In the world of music, elite performance levels aren’t unlocked simply through technical mastery – they require profound empathy and humility too.

In the refined world of the performing arts, few institutions carry the prestige of The Juilliard School. Acclaimed as the best in its field in the 2021 QS World University Ranking, the New York-based institution – founded in 1905 – has long had an enviable reputation for identifying and developing world-class talent. And few people have done as much to enhance that standing as Dr. Joseph W. Polisi, the School’s president from 1984-2018 and currently its president emeritus and chief China officer.

Polisi has a view of talent that is deeply humanistic and sees the performing artist in the round. The process of understanding and maximizing the elements of talent is not just about technical ability. “At an early age – when musicians are eight or ten years old – you often say that talent is manifested in technique. If an eight-year-old child can play a technically challenging work, then it would be considered extraordinary.”

The Tianjin Juilliard School campus

For college-level auditions, the requirements are different. Before an audition, a student is asked to prepare 18th- and 19th-century works, as well as contemporary music. But full pieces are rarely heard. “A well-versed Juilliard faculty member, who’s experienced in these matters, can pretty much tell if a student is acceptable from a technical standpoint in a couple of minutes.” For some conservatories, that technical expertise might be enough to earn admittance. But, says, Polisi, “It’s a little bit different at Juilliard, because we’re looking for more than established technique or craft.” Of course technique matters: “without it, you can’t achieve anything.” But technique alone is not sufficient for Juilliard applicants: “We’re looking for imagination, risk-taking, the ability to embrace a work and make it their own.”

Juilliard and Tianjin Juilliard students rehearsing on campus insights
Juilliard and Tianjin Juilliard students rehearsing on campus

The technical skills involved may vary between music, dance and drama, but there are similarities. “In general we hope to enroll a young artist who has the potential to integrate a high level of technique with imagination and creativity to develop artistry – which I see as a synonym for communication – and, of course, someone who is also open-minded and excited about the educational process.”

That is a critical differentiator, emphasizes Polisi. “This is not a small point. We often get extraordinary talents who think that everything is done, everything is finished, and there’s really not much more to learn. Well, that does not create a positive learning environment.”

Open to learning

Openness to learning is deep-rooted in Polisi’s life. He grew up in Flushing, Queens, in New York and his father was a very successful professional bassoonist, who played with the New York Philharmonic and NBC Symphony. One of his father’s biggest honours, says Polisi, was to play for Arturo Toscanini, “one of the great conductors of all time.” At that time, Polisi Sr. was principal bassoon in the NBC Symphony. One day, when he arrived for a meeting with Toscanini, he found the great conductor studying the score of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “My father was a little surprised. He knew Toscanini well enough to ask the question, ‘Maestro, you’ve performed this work so many times, why are you studying it again?’ And Toscanini said, ‘Oh my boy. Every time, there’s something new to learn’. By then he was in his late 70s.”

Dedication to improvement and continual learning runs through the best of the performing arts, says Polisi. He recalls visiting the Philadelphia Orchestra shortly before the pandemic. “They were rehearsing Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Obviously, the Beethoven Fifth is a standard work in the repertoire.” What he saw was the “fantastic” conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, working with the orchestra’s members on their bowings. “He was changing bowings with the Philadelphia Orchestra, although they had played the work numerous times! Such a gesture reflected the best standards of the profession.”

Similarly, he recalls, certain high-level professional orchestras have occasionally brought businesspeople to view orchestral rehearsals. “It was explained to them that these were seasoned musicians and entry to the orchestra was highly selective. And the reaction from the visitors invariably was: ‘My goodness, the amount of correction they’re getting even at their stage. This seems quite remarkable. Gee, our environment could probably use this approach as well.’”

This restless drive for excellence is, says Polisi, what he means by “imagination” – and what he calls “the energy to explore further.” What is that? “It’s a mindset and attitude – one that says, ‘It really went well tonight – we’ve got to get it better tomorrow.’” The Juilliard School is known, says Polisi, for “taking the view that ‘we’re as good as our last performance.’”

It is a potent reminder that the work of realizing human possibilities never stops.

The energy to explore further

The true fulfilment of artistic potential is about much more than technique. That audition performance is not the only assessment of candidates for The Juilliard School, says Polisi. “We also have an interview. It’s not a lengthy interview. It’s more of a relaxed, five- to ten-minute chat. There are no right or wrong answers,” he says. “We ask what book interests them. We ask musicians what play they might have seen recently. And if you’re an actor – what symphony or composer is of interest to you? What pop music do you like? We just want to see how they deal with these questions and who they are as people.”

That is important, because “Juilliard is a very focused place. I joke that our intense focus is our greatest attribute and our greatest problem, because many times when you get that focused and you’re practising six to eight hours a day, you don’t quite notice that the Metropolitan Opera is 200 yards to the south or that the Philharmonic performs across the street.”

