The role of the summer classical music intensive in the education of its students

By Emily Wright | From the March/April 2020 issue of Strings Magazine

Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, was working with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra while they were in Aspen for a brief residency. During rehearsal, he polled the group, asking musicians who had attended Aspen to stand. Nearly half of the ensemble stood up. 

Alan Fletcher
Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School

A survey of career trajectories of students who participate in intensive classical summer programs—Aspen, Bowdoin, Idyllwild, Meadowmount, Music Academy of the West, Tanglewood, and Taos, to name a few—shows a demonstrable tendency toward placement at or near the top of their chosen field. And while it is possible to successfully navigate the transition from earnest student to successful professional musician without attending an elite summer intensive, the advantages that come from doing so are substantial and undeniable.

Aspen's Benedict Music Tent
Aspen’s Benedict Music tent provides a relaxing atmosphere

That these types of programs put students in contact with celebrated faculty and give them the space and time to focus exclusively on their music is well documented. But, as so many alumni have mentioned, there is also the sense that these are places where young musicians grow up, returning again and again not only as serious string players, but as adolescents finding their way to adulthood. Each program supports this growth in its own way, and thus it is difficult to generalize on the “summer-intensive experience” as a whole, but Meadowmount, Aspen, and Idyllwild Arts serve as good examples of how long-lasting the effects of these kinds of programs can be on the overall career trajectories of their students. 

Meadowmount practice sessions often take place outdoors on the upstate New York campus

Meadowmount School: Distraction-Free Focus 

Meadowmount founder Ivan Galamian’s legacy among string players is unavoidable: His students became some of the most prolific teachers and performers of the 20th century, their students going on just as frequently to perform as soloists, holding scores of faculty and orchestral positions. If his ingenious scale system is a reflection of his meticulous approach to technique and practice, the Meadowmount School is the physical embodiment of it. The relative remoteness of the upstate New York campus is intentional; there is little to distract students from the rigorous schedule: five hours compulsory practice for students under eighteen—50 minutes of playing, ten minutes of reflection, six days a week. This enforced consistency may not always be popular with students, says school director Eric Larsen, but it is essential to cultivate the work ethic at the center of Galamian’s philosophy.

Meadowmount’s dining hall retains the cabin-like feel of its lodgings

I caught up with Meadowmount alumna Shannon Lee on a layover between flights, her international competition and performance career in full swing. For her, the fact that Meadowmount hasn’t changed much over the years is part of its appeal. “It’s like going back in time, because you hear old stories about the place; teachers might reminisce about which cabin they stayed in, where they had their lessons, great performances they witnessed in that hall. We had very little phone reception or WiFi, and because the campus is not particularly efficient—all the buildings are along one straight, long path—you’re often walking back and forth, just taking in the natural surroundings. It was a good place to focus and create your own distractions and fun, just spending time with the other people there and sharing the unique environment.” For serious students, a few weeks away from the churn of daily life gives them a unique souvenir to bring home: a greater ability to focus.

Meadowmount Hike
Meadowmount’s surroundings are perfect for hiking

While the faculty overflows with brilliance (counting James Ehnes, Lynn Harrell, Hans Jorgen Jensen, and Jeffrey Solow among its ranks), every person interviewed agreed: the students find inspiration mostly in each other. Ehnes, a Meadowmount alum himself, says, “Perhaps the most special thing about Meadowmount is the way it brings young people together and inspires them to be the best versions of themselves. Often, this is the first chance for these young musicians to be surrounded by peers that share their passions.” More than just motivation, finding a like-minded social group can make the turbulence of coming of age a little less buffeting.


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Student practices piano at Meadowmount
Students can practice piano in empty concert halls at Meadowmount

In addition to private lessons, chamber coaching, and master classes, students can take orchestral audition, entrepreneurship, and alternative-career workshops to round out their studies. For an establishment noted for its old-fashioned approach, these decidedly pragmatic courses prepare proto-professionals for more than just the stage. 

Aspen: Connections for a Lifetime in Music 

The list of Aspen alumni is staggering. Trying to come up with half dozen representative names means leaving out more than a dozen generational soloists, along with an astounding proportion of principal players from prestigious ensembles across the world, from the Met, Chicago, and Cleveland to Vienna, Berlin, and Montréal. Given this, it might be easy to ascribe a sense of loftiness, of unreachability to Aspen’s program. In speaking to participants, administrators, and faculty, however, I find the overarching theme is quite the opposite: a sense of chosen family, of inclusion, and of deep roots. 

