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Student Profile: Special Music School High School Senior Johanna Nelson

Posted on Tuesday, September 13, 2016

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“SMS is like my personal guru that watches me try something, maybe fail, try again, and succeed. But I think that by the end of this year, I’ll be ready to face the world, armed with the knowledge, and love, I received at SMS.”

When Special Music School student Johanna Nelson reached 8th grade, she was torn. Should she attend Bronx Science or Stuyvesant, or focus on performance at an arts high school? She decided to take a chance on the brand new Special Music School High School, and began 9th grade as a member of the school’s first ever freshman class.

Now a senior – and a member of SMS High School’s first graduating class – Johanna looks back on her time at the school and knows she made the right decision. “SMS has been a real incubator for my love of music,” she says. “We get a lot of individual attention and care. The teachers themselves are all so talented, and they all care about our success.” Cliques and bullies can seem like an unavoidable if unfortunate part of the high school experience, but not at SMS. Johanna appreciates the supportive, open atmosphere where everyone talks to each other.

The daughter of a jazz pianist, Johanna learned her way around a keyboard at a young age. Even as a kindergartner, she recognized the impact of music on her academic work. “The same sort of dedication I put towards practicing I would put towards studying and doing homework,” she recalls. “I was able to focus for long periods of time because I was used to doing that at the piano, working on specific passages over and over and drilling it into my head. It’s the same thing with studying and retaining information. Also, there are a lot of similarities between ensemble work and group work in school.”

SMS has given Johanna many opportunities to grow as a musician. She recalls the difficulty of John Adams’s Hallelujah Junction. “Upon first listening to it I couldn’t follow along in the score,” she says. “There was a lot of phasing going on between the two pianos. It was based more on tone than melody and was hard for me to decipher.” With the help of their teacher, Johanna and her classmate soon learned the piece, which is now one of her favorites to play. She names the SMS High School Concerto Competition last winter as another important moment in her musical development. ”I really felt myself break down a wall, through my own personal achievements, that I didn’t think I could.”

Johanna, who is looking at Columbia University as well as New York University, Tufts and Cornell, plans to major in computer science and minor in piano performance. She’s passionate about programming languages as well as music, and recently worked with the exhibition team at the Museum of Natural History to build a sound board for their current exhibition, “Dinosaurs Among Us.” Music will always play an important role in her life, says Johanna, who plans to continue performing in chamber ensembles.

“I’ve gotten a little emotional thinking about the end of my SMS journey in less than a year,” Johanna admits. “SMS is like my personal guru that watches me try something, maybe fail, try again, and succeed. But I think that by the end of this year, I’ll be ready to face the world, armed with the knowledge, and love, I received at SMS.”

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