Being fully rounded goes much deeper, though. During most of his tenure as Juilliard’s president, says Polisi, the School had programmes in which students were asked to go into hospitals, hospices, nursing homes and schools to perform. “Initially I saw this as a type of service opportunity that we would provide to others. What I didn’t realize until I saw it in action was the enormously positive impact these experiences were having on our young artists.”

He tells of a young flautist who was playing in a Manhattan hospice. The patients’ condition meant they could not go to a day room or get out of their beds. “So the nurse told her to play her flute in the corridor and everybody would hear it. Afterwards, the nurse went over and thanked her and said how important and special the experience was. And she also said, ‘I don’t want to upset you, but I want you to know that one of our patients passed away during your performance, and your flute playing was the last sound that person ever heard.’”

The flautist broke down in tears: “not only because of the emotion of the moment, but because she realized that she had a responsibility that was well beyond playing a piece accurately. She had a responsibility to make music in a way that touched other people,” Polisi remarks. That young flautist, he says, went on to become one of the most successful teaching-artists in the US.

This moving story speaks to a vital principle. “The important experience of what I call the ‘artist as citizen’ deals with the responsibility of the artist off stage.” Experiences such as teaching in public schools help make artists better communicators, “not only as articulate spokespersons for music, but as performers. These young people become more empathetic, more giving, more caring.”

Similar points could be made about leadership. Indeed, Duke CE has also run experiences taking executives to hospices, putting them into unfamiliar environments. The leaders who enjoy and benefit most from those experiences seem to have a natural way of learning and growing. In part, we agree, this reflects deep humility.

As Polisi puts it: “Without humility, it’s difficult to achieve many things. First of all, humility allows one to reach out to others in an effort to understand other points of view. Empathy might be another word to explain this experience, where we make an attempt to understand how various individuals view the world, allowing each of us to learn and to constantly re-evaluate our approach to our art and to our society.” It’s why humility is such an essential component of mastery.

Juilliard students at the Lighthouse Guild in New York
Juilliard students at the Lighthouse Guild in New York, which supports the visually impaired

Humility is also something that the performing arts as a whole needs as it addresses areas where its record could be better, including diversity. Polisi points out that on 27 September 2021, New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera performed an opera by a black composer for the first time in its history. “This openness to diverse voices has to continue,” he insists.

Polisi believes in the power of art to empower change. “I feel that artists have a responsibility to give back to their communities, and to make it understood that the arts are an important element of the fabric of American society.” In the face of political division and other types of disruption, he argues, “it can be the arts that provide a new perspective to help us understand our humanity. I’m not saying that the arts will completely solve all our problems, but the mirror that the arts provide to understand our own existence, our own humanity, is a powerful vehicle through which to understand better the human condition.”

International expansion

The reputation of The Juilliard School carries around the world – but just recently, it has taken a more concrete form, with the establishment of The Tianjin Juilliard School. It is an initiative that Polisi, as chief China officer, spearheads.

The move stemmed from conversations about the School’s future in the wake of the Great Recession that hit in 2008. Polisi and the School’s chair, Bruce Kovner, sat down and talked about the global potential for Juilliard. Although a very international school, with about 30% of students coming from outside the US, “we didn’t have a global perspective where we realized activities outside of New York,” Polisi says. “Although consultants advised us to explore traditional commercial branding partnerships, it was decided that Juilliard would pursue what it did best: teaching and the presentation of the performing arts.” The School took those core activities and began to think about how they could plant them elsewhere in the world.

Asia was the natural place to go – and after looking carefully at a number of locations, China emerged as the destination of choice. The School alighted on Tianjin, “a small hamlet of 15 million people south-east of Beijing,” as Polisi amusingly describes it. The School had developed initial plans for its eastward expansion – but conversations within China led to a rethink and a decision to focus on programmes involving collaboration at the pre-college and masters level. “This is a project I’ve been involved with for 14 years now”, says Polisi. The school finally opened in September 2020 – “unbelievably, in the middle of a pandemic” – thanks to China’s success in suppressing Covid.

Polisi and his team have exported and built on Juilliard’s traditional approach to developing more than musical dexterity. “Every one of our students in the Tianjin graduate school has to have an outreach activity. And they also are required to become involved in a course in musical or artistic entrepreneurship. This is quite new for China, and helps to fulfil the idea of the ‘artist as citizen’.”

Local partners have been hugely receptive to this approach. “Our Chinese partners have just been spectacular,” enthuses Polisi. It’s a word that applies to the School’s new home, developed with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. And it is a word that applies to the record of The Juilliard School in recognizing and pushing the boundaries of human possibilities.

We in the business community could learn a lot from them regarding how to identify high potential talent. Yes, technical skills are fundamental. However, the real differentiator is finding people who couple the fundamentals with creativity and imagination: people who possess the artistry to connect with others and have true impact, and still have the desire to learn and continuously improve. The quest to realize our greatest possibilities, in music and business, goes on.