Alec Holcomb claims that he’s not very good at the popular video game “Guitar Hero.” That’s hard to believe, though. The 14-year-old is an accomplished guitarist who has already won two competitions.
“It just takes a lot of hard work to be great at an instrument,” Alec says. “You have to really focus on how you’re playing. You have to be scientific about it and make sure you can overcome each little obstacle.”
Alec is a Myra Jackson Blair Scholar at Blair, where he has been studying with Associate Professor John Johns for two years. He started playing when he was 7 and became serious about it at age 10.
“He’s a phenomenal talent because of his age,” Johns says. “He’s only 14, and he’s playing music that’s generally not played until you get much older. I have music majors who aren’t playing some of Alec’s repertoire.”
The Myra Jackson Blair Senior Scholarships nurture young talent like Alec. The funds are awarded to pre-college students in grades 7–12 on the basis of their talent and ability. Each scholarship recipient receives private lessons. They also take a music theory course and a music history course—all at no charge. Roland Schneller, Chancellor’s Professor of Piano, oversees the program which currently funds about 40 students. The value of each scholarship is $2,500 to $3,000.
“You would be amazed at the level of some of our junior and senior high students,” Schneller says. “And at our last auditions, there were half a dozen students that just blew us away. The maturity level of some of these teenagers is incredible. I never played at that level at that age.”
Blair also offers need-based pre-college scholarships to students in grades 3–12, namely the Valere Blair Potter Scholarships. In all, close to 200 Blair pre-college students are on scholarship.
“We try to attract kids who can’t afford to come to Blair,” Schneller says. “We have kids who come from schools where music isn’t cool. Then they come to Blair and see all the other kids playing the piano and carrying their instruments, and they feel like they’re part of something.”
The sense of belonging is something that Alec has noticed about Blair as well.
“It’s really nice being here because there are other people in the same boat as you,” he says. “They understand what it is to work at an instrument. It’s just fun to walk down the hallways and hear and see all the different instruments playing.”
Many of Blair’s pre-college scholarship students have gone on to careers in music, whether it be playing or teaching. However, a musical career is not necessarily the goal, according to Schneller.
“If a student can feel the excitement of what it is to make beautiful music, that’s a success story,”
Like all teenagers, Alec isn’t sure what the future holds.
“I don’t know yet where the guitar will take me,” he says. “But I know that if I keep working at it, it will take me pretty far.”
© 2016 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: John Russell