KINGSTON, R.I. — Studying these past three years at the Vatican’s music conservatory pierced deep in his soul a response to faith that is very emotional, says soon-to-be graduate Nathan Schneider of Kingston.
“My faith drives me to music and my music drives me to my faith,” said this nearly 21-year-old.
Two intertwined passions have enraptured and captured his dedication as he explored them at the Vatican’s Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra, known as the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome.
“The complexity in music as well as the unexplainable beauty there is in music that just provides a sense of awe and really strengthens my faith,” the 2017 Prout School graduate said about what drives his reciprocal desires in faith and music.
There’s another influence, too.
Twists and turns and connections and opportunities came to a young boy chasing a promise in music that now couples with his strong religious faith as young man braiding both into a self-made destiny to inspire joy and spirituality in others.
As perhaps the first Rhode Islander wanting to study at the Pontifical Institute, he needed Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin’s endorsement. Three years later, the bishop is proud of giving that okay.
“Nathan is an outstanding young man with very special talent,” Tobin said in a statement to The Independent.
“I have no doubt that his interest in liturgical music will be a blessing for the church for many years to come. The church certainly has a great need for talented and faithful musicians to assist us when we gather for worship and prayer,” he said.
Tobin is allowing him to take his final recital exam at the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Paul in Providence on June 25 and it will be broadcast live to his professors at the Vatican conservatory.
Schneider’s journey to link faith and music was never calculated at the beginning.
The twists and turns and connections and opportunities — some say delivered by a higher order and not just fate — brought unique experiences propelling him and his passions into a life-focused mission.
Early Musical Talent
“I started playing the piano when I was very young and at one point wanted to quit and my mother said, ‘No you’re not,’ and that sealed my connection to music,” said Schneider recently.
His early piano playing started when he was about 7 or 8 years old, he said. In one twist — finding a good used piano — his mother, Kelly, and father, Steven, had to drive more than hour away to get one that fit the need. She said recently that she always felt he had a musical gift.
The young boy continued his interest in music while at the Curtis Corner Middle School and then later at Prout where he spent his high school years. While there he took piano lessons and enjoyed music in other forms, including choir singing and band.
But fate also brought him a connection or two that would shape his future.
Grace Urrico of Westerly became his high school piano teacher. “I can’t understate her role in my earlier formation as well,” he said recently, looking back.
“She really taught me to focus down on my piano technique and under her I must say I learned so much,” he added.
Another connection and its timing were even more decisive for charting the path not only in music, but in the discovery of a new faith and a new religion.
“It was there where I met Mr. Faraone and he made all the difference,” Schneider said about his music and religion teacher, Philip Faraone, who has been the organist for more than 20 years of the R.C. Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence and also recommended Urrico.
Schneider also began his years at Prout at the same time Faraone started at the school.
“I said he has some talent,” recalled Faraone, who also brought a twist to the life of the very sensitive piano-playing young boy turning musician.
Faraone encouraged piano, but also introduced the more powerful sounding pipe organ in the context of a religious rite invoking a glorious God, a cavernous cathedral and becoming a significant sage to the teenager.
Faraone offered – and Schneider accepted – private lessons on 6,235 pipe organ at the rock of Catholic presence in Rhode Island, the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.
Looking at this twist and connection, Schneider once explained in an interview, “My relationship with Catholicism changed immensely at Prout, and this is really because of Mr. Faraone.”
“For me,” he revealed recently in more detail, “Mr. Faraone perfectly intertwined music and faith, which was very inspiring. We were singing an a cappella concert in St. Patrick’s Cathedral (in New York City) and we had gotten to a piece “Lift Thine Eyes” by Mendelssohn.”
“So, following the text of the music, I quite literally lifted my eyes and looked to the back of the cathedral above the organ in the choir loft and saw a beautiful purple rose window,” he said.
“The music matched with the breathtaking rose window and the ambiance of St. Patrick’s Cathedral gave me a strange feeling of almost a type of enhanced clarity, bliss, and sense of wonder. That moment was very impactful for me. I’ll never forget it,” he said about music engaging him emotionally with the words he also sings.
Then a turn for opportunity comes. There’s a chance to tour – with Faraone and other classmates – to Italy while in high school and perform in some major basilicas. These included Santa Maria Maggiore, the largest church in the world dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and Basilica di San Marco in Venezia.
“These experiences were really eye opening for me. We also celebrated Mass inside St. Peter’s Basilica at St. John Paul II’s tomb,” he said.
For Schneider, who remembers feeling called to Catholicism as he sat listening to evening vespers sung at St. Peter’s Basilica, faith and its musical expression are now inseparable, he said.
“I think music without any faith would be pointless, really,” he once told Rhode Island Catholic. “In its purest form, it’s used to serve the liturgy, so it’s very humbling to be a part of that.”
Faraone calls the deepening of Schneider’s faith with music getting “zapped.”
