Sierra Lutheran alum accepted to The Juilliard School |

Sierra Lutheran alum accepted to The Juilliard School

Brian Underwood
Special to the Nevada Appeal

To be clear, Nick Marsella hasn’t actually spent any time working in a mail room or pushing a mail cart up the corridors of America’s corporate castles.

However, the Sierra Lutheran High School graduate is very fluent when it comes to recounting a relevant retail experience he recently had, and the value of where stocking, clerking, and cleaning can lead.

And whereas the fantasies of the next Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, and Tim Cook often include visions of the penthouse corner office overlooking the New York skyline pondering earnings reports and stock prices, for Marsella, though the aspiration has always been more ethereal, even heavenly, with music as his muse.

Following a long four-year journey that took him from sleeping on a cot in a mice-infested basement in Staten Island while working in The Juilliard School Bookstore, Marsella is now walking through the front door of what is roundly regarded as the world’s most famous music school. With his own books — and sheet music.

Last month, Marsella began his master’s degree in composition at The Juilliard School. A paragon for the world’s best composers, Marsella is following in the steps of such legendary composers as John Williams, Richard Rogers, Philip Glass and scores of others.

“After working in the bookstore for four years and entering the school through the back door every day for that amount of time, I like to enter the school via the front entrance at least once per day so that I can have that realization on a regular basis,” Marsella said between classes recently when contemplating the profundity of where he finds himself.

“That might sound bizarre, but I find it helpful to put context to what I am doing by reminding myself of where I am and how many history-makers walked through those doors before me.”

The challenging rigor associated with The Juilliard School begins with the arduous application process. For composition students, it includes pre-screening through the submission of composed music, which has been performed by musicians, recorded and sent as a coherent package to the school.

For the fortunate few whose work advances beyond the pre-screening process, a comprehensive exam and intensive one-one-one interviews with five faculty members, who have the final say on admission, follows.

“One of the biggest points they made at orientation was, ‘No, we did not choose you by accident. You are not an imposter here. Trust us, we know what we’re doing,’ Marsella explained about the selection process, and about being surrounded by the world’s best young composers.

“I was surprised to find that almost everyone I talked to in my first week also struggled with imposter syndrome at some level like I did. It is an incredibly inspiring place because there is an acknowledgement from everyone that we are all in this together to some extent. I think they specifically find people who recognize that.”

The Carson City native’s story resembles a modern-day Horatio Alger novel, shining a light on the virtue of hard work and perseverance. And while the door to The Juilliard School is highly selective, for Marsella there is the narrower door of his Christian faith that guides his path.

“Composing music has everything to do with other people,” Marsella explained. “I believe there is no greater end goal for it than this, aside from bringing glory to God, which this does as a result.

“What appeals to me most about this craft is that I have the opportunity to be a catalyst for two or more human beings to unite and accomplish something incredible together. They may not speak the same language, worship the same God, or even come from the same countries, but with music they are suddenly able to operate in complete unity with a shared goal.”

Marsella’s faith was particularly instrumental in the intervening years after receiving his bachelor’s degree in music composition from William Jessup University. Beginning with the cultural jump from rural Northern Nevada to the Big Apple, to the harsh realities of making his way in an uber-competitive field in one of the world’s most demanding markets, Marsella resolutely endured all obstacles thrown at him to study and create at the highest level.

“Moving to New York was always due in part to me wanting to be a Juilliard student,” Marsella stated. “ If I was going to seek training in the craft I chose to invest my life into, I wanted to seek training from the best.

“With no friends or family in the city, my first place was a cot on the floor of a basement in a house on the northern part of Staten Island,” he recounted. “(it) was owned by a very kind Indian family, but they hardly spoke any English. This made communicating with them very difficult. It didn’t have a kitchen, only a microwave and a sink. I was literally sleeping on linoleum floors, eating canned chili, and coming home to mice scattering into the walls of my room.”

And as if the spartan living conditions were not enough, there was the commute.

“(At first) I had a part-time retail position in Times Square, which entailed a commute of about an hour and a half,” Marsell said. “In order to get there, I would take the bus around the island to the Staten Island Ferry, which would take me across the water to the docks in Manhattan, where I would transfer to the subway to head into into Times Square.

“After moving to Queens and then living on a friends couch in East Harlem, by God’s grace, I live in the East Village for less than what I was paying to live in that basement room.”

Firmly entrenched in his craft and study under the mentorship of Pulitzer Prize winning composer Melinda Wagner, the 2011 Sierra Lutheran graduate is concurrently developing his body of work while mentoring young prodigies.

“Right now, I am in the process of completing a string quartet for a brand new group called Leadlights here in the city,” Marsella continued. “This is particularly exciting because, pending grant approval, it will likely be my first paid commission as a professional composer.

“I also have one 6-year-old composition student whose family is from Tokyo. They are helping me learn their language so that I might one day work more closely with traditional instrumentalists in Japan.”

Where the road leads next for this rising musical artist is less a concern for him as it is to follow the call he hears, and to meet and collaborate with other artists.

“The value of my degree and work is not represented in the job title it qualifies me for, as it is with other fields,” Marsella explained. “My education equips me to do what I know I am called to do, but it more importantly unlocks the network of people I need to actually see it through to the end.

“Even before being admitted to Juilliard, my degree choice and body of work has afforded me the opportunity to live and work with musicians in Tokyo, to study with living students of Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and to meet incredible professionals in other fields from all over the world. Even now, I am in the process of starting a business and I hope to continue to establish myself as a professional composer.”

The postlude Marsella offers for where he and many young professionals find themselves early in their careers is in valuing the struggle.

“Working in the bookstore for four years was probably the single most formative thing that lead to me becoming a student at Juilliard,” Marsella concluded. “A mentor once told me that “being around” was one of the most powerful things you can do to become part of a community.

“When I landed in New York, I knew that I wanted a job there, no matter how part-time or how little it paid. His advice was true, as I did have the opportunity to befriend the people there, but little did I know that this job would ultimately become the blessing that exponentially provided what I needed to prepare for the graduate program.

“It wasn’t a glamorous or high-paying job, but it helped me learn how to be patiently persistent.”

To all “mail room” staff, wherever you might be…