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Guitar and the Fulbright

Everyone has heard of the Fulbright Awards: a US Government-sponsored program for student study or research overseas. Very prestigious, very competitive. Hard to win, sort of like a McArthur Genius award. For post-grad students. At least that's what I thought. 

Until I was invited, in 2012 and again this year, to participate on the screening committee for string instruments. We just finished our deliberations for this year's applicants, and submitted the "winner's" names. The reality about the Fulbright is both like my pre-conceived notions and vastly unlike them. I learned a lot during this process and want to share what I learned, to spread the news, and ultimately to encourage guitarists to apply. 

The building in NYC where we held our deliberations: the Institute of International Education. 

First, a bit of description. It's a big topic so I'll be brief and offer some links for more info. The Fulbright Commission, established by Senator J. William Fulbright and signed into law by Harry Truman in 1946, was designed for the "promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science." It funds some 1,900 individuals each year in special projects, international study, the teaching of English, and many other endeavors both broad and targeted, and operates in over 140 countries. At its core, it tries to engender good by helping to foster understanding through face-to-face, person-to-person international experiences. 

Across the street from the United Nations building:

So, here are some discoveries: you can get a Fulbright with as little as a bachelor's degree (I had thought it was reserved for post-doc work). You can apply after finishing college, even several years (up to five) after graduating. You can apply as an adult, later in life, as long as your project represents work in a field relatively new to you. You can apply as an established professional through the scholars program. A couple or ensemble can apply, but only separately, to be considered individually, not as a unit. 

Language matters, but is not necessarily a determining factor: in many countries, English is widely spoken, or in the proposed project's particular school or studio, English is acceptable. It's true that some countries are highly competitive and others less so, and therefore your destination powerfully affects your (statistical) likelihood of success. So, if you want to go study in Paris, surprise, so does everyone else! But if you find a suitable project in a less "popular" destination, say, Spain, or Sweden, or China, or Morocco, you'll have less competition. This is also true on a city-city basis: if your project takes place in Palermo, you won't be competing against all the applicants wanting to go to Rome. 

The Fulbright Commission pays travel to- and from- your destination and offers a stipend, deemed enough to live on. Most countries offer either tuition waivers or very modest tuition charges for those intent on matriculating in a college, conservatory or university. The "income" will not be enough to get ahead, but it will be enough to live on. It covers your health care and any emergency needs as well. 

What seems relatively unknown, though, is that Fulbrights support the performing arts. Proof in point: our committee this year had to consider a TOTAL of 14 applications. That's fourteen. From the entire nation, for the entire year, from all violinists, violists, cellists, bassists, harpists and guitarists, only 14 individuals applied!! Last year there were slightly more, but only slightly. Why is that??

Our panel deliberates. 

This is an extraordinary opportunity for young musicians. We all know how powerful, life-altering, richly meaningful and professionally transformational a year abroad can be, even if we ourselves haven't done it. It seems self-evident. To have such an opportunity both fully paid for AND under the brag-worthy imprimatur of the storied US Government Fulbright Commission seems pretty dreamy. So where are all the dreamers??

It could be that the application is perceived as too long and difficult. Applicants have to fill out some general info forms, write descriptions of their projects and personal statements, indicate established and verifiable connections, mentors or teachers in the host country, have appropriate language skills, provide letters of reference and college transcripts. They have to actually have a project in mind and a compelling reason to do it, and do it in the proposed location. And, as far as music goes, their playing level needs to be very good (not necessarily superb). 

But applications for scholarships are the same as writing grants: lots of paperwork and prep, doable in a matter of days or weeks, with the actual writing really taking one or two nights. In exchange for an ENTIRE YEAR ABROAD? And this is too daunting? 

Maybe it's that potential applicants can't think of suitable projects. But this is like saying they have no interests, no imaginations, no dreams-- and I don't accept that. Maybe it's that they have no existing connections abroad and so don't know how to start. But with the ease of communication today and a student's ready access to professionals from all around the world as these pros travel and tour, it would seem that overcoming this barrier too is manageable. 

Maybe it's that they are simply unaware of the opportunity. Based on the assumption this is the case, I was motivated to write this post. In the event I am on the screening committee again next year, I hope to see more applicants and, especially, more guitarists. 

Having now reviewed in detail nearly forty applications over two years, it is easy to see the range of the projects submitted. Most represent students' desires to simply study abroad. There is a famous teacher in a great place, say, Roland Dyens in Paris, and you want to experience studying there with him. Ok, so your stumbling blocks are these: 

1) He needs to accept you into his studio and write a letter stating as much. 

