie has come to expect from the students who constitute the program.
Mondays program will be the last time the high school students will perform on Labor Day, McDuffie said. The concert used to serve as part of an audition process for students who wanted to be part of the McDuffie Center for Strings, an exclusive conservatory limited to 26 college students each year.
When McDuffie first started the program in 2004, he said the center had to do everything it could to attract students; however, in just a few short years, the program has attracted so much attention that the center is routinely turning performers away.
Its reached a critical mass, McDuffie said. This will be the last Labor Day festival in its present form. We wanted the program to be a preview for (high school) juniors and seniors of what kind of training theyd receive if they went to Mercer. Now, were turning away applicants who are going to brand-name conservatories.
McDuffie said that 31 percent of the current student body at the center participated in the Labor Day concert as high school students. But now, the program has cultivated relationships with so many top teachers all over the world that the auditions to join the center have become invitation-only.
There are talented people who we see and hear who will be invited to a day of meetings (in February), he said. Well still have the big (Labor Day weekend) concert, but we wont have the student concert. We dont need to do it anymore. Weve had real, tangible, big-picture success.
Its just one part of some major changes McDuffie envisions for the center, which former Mercer President Kirby Godsey encouraged him to create in 2004 to put the colleges music program on the map.
Now, McDuffie and the centers faculty are looking to form a brand-spanking new curriculum that will make Mercer a leader among music programs in the 21st century.
In my opinion, the traditional curricula are not helpful in preparing musicians for the real world, McDuffie said. A new (bachelors degree in music) that we are presenting to the Board of Regents in April will be a school of music, business-oriented degree that will tap into what works. Were eschewing the traditional school of music curricula and preparing (the students) to become independent contractors. The students will become entrepreneurs.
McDuffie said the program also will draw upon members of Mercers law and business schools to learn about digital rights, new media and so forth to prepare students for all of the challenges they will face in the music industry.
Its going to be a Mercer-centric B.M.A., McDuffie said. I want other schools to look at us (for curricula). I dont want Mercer to be another Juilliard. I want Mercer to be thought of as the cutting edge of music arts education.
McDuffie also wants to add components for brass and woodwind instruments at the school. Right now, the strings program must use professional or part-time musicians to make up that element of an orchestra when the strings musicians want to play pieces that require a full orchestra.
Building a Mercer orchestra will help the school work in conjunction with the Macon Symphony Orchestra, McDuffie said. With the city orchestra bringing in candidates for its open conductors position (McDuffie will open the orchestras season Sept. 24 with one of the candidates), McDuffie said the orchestra is attracting top candidates from across the country because the position will include a teaching position at Mercer.
At the same time, McDuffie said Mercer students will be able to perform with the symphony and gain valuable experience. He said he hopes that in time, Mercers orchestra will be on par with Rice University, Indiana University and Southern Cal -- the three top college orchestras in the country.
It will be the best of both worlds, he said.
McDuffie noted that the center is in a perfect position to capitalize on its assets, which include a $4 million endowment and a world-class faculty, led by Amy Schwartz Moretti.
Devon Naftzger, a violist who is a senior at a high school in Chicago, will be one of the performers at Mondays concert. She applied for the program because one of her friends did it a few years ago and then went on to study at the McDuffie Center. Shes worked most of the week under Lawrence Dutton, the violist for the award-winning Emerson String Quartet and a McDuffie Center faculty member. Having the opportunity to work with talent the likes of Dutton is what drew Naftzger to Macon.
Its been helpful, she said. Its nice to have all these groups to work with. Ive been working on solo stuff, and putting a piece together with a group. Its been very beneficial. ... These are really big names to work with, and its been great to get so much individual time with them. I wouldnt say Ive been intimidated, but I really wanted to impress him.