The Saugerties High School Class of 2019 will return to class for its final year of high school in less than two months, looking forward to college, jobs or other opportunities the summer after. For John Skiff, senior year will include an extra day of classes each week. The talented tenor will will be spending his Saturdays in the Juilliard pre-college program.
Opened in 1905, the Juilliard School is a performing-arts conservatory located on the Lincoln Center complex on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It’s widely regarded as one of the world’s leading schools for music, dance and dramatic arts. Around 850 college and nearly 300 pre-college students will take a wide range of courses of study there.
For Skiff, studying at Juilliard is a dream come true. “I tried to stay humble about it before, not really overplaying any abilities that I had,” he said. “But when I found out that I would be able to do Juilliard, I kind of decided that I had to put in as much effort as I could, do as much work as I could. Because Juilliard, that’s insane.”
Skiff will study music theory, ear training, diction and vocal performance. He will receive intensive private vocal coaching. He’ll be encouraged to consider a wide range of elective courses, including improvisation, post-tonal theory, and “the science of resilience,” which teaches students how to deal with the physical and psychological rigors of performance-based singing.
At Saugerties High, Skiff has studied under music teachers Rebecca MacDougall and Marisa Trees. According to the former, Skiff is a naturally gifted singer who has never had private vocal instruction. With the school recently reinstating vocal classes, Skiff was able to learn his repertoire for the Juilliard audition, which will include a standard classical song from the Italian anthology, a classical song of the applicant’s choice, and a short classical song in a foreign language.
MacDougall said Skiff’s audition came about thanks to a fortuitous bit of scheduling, and because she and Trees believed that Skiff should intensify his study ahead of college.
“Ms. Trees and I, we could hear that he was probably one of the best tenors we’ve ever heard in both of our careers,” said MacDougall. “One of the best singers, actually. We were calling around to different schools to see if someone would hear him, because we knew he was just so wonderful. When I e-mailed different places, nobody really got back to me. When I e-mailed Julliard, they did, and they said, ‘Can he come this Saturday at 5 o’clock?’”
Fortuitously, the SHS music department had already planned a field trip to Lincoln Center for that same spring day for a performance of the opera Cendrillon, so Skiff was already going to be mere steps away from the pre-screening audition.
“When I went in for the pre-screening, it was nerve-wracking because I didn’t really know what to expect,” Skiff explained. “I walked in, I was in a little room, I didn’t get to do any warmups, and I just had to start with no preparation. No one really knows what to expect until you get there.”
The more he sang for Juilliard, the easier it became. Mostly, anyway.
“As it went into auditions and callbacks, it was a little bit easier, but still stressful because you can’t mess up something like this,” he said. “I was giving it my all to try to do everything I could to make sure they knew how much I wanted this. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime.”
Once the audition process was completed in May, Skiff still had to wait until early June to learn whether he’d made the cut.
“Funny story about how I found out,” Skiff said. “It was 6:40, I was supposed to get the e-mail at six o’clock, and I forgot to check my e-mail. 6:40 rolls around, I heard a knock at the door and my dog starts barking. I go to the door, come to find out there’s Mrs. MacDougall and Ms. Trees on my front porch. I close the curtain and say to myself, ‘Are they really out there?’ I open the door and there they are.”
He checked the e-mail and found out that he had been accepted. “I was honestly glad they’d showed up at the door. It was better to share the experience than to e-mail them saying I got in. I was ecstatic. To find out that I got in? Someone from Saugerties, New York?”
Skiff said that his joy over getting in won’t overwhelm him. He’s earned an opportunity that could open a great many doors for him, both academically and professionally.
“Juilliard is the best of the best,” Skiff said. “To get into Juilliard, the possibilities are endless. Just to say that I got into the Juilliard pre-college, that could get me into any college afterward even if Juilliard were to say, ‘You’re not the right fit for us.’”
After college? Skiff is hoping the Juilliard pre-college program will make his career dreams come true.
“Honestly, I want to be famous,” he said. “That’s a lot of people’s dreams. And just to be able to do what I love, which is singing.”