An opportunity of a lifetime awaits University of Cape Town (UCT) alumna and musician Siyasanga Charles. The trombonist, whose love for jazz music is second to none, is on her way to the Big Apple. There she will start her master’s in music at The Juilliard School – one of the world’s most prestigious performing arts schools. And she has one message for her fellow African artists: “If I can do it, so can you. Apply, apply, apply.”
Charles graduated from UCT with her honours in music, majoring in jazz trombone performance (with distinction) in 2013. In 2014 she started her master’s and had high hopes of similar success. But after her mother’s sudden passing, Charles decided to take a break from the books and focus on her music. She maintained close ties with UCT and stayed on as a member of the UCT Big Band, the UCT Symphony Orchestra and Wind Ensemble, and the university’s Alumni Big Band.
“After my mother’s passing, I needed a bit of a break to heal, and I decided to go on an international tour with Matilda the Musical. It was an unforgettable experience and such big fun,” she said.
An unfinished application
Because a master’s in music had long been part of her life’s plan, and studying at Juilliard had always been her dream, in September 2021 Charles decided to put her best foot forward and get cracking on her application. But thanks to a few distractions, she said she didn’t get around to completing the process. While an unfinished application means very little to most institutions and often goes straight to the recycle bin, it was a bit different this time.
“The head of jazz studies noticed in the backend that I had not completed my application and he reached out to me.”
“The head of jazz studies noticed in the backend that I had not completed my application and he reached out to me. He encouraged me to complete the pre-screening audition and graciously extended the submission deadline,” she said.
And just like that, Charles’ life changed in the blink of an eye. In January 2022 she received word that her online application was successful, and the school invited her to attend a live audition in New York City. She said the audition process comprised two rigorous performance rounds, which she completed with ease, and in February an email announcing her successful outcome landed in her inbox.
“To be honest, I always thought that Juilliard was out of my league. As a kid I used to hear about the school in Hollywood movies. One of the jazz greats Miles Davis studied there during his youth, so there has always been an air of prestige around the school,” she said. “I didn’t think I had what it took to make it in there. But I decided to take the chance. I am thrilled it has all worked out, even though I wasn’t expecting it to.”
To her fellow African artists with extraordinary talent who have always dreamed of studying at Juilliard, Charles has a few words of advice: “It is possible to pursue your dreams, so don’t let anything stand in your way.” She advised current and aspiring South African and African musicians, dancers, actors and actresses to be deliberate about their dreams and to go out there and make it happen.
But don’t be fooled, Charles added – an international application process of this kind can be an arduous task. It involves loads of red tape and can take hours of research to complete. But with the right attitude, anything is possible. She encouraged artists to make work of their dreams and to start by building a network of industry friends all over the world, and to connect regularly through global exchange programmes and via social media. This, she said, has helped her to get her foot in the door.
“Don’t second-guess yourself, be resourceful and go for it. Make an effort to be part of the global village and connect with like-minded people. Above everything, take your craft seriously, nurture it and practise consistently. In the end, someone will notice your hard work and invest in you,” Charles said.
As Charles prepares for her first day at Juilliard on 1 September, she said she is both excited and nervous about the journey that awaits her. A tuition scholarship means that the cost of her academic programme has been covered. However, she needs to foot the bill for her accommodation, living costs, travel and her student visa.
“That is quite a bit of money,” she said with a chuckle. “But I’ve applied for a few scholarships and await the outcome. I’ve made a concerted effort not to stress too much. I’ve made it this far and I’m positive the rest will fall into place.”
“It’s going to be a while till I experience a lovely hot summer again because we’re already in autumn here in South Africa.”
Meanwhile, Charles said she is agonising on what to pack in her suitcase. It will be fall (autumn) in the United States in September and the cold, wet and snowy winter would approach at a rapid speed. So, a suitcase laden with jerseys, scarves and boots seems like a good idea.
“It’s going to be a while till I experience a lovely hot summer again because we’re already in autumn here in South Africa. But I am excited about this adventure,” she said.
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