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SMS High School Senior Profile: Josh Kail


"Music has taught me to believe in myself.”

Violist Josh Kail, a senior at Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School High School (SMS), doesn’t remember exactly what first inspired him to pick up the violin as a second grader. But he vividly recalls the camaraderie that he felt while making music with his fellow students at Central Park East II, a public school in East Harlem. “I remember just lighting up and being so happy,” he shares. “I was making music, not only by myself, but with other people.”

Josh got his start as a musician because of Opus 118 Harlem School of Music, a program dedicated to making quality music education affordable and accessible to the children of East Harlem. Founded by dynamic teacher Roberta Guaspari in 1981, the program has inspired two Oscar-nominated films and, more recently, entered into a partnership with Kaufman Music Center in 2012.

Encouraged by his violin teacher Lynelle Smith, Josh applied to SMS. When he began his studies there as a 6th grader, it opened a whole new world for him. “I remember it feeling like a home. Just entering the hallways every day and encountering new music opened my mind to the larger classical world,” he says. “And it also gave me opportunities to go even higher than I ever thought I would go.” He learned a great deal from his teachers, and especially from his friends, who were playing their instruments at an impressively high level. Josh highlights the diversity of SMS, and learning about the lives of his classmates, as an important part of his learning experience. “By 8th grade I had changed and had really grown as a musician and a person.”

Josh’s resume already includes participation in highly selective programs like the Perlman Music Program and Juilliard’s Pre-College Division. In 8th grade he won Kaufman Music Center’s Concerto Competition, and for three years he performed with Kaufman’s youth new music ensemble Face the Music, where he enjoyed having the freedom to experiment with non-traditional contemporary classical music. He also loves playing traditional classical music: Brahms pulls on his heartstrings, but he also likes the deceptive simplicity of Mozart. “Lately I’ve been really getting into more modern classical composers like Bartók and Schoenberg,” he says. “What they’ve done with music is quite amazing.”

Josh notes that SMS offers a more in-depth approach than other pre-college music programs. “At SMS I have theory three times a week,” he explains. “I come to class and we’re having conversations about what composers thought about music, what they might have wanted to bring out in the music. When I approach a piece, when it’s new, I have more to think about. It’s not just a melody.” This fall Josh has his chamber ensemble and large orchestra on Mondays, and on Thursdays he plays with Sinfonia, a smaller advanced orchestra. He also enjoys the music technology class, and the way the instruction allows students to make connections between different subjects.

SMS High School has helped Josh and his peers develop strong artistic voices. “It’s like a training ground for who we want to be,” he says. “I feel like we're forging our own paths.” After years of experimenting, he sees himself and his peers developing as artists. “I’ve overcome my fear of being told what I’m doing is not what somebody or something is looking for. Because of the environment and guidance that SMS has given me, I’m more confident than I would have been. Music has taught me to believe in myself.”

For his senior project this year, Josh is working with a diverse group of classmates who bring many different approaches to music to the table – from classical to jazz and electronic dance music – to plan a performance. He appreciates the training he’s receiving at SMS on the practical aspects of producing a performance, including marketing and entrepreneurship skills. “As we go out into the world as 21st century musicians, I’m excited to learn how to present ourselves,” he says. 

Josh would definitely not have had the opportunity to study music without Opus 118 and Kaufman Music Center, he says. Growing up with a single mom in a family of limited means, he would not have been able to afford private lessons or had access to intensive, in-depth training in music history and theory. “I know from experience that those who can’t pay for it lose such a valuable opportunity,” he says. “Without the opportunities that Kaufman Music Center has given me, I wouldn’t have had other financial options.”

The process of applying to conservatories this year was intense, but Josh felt prepared. “SMS and Kaufman Music Center have been really helpful for me in this process,” he notes, explaining that he and his teacher have set clear goals for his progress over the years. His efforts have paid off: He'll be attending Juilliard beginning this fall!

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