K-8 About & FAQs

Special Music School/M. 859 is a K-12 New York City public school that provides intensive music education during the school day, including fully-funded instrument lessons, music classes and ensembles along with academics.

Special Music School at Kaufman Music Center (P.S. 859) is the first and only public school in the United States that combines a full academic program with performance-oriented music training during the regular school day starting in Kindergarten. The music program includes private instrumental lessons and classes in music theory, history and chorus. The academic program emphasizes an integrated learning approach that develops problem-solving skills through hands-on cooperative learning experiences. The dedicated staff and faculty are committed to helping each child realize his/her full potential musically, academically, and socially.

Founded in 1996, Special Music School is a unique public/private partnership between Kaufman Music Center, which is responsible for the music program and provides each student with a unique and robust music program, and the New York City Department of Education, which provides the academic program. The music program is fully funded by Kaufman Music Center through private contributions. As with all public schools, tuition is free to residents of the residents of the five boroughs of New York City. The K-8 program is located at Kaufman Music Center, 129 W. 67th St. in Manhattan.


Special Music School was inspired by the distinguished pianist and educator Vladimir Feltsman, who, along with Kaufman Music Center Founder and Executive Director Emeritus Lydia Kontos, was instrumental in establishing the school as a partnership between Kaufman Music Center and the New York City Department of Education. The School began in 1996. In 2013, Special Music School High School opened. We are very proud to be celebrating 25 years of transforming lives through music at Special Music School this year!

K-8 FAQs

The teachers at Special Music School expect the students to achieve on a high level in both academics and music.  Because of the dual focus of the curriculum, students and their parents should be prepared to work longer and harder towards meeting the educational goals.  Successful continuation at the school is contingent upon consistent progress in all elements of the curriculum, including music classes such as music theory and chorus.

Parental support is essential. This support includes setting daily time aside to monitor and supervise music practice in addition to providing guidance on academic and music homework assignments. A music background on the part of either parent is not necessary.

Q: What do you look for when you seek children who are musically gifted?
A: We look for many things, including accurate pitch, good rhythm, musical memory and engagement in music.

Q: My child hasn't had any formal musical training. Can we still apply?
A: For grades K–1, yes; one of our goals is to offer our training to every gifted child, regardless of prior training. For grades 2 and up, we ask every child to audition on an instrument. For grades 4 and up, applicants also take a theory placement test to ensure they can keep up with their returning peers.

Q: I don't live in school district 3. Is my child eligible to apply for the school?
A: Yes. Any student living within the five boroughs of New York City is eligible.

Q: Does Special Music School have a high school?
A: Yes. SMS expanded into the high school grades in 2013. Special Music School High School is located at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Educational Complex on Amsterdam Ave. between 65th and 66th Streets.

Q: If my child applied the previous year and did not get accepted, is his/her application valid for the following year?
A: Applications for Special Music School must be completed and filed for each year that the child applies.

Q: Can you describe the assessment process?

A: Grades K–1:

The first round of assessment features two different activities which take place on the same day. In small groups, children take a 25-minute music "class" in which they are asked to sing, clap and move to music. In addition, each child is given a short, one-on-one individual assessment.

Children who score above a certain level on these two tests are called back for a lengthier individual assessment, after which they will be either accepted or not accepted to the school, or placed on a "delayed decision" list. Children on the "delayed decision" list may be asked to re-test toward the end of the assessment process.

Children scoring below a certain level on the first round of tests will not be asked to continue. While we recognize that there are many factors that may affect a child's performance on a given day, and that children who are not recommended for advancement to the next level may be deeply talented, it is our policy not to re-test children at any level except in truly exceptional circumstances.

Grades 2 and up:

Candidates for the upper grades will be asked to play 3 or 4 pieces on their instrument and to play scales and arpeggios. They will also be asked to take a written theory test, a short ear-training test involving singing and a short sight-singing test. Audition requirements vary according to the grade level, so feel free to contact us to discuss auditions.

Q: My child is not playing at the level of pieces listed in the Sample Repertoire List. Should I still apply?
A: Of course! We look for many qualities in our students, not just their current playing level.

Q: My child does not speak English. Can they still participate in the assessment process?
A: We encourage students of all backgrounds to apply. The group assessment for grades K-2 is designed to be non-verbal and many children who do not speak English do very well. The individual assessment is more language based but will be given less consideration for children who do not speak English. However, assessments will ONLY be given in English. There are no exceptions.