The Conservatory Program at The Rivers School Celebrates 15 years

It’s been 15 years since David Tierney created a program that fills a special educational niche in the region. His brainchild, the Conservatory Program at The Rivers School, offers a unique blend of academic rigor and intensive music education, and on Saturday, January 5, a group of conservatory program alumni gathered to celebrate the program’s 15th anniversary.

“David Tierney, my predecessor, wanted to create a program that would provide student musicians with faculty of the highest caliber, incredible performance opportunities, and in-depth courses to cultivate their artistry, along with access to high-level academics,” explains Gabriella Sanna, who took over as RSC head in 2018. “The point was to give students the opportunity to do both music and academics in depth, rather than having to choose between the two, as they sometimes do.”

The RSC has functioned as a music school for both Rivers School students and the larger community since 1975, but the conservatory program within it, initiated in 2003, is a special and distinctive offering. Students who pursue the program must first gain admission to the Rivers School and then audition for the intensive music curriculum. Only a small number of students can make the cut academically and musically; Sanna says the current enrollment in the conservatory is about 40, the maximum number it can accommodate.

At Saturday’s event, conservatory program coordinator Dan Shaud, who has been involved since the beginning, made the opening remarks. “The first students were like hardy pioneers,” he told the audience. He recalled how the opening of Bradley Hall had ushered in a new era that brought about an increase in enrollment and a refinement of the curriculum; he noted that the program is poised for further growth in the coming years.

Students in the conservatory program follow a rigorous study of music after the academic day, with classes in ear training, music theory, improvisation, and more, in place of pursuing athletics. Shaud jokingly referred to the conservatory students’ “ambivalence toward required physical activity,” but he went on to say that “a sports team is an apt metaphor for the connections formed in this program. As coordinator, my happiest memories are of observing the friendships that have formed, and the bonds between students, inspiring one another to explore, grow, and challenge themselves.” He also called out the music faculty whose dedication and enthusiasm have been vital to the program’s success.

Attendees at Saturday’s event were treated to musical performances by current and past students. Isabel Salvin ’20 played Arthur Honegger’s Danse de la Chevre on the flute; Marissa Birne ’15 sang “Send in the Clowns,” from Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, and Joseph Sack ’13 performed Schubert’s An Die Musik and “C’est Moi” from Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot.

Later, Birne, currently a student at Tufts, reflected on her time in the conservatory program. “During my four years as a conservatory program student at Rivers, I not only studied voice but also built strong and meaningful friendships with peers and faculty, evident in the smiles, hugs, and joyful reminiscing at Saturday evening’s reunion.” Birne continues to be involved with music, singing in choirs at college and cofounding Tufts Public Harmony, which provides free concerts by student musicians at community venues.

Said Birne, “To me, the conservatory program’s 15th anniversary celebration felt a bit like traveling back in time to some of my favorite high school memories: Singing in the same concert hall, accompanied by the wonderful Vytas Baksys and many good friends. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to remain connected with a community that I love as an alum throughout its growth. Thanks to the RSC, music will always be central to my life.”