“He went to Rome and he got zapped. The Holy Spirit zapped him, you could say. He felt the Holy Spirit tugging at him,” the teacher, a devout Catholic, offered.
This led to Schneider to becoming a Catholic in June 2016.
His Unitarian Universalist mother, Kelly, said she watched Faraone nurture and develop her son’s faith and musical abilities.
“Nathan and Philip had an organic connection,” she said. “When Nathan traveled with The Prout School choir to Rome, Florence and Venice, and sang in some of the most sacred religious churches in the world, I knew it had changed Nathan during his junior year,” she said
After receiving his first sacraments in the tradition of the Catholic religion, Schneider became a member of the cathedral’s parish where he continued his organ studies with Faraone and also sang in the church choir.
Being there in the majesty of the Catholic world resonated with a growing interest in the organ. “It’s really cool and I was really fascinated with it. The sound – it captures your attention. It kind of smacks you right in the face and it can be soft, too,” he said.
“It’s more of a communal instrument and that is what faith and church are all about — bringing people together,” he added.
“To put these two infinite concepts of faith and music together is really quite a beautiful thing. And to me they work in harmony. So, in order to combine these two things, I will always make it a priority to play in church for the Mass,” he said.
He said that studying and performing music in a faith-based way will be a life-long endeavor.
“It’s a responsibility that’s been ‘bestowed’ upon me to become as competent in music as I can in order to give thanks to my Creator. In that regard, it seems like the least I can do,” he said.
Before going to the Vatican school, he looked at top-notch conservatories both in the United States and overseas, but the connection to the organ, sacred music, his new-found religion and Old World Europe drew him back to Rome and the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music.
Twists and turns and connections and opportunities produced again a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Schneider.
The Vatican institute was established in 1910 by Pope Pius X and continues as the official music school connected with the Holy See. It also has deepened his love for the organ and the church, he said.
The Next Turn - and Connection
As connections in this young man’s life happen, a monk – Theodore Flury - in Zurich, Switzerland, came into his world in the last three years. The monk is a professor at the school teaching organ music and composition as well as fostering deeper religious understandings.
“Flury has cemented in me my love for music and the church and we can talk for hours about musical ideas and societal issues and the church,” he said.
In turn, his mentor, offered some insight about the student.
“His desire to discover leads him to work in difficult and complex compositions in a very short time. He is able to immediately incorporate my suggestions for interpretation, but never blindly,” the monk said.
“He must first be convinced of it, and he often offers his personal point of view, always reasonable,” said Flury, also titular organist of the Benedictine Abbey of Einsiedeln, Switzerland.
When Schneider had to leave Rome in March due to the Coronavirus plaguing nearly all of Italy and return to Rhode Island, the monk continued his guidance and teaching through Skype, and Faraone picked up on-site with helping him practice on the cathedral organ.
Like Faraone, Flury became an inspiration for the next step after the Vatican conservatory. Schneider will be attending graduate school in Zurich at the University of the Arts so that he can both broaden his repertoire of abilities and continue to work with Flury.
In graduate school, Schneider said, he will be able to work with new professors and find those opportunities - once more - to connect with other musicians and study with different masters, he said.
“It’s all about gaining new experiences and new perspectives,” he said.
Schneider’s father, Steven, a doctor at South County Hospital, said, “For me it was initially a very surreal experience seeing what he does.” He’s not only proud of his son’s use of opportunities, but sees a pattern in the decisions.
“I’d like to think the thing he’s learned the most from me is that if you have a passion for something, like I did and do for medicine, and you put in the work and practice and not give up, you can achieve your dreams and goals,” he said.
“Nate’s still in the early stages of his career and it’s exciting to see where his journey takes him. He’s always had and always will have mine and Kelly’s full support,” he said.
Nathan Schneider is well aware of that connection to his underlying success and sense of purpose in life.
“Overall, I’ve been extremely blessed in my life to be raised in the loving and accepting family I was born into and to have had such excellent mentors in all aspects of my life,” he said.
As he frequently does, though, he also turned once more to the role of Philip Faraone, who he also asked to be his godfather when baptized a Catholic.
“We can talk for hours about musical ideas and societal issues and the church as well,” he said about these important topics between he and his mentors. He also shares them with his Italian girlfriend, Dafne, a first-year medical student, he said.
“She does support me in my career, she plays the piano quite well herself. She, like the majority of Italians, is Catholic. We share many views on the world, but we do have some distinct differences,” he said.
As he explores the similarities and contradictions comparing his views with others, he remains clear, however, in his career plans discussed three years ago in the South County Life magazine interview.
“In 10 years, I would like to have my own choir in a large church and to play the organ in a large church as well. I am also very interested in composition and in orchestral conducting,” he said.
The compass still points in that direction, he added, but acknowledged that the needle is helped by the twists and turns and connections and opportunities he has met. Faraone also sees a larger hand in the process.
“It’s not you who chooses God, but that he calls you. Every day we say, yes, yes, yes. It’s a response to a call. Nathan was and is responding to a call within him,” the mentor said.