2) You need to be accepted into the Conservatoire Superieur de Musique, no simple task (unless you intend to work with him outside the conservatory). 

3) Your project needs to be more person- and site-specific than "Roland is cool, I want to take lessons from him."

For instance, Roland arranged and recorded a large collection of French folksongs. You could research the original source material behind these arrangements, learn and study the songs and arrangements with him. Then, make your own arrangements of American folksongs, and discuss your arranging process with him. Plan to perform the collected, resultant works in public schools for children both in France and at home, to help educate about international folksongs and their importance in the continuity of cultures and their influence on "art music."

This idea works in several ways: it is highly specific to the teacher/composer in question (it can't be done with your teacher at home). It relies on a local immersion-style research project that draws you into the local culture, encouraging "cultural exchange," a primary tenet of a Fulbright. It involves more than simply taking lessons to get better--it helps your own arranging/composing/creating efforts and resonates in an educational way, further espousing cultural interchange. 

The Strings Screening Committee: with Davis Brooks (violin, Butler University) and Julia Lichten (cello, Manhattan School of Music) 

We didn't get many proposals like that. Most were more along the lines of "study German music in Germany." Too broad and clearly not easy to call a "project." Further, in the two years I've done this, all but one proposal was for Western Europe (the odd one out was for China). No proposals put applicants in South or Central America, Africa, Australia, the Middle East, etc. These are opportunities that are being missed, wholesale, and it pains me to watch it. 

Some successful proposals involved studying the work of a particular composer or period/style, whether new or old, with an established specialist in that narrow field. In these cases, the performance audition needed to demonstrate clear ability and sensitivity to that style. Interestingly, and disappointingly, some of the most compelling, well-written proposals were accompanied by insufficiently adept performances on the audition recordings. My panel was charged with assessing the quality of the auditions and the general viability/interest of the projects (language assessments are performed by Fulbright personnel; applications that don't meet the standard are culled before we see them). We were surprised we didn't get more upper-level players submitting applications. Further, we were surprised in some instances to hear selections that were clearly not flattering  (why not re-record?), or recordings that were acoustically dry or otherwise sonically substandard.  

I got my MM at the University of Arizona with Tom Patterson. Soon after I graduated, his students began successfully winning Fulbrights. He had made contact with the campus' Fulbright representative (every campus has one), and had learned to advise them, to steer them towards viable projects. It may be that Patterson has had the most students win Fulbrights of any guitar teacher in America (more than a dozen). When asked for his thoughts on this process, he told me that the success of his students has in some measure been a result of their applying to go to less competitive countries (usually in South America) combined with writing proposals that emphasize the cultural exchange that will take place. He works closely with the campus committee personnel in grooming students. In addition, Patterson said he has gotten several superb foreign students to come and work with him on Fulbrights as well. In other words, it's worth remembering: Fulbrights send student in both directions. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to state also that my son, Miles, in his efforts last year to find a viable path after graduating (BS from University of Hartford), applied for a Fulbright. His field is science (engineering). I did not advise him or help him research the process. After he applied, I was invited to be on the strings panel. I did not mention this to my charges at the Fulbright screening at that time, mostly because his winning it seemed like such a long shot. He had determined, based on the Fulbright website, that if he proposed a project in Switzerland, his chances were numerically higher than in many other European countries, and that English was acceptable. He learned late in the spring semester that he'd won one! He is now working on a research project at a university in Zurich, and having his first experience abroad. Needless to say, I was thrilled for him and am immensely proud of him for this accomplishment. 

And in my constant communication with him while there, I've learned a bit about what it's like for "Fulbrighters." He works really hard. His stipend, while enough to get by on, is a long way from lavish. But he's having the time of his life. He travels with his new friends on the weekends, goes out in the evenings, and is fully engaged by a serious, meaningful research project. It's win-win, all the way. 

Sitting on the Strings panel last week, I was surprised and dismayed to see not one single guitar applicant this year. (Last year there were two, though neither got recommended). Guitarists, this is a terrific opportunity. The competition is thin. You have a shot!!! I have judged performance competitions countless times. Scores of guitarist travel across the nation for a shot at a paltry $1000 prize. Win a Fulbright and you have won the jackpot. An entire year's living wage, round trip overseas travel, a year's tuition, and a life's worth of bragging rights. Not to mention a year's worth of memories no one can ever take away. Come on, guitarists, take a look at the Fulbright!!

Spotlight on Alumni: Rusty Jones

Lighten Up! Squeezing with the Left Hand.