For more than 90 years, Curtis students have attended school to practice music and to study.

But when they were not in lessons, rehearsals, a practice room, or a classroom, how did they spend their time? Where did they live? What did they do in their leisure hours? And how much did these everyday aspects of student life change over the years? This archival exhibit provides a glimpse into the daily lives of Curtis students through the decades, based on photographs and archival materials donated by alumni to the Curtis Archives, as well as recollections from faculty and alumni that were shared in oral histories.

Curtis Before the War

During the school’s first decades, student life was determined to a great degree by the founder’s personal involvement with the school. Although tuition was free from 1928, many students—often from immigrant backgrounds—were financially strained. Mary Louise Curtis Bok arranged for daily meals in a cafeteria, instituted the weekly tea and annual holiday party, and financed summer retreats for students to continue their studies with Curtis faculty. When she entered the Common Room, students were expected to stand up to show respect.

The War years through the 1950s

After the Great Depression Curtis director Efrem Zimbalist introduced a period of austerity—cutting programs, reducing the number of faculty and students, and selling the building at 1720 Locust Street (which put an end to the cafeteria). During the war years 35 students were drafted, fifteen of whom returned to Curtis. (Read more about student life in the 1940s and view film excerpts). Students socialized in the library, other rooms in the basement, or in their rented rooms close to Curtis.

The 1960s and 1970s

Curtis students were well aware of the sweeping changes that took hold on American campuses in the 1960s. In the 1969–70 school year, together with students from other Philadelphia music schools, they voiced their opposition against the Vietnam War and the invasion of Cambodia with an outdoor performance of Mahler’s First Symphony on Rittenhouse Square. As for changes in Curtis itself, they petitioned for a reprenentative student counselor and for a say in the selection of chamber music, an element of the curriculum which had thrived under Director Rudolf Serkin. Despite these changes, the school largely remained the small island of musical study that it had always been.

From the 1980s to the present

Under the directorship of Gary Graffman from 1986 through 2006, major changes affected student life. From 1988 students were allowed to take classes at the University of Pennsylvania, while the accreditation of Curtis in 1993 made students eligible for federal student aid.  Students became more active in a decreasingly insular school, a shift fostered, among other things, by Graffman instituting an open-door policy which encouraged students to visit during regular hours. After Graffman was succeeded by Roberto Díaz in 2006, opportunities for students continued to evolve. From a student-life perspective the most visible change in recent years has been the opening of Lenfest Hall in 2011, which provides housing for half the student body and full food service.

We need your help!

By definition, archival collections contain few tangible relics of student life. The Curtis Archives seeks personal photographs, memorabilia, and recollections of alumni to supplement our records. Find out how you can help!

With thanks to the following people for donating materials, identifying individuals, and providing information and recollections in oral histories and personal exchanges:
(In order of graduation) Eleanor Sokoloff (Piano ’38), Anshel Brusilow (Violin ’43), Gary Graffman (Piano ’46), Seymour Lipkin (Piano ’47), Burton Fine (Violin ’48), Edith Evans Frumin (Voice ’48), Joseph Rezits (Piano ’48), Allison Nelson Loebbaka (Piano’49), Barbara Cooper Moskow (Voice ’50), Joseph Silverstein (Violin’50), Anthony Checchia (Bassoon’51), Michael Tree (Violin ’55), Frances Steiner (Cello ’56), Diana Steiner Dickstein (Violin ’57), Edmund Moore (Tuba ’60), Michi Ishikawa Tashjian (Piano ’61), W. Spencer Crockett (Bassoon ’61), Gary Logsdon (Viola ’72), Judith Serkin (Cello ’73), Lucy Chapman (Violin ’74), Judy Geist (Viola ’74), Cynthia Raim (Piano ’77), Martha Hitchins (Timpani and Percussion ’78), Jennifer Higdon (Composition ’88), Paul Bryan (Trombone ’93), Steven Copes (Violin ’94), and Greg Raden (Clarinet ’94); and current students Adé Williams (Violin), Erika Gray (Viola), and Henry Woolf (Flute).