Aspen Campus
The beautiful Aspen Campus draws artists back again and again

The Aspen Music Festival and School faculty is a community of artists aching to return the favor: to give to others what the storied program has given to them. “Students are in touch with their future by being at Aspen,” says Fletcher. This is certainly the case, not only because they will likely encounter faculty they’ve worked with later in life at auditions, but also because it is a place that draws artists back again and again.

Aspen students
Aspen students get to play with some of the best musicians in the world

Violinist Sarah Chang has spent every summer of her life at Aspen: Her father brought the family there while pursuing his own violin career. She first participated as a student at age six, eventually becoming an artist-in-
residence, these weeks acting as the perfect tonic for the life of a virtuoso. After a year concertizing with the best musicians in the world, there is something different that takes hold once she arrives on campus. “One of the best things about it is the way it grounds you,” she says. “It humbles you, and some small part of you still feels a student, and you think I still have so much to learn. It shapes your life. It just has this pull on your soul.”

James DePreist and Sarah Chang
James DePreist and Sarah Chang

Her fond memories go back to an era before recent renovations made the campus an architectural masterpiece, among them, Miss DeLay spending an hour on the first three lines of the Sibelius Concerto, and Chang’s own adolescent mischief with other students trying to look grown-up enough to get into a nightclub. “Forming these friendships, in this beautiful place, with the intense training, all striving for excellence in a tight community . . . at the same time getting in trouble together and having all of these monumentally important experiences; as we get older, it’s nice to hang onto these things.”  


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Aspen concert
Aspen boasts five full orchestras and many chamber groups, with 650 students and 130 faculty members putting on over 400 performances during the eight-week session

Part of what defines the Aspen experience is its scope: Boasting five full orchestras and numerous chamber groups, the roughly 650 students and 130 faculty members combine to put on more than 400 performances during the eight-week session. The majority of participants perform solo works in addition to their ensemble repertoire, with a decided emphasis on new music—the exposure to and promotion of which is essential to Aspen’s mission.

AMFS was the first program of its kind to employ side-by-side ensemble experience, where students are stand partners with faculty, instilling the realities of discipline and professionalism in a supportive context. This bond between faculty and students creates a sense of mentorship and camaraderie, forging relationships that last far beyond the eight-week program. 

Orientation weekend
Idyllwild Arts hosts an orientation weekend to begin its week-long chamber music intensive

Idyllwild: Empathy and Artistry High Above the Desert

The chamber-music intensive for strings and piano at Idyllwild Arts is a week-long immersive camp whose brevity is chief among its strengths. Seven days can serve as an introduction to the high expectations of pre-professional development, a fast-paced dose of inspiration for players destined for the conservatory, and an opportunity to work with world-class faculty.

Students arrive and immediately get to work after being placed into ensembles, with individual attention from instructors throughout the week. Lengthy private practice sessions are the norm, not because they are compulsory, but because the expectation of excellence is not softened by the length of the camp.


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Idyllwild students are immediately placed in ensembles and get to work

Music chair Jeanette Louise Yaryan reflects on students’ progress over the course of the camp: “The willingness to try new things, to create a solid support system for each other was palpable onstage, and their level of awareness in the moment of the performance was among some of the finest I have seen from students at their age.” 

Cello faculty (and cellist of the Calder Quartet) Eric Byers echoes the idea of compassion and communication at the heart of chamber playing: “This year I witnessed groups forming a tight bond during their week of work together. The setting provides a beautiful place to deeply focus on chamber music. I noticed students starting to play totally differently as they learned how their part fit with the whole, and what role they were playing at all times. The week grew their interest in chamber music, and I think everyone came away from it surprised and excited about what they had accomplished in such a short amount of time.”

Students at Idyllwild form tight bonds that strengthens their playing together

Idyllwild also offers two-week orchestral sessions for devoted musicians ages 13–18. The experience can be transformative for students who have not performed with a truly large ensemble before. Recently retired conductor Larry Livingston’s 30-year tenure fostered a sense of inspired evangelism, where students could first fall in love with the music, creating an incredible drive to master it. Students get a hefty dose of music history, with Livingston frequently detailing the lives of composers, the context in which pieces were written, and the mechanics behind the orchestrations. As a result, students develop a lasting desire to do whatever it takes to be of service to the music. This approach is baked into the DNA of the program, which will be helmed by maestro Ransom Wilson beginning in 2020. 

Art is the stuff of emotion, wrought through discipline. This is the axis about which Idyllwild Arts revolves, and why it continues to be a touchstone for many alumni, long after they’ve taken their last journey back down Mt. San Jacinto.