PROVIDENCE — As Rhode Island’s Catholic high school graduates embark on the next step of their education, many will fan out across the country, attending colleges and universities from coast to coast. Some may even have the chance to study abroad over the next four years, though for Nathan Schneider, a recent graduate of The Prout School, a truly unique opportunity awaits. Schneider, an organist, will begin his studies in October at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, a conservatory in Rome and one of a handful of institutions of higher education connected with the Holy See.
As he explained during an interview in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in June, Schneider has a long history with music but a much shorter history with the organ, an instrument he has played for only a year and a half. Sitting beside the instrument where he learned to play, he recalled the early exposure to music that would eventually lead him to pursue his dream in Rome.
“I was always pulled toward music, but it was always, how do you make it work? How do you make a career out of it?”
His love of music began during childhood, when his mother, Kelly, responded to an ad for a used piano in the local newspaper and drove an hour into the Berkshires with her husband, Steven, to bring it home. She recalled how her son used to pick out the melodies to nursery rhymes on the piano, banging out tunes on the worn-out keys.
“I knew there was a musical gift in him,” she said.
After moving to Rhode Island, Schneider took piano lessons at South Kingstown’s Knapp School of Music and played saxophone in the middle school band. He arrived at The Prout School in fall of 2013, the same year that Philip Faraone, an organist at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, took a position as religion teacher and music director. It was Faraone who recommended Schneider pursue more advanced studies in piano and offered to teach him to play the organ.
“I heard him playing the piano, so I could hear the potential,” he said.
During his junior year, Schneider began receiving lessons on the cathedral organ from Faraone on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. A few months later, he traveled to Italy as a member of The Prout School choir to perform at some of the world’s most historic churches, including St. Peter’s Basilica, the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Singing at the famous churches, he said, broadened his view of what he could do in music, but it broadened his view in another way as well. Raised as a Unitarian Universalist, he’d had little exposure to the Catholic faith or its liturgical celebrations prior to attending Prout.
“I was never introduced to Catholicism before coming to Prout. My freshman year it was a new world to me,” he said.
On June 25, 2016, Schneider converted to Catholicism and received his sacraments in the chapel of the cathedral residence. His music teacher, Faraone, served as his godfather, a fitting choice for a young man who came to the faith largely through his experience of liturgical music. 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 inseparable.
“They’re completely intertwined. I think music without any faith would be pointless, really,” he 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.”
During his senior year, Schneider continued to practice the organ at the cathedral that was now his home parish, sometimes with a small audience as individuals came and went between Masses for silent prayer. He applied and was accepted to his top three choices of music conservatories in the United States – the Cleveland Institute of Music, Oberlin Conservatory and the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University – but something was calling him back to Europe.
“I said to my mom, maybe we should look internationally. We started researching because we had no idea,” he said.
During the second half of his senior year, he returned to Rome with his father and auditioned with Osvaldo Guidotti, a renowned organist and music director at the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. Guidotti recommended he apply to the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music and offered Schneider a position as organ assistant when he returned to Vatican, was established in 1910 by Pope Pius X and continues as the official music school connected with the Holy See.
After a brief visit to the campus and the completion of his application materials – including a letter of recommendation from Bishop Thomas J. Tobin – Schneider had made his decision. He departed for Rome on July 1 to begin an Italian language immersion program, leaving behind his supportive family and a house that would become much quieter after he was gone.
“I told him he has to record his practices at least once per week because he used to play in our house three, four hours a day,” said Kelly.
Schneider hopes to someday compose his own music, offering his own contribution to the musical tradition that so strongly influenced his own life. For a young convert whose path to Rome was not always clear, the faith and love of music that revealed his calling will remain as guiding principles as he continues his journey far from home.
“I’ve been really lucky and blessed. The chances of having Mr. Faraone come to Prout at the same time and also [be] organist at the cathedral. I don’t think it was coincidence,” he said.