Of Summers Past: Round Top

Next in this series on summer music festivals is the Round Top Festival Institute.  I attended Round Top the summer after my first year of graduate school, and as with my previous summers at Brevard, I collaborated with incredibly talented students, studied with gifted and dedicated faculty, and played some great repertoire! Compared to Brevard, Round Top is set up in a slightly different way.  Rather than multiple student orchestras and a faculty orchestra, Round Top only has one orchestra, made up of students.  The quality of the orchestra is very high, and since every student who is accepted into the festival receives full tuition, competition for admittance can be pretty stiff.  I remember working very hard on my audition tape, and no, I didn’t record it in a studio!  I actually recorded it in a local church back home in NC, using a Sony minidisc recorder.  If I recall, the tape requirements included Beethoven 7,the  Ravel Pavane, and several other standard orchestral works.  The horn section at the festival that year included students from Juilliard, Eastman, New England Conservatory, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (yours truly).

The six week festival included weekly orchestral concerts, usually with a different conductor each week, as well as an extensive chamber music series featuring students and faculty. The horn faculty that year were truly amazing: Bill VerMeulen (Houston Symphony/Rice University), Michelle Baker (Metropolitan Opera) and Nancy Billman (Dorian Wind Quintet).  Each teacher spent a few weeks at Round Top, teaching private lessons, giving master classes, and coaching sectionals and chamber music rehearsals.  The students also got to perform alongside many of the faculty in chamber music performances.  Two chamber music performances I was involved with and remember very fondly were Poulenc’s Brass Trio and Malcolm Arnold’s Brass Quintet No. 1.  Both of those performances were prepared in a matter of a few days – a very short time compared to the usual rehearsal cycle most college students experience.  A “typical” day at Round Top looked something like this: Morning – warm-ups, sectionals, chamber music rehearsals, and private lessons; Afternoon – full orchestral rehearsal, followed by more chamber music rehearsals; Evening: chamber music concerts, individual practice time, and yes, sometimes more chamber rehearsals.  Needless to say, the days went by very quickly, and before I realized it the festival was almost over.  I should also mention that every student at Round Top participates in a work scholarship program to help defray some of their expenses.  My duties included a lot of backstage work, moving pianos, striking stages, and in general assisting the stage crew before and after concerts. This was a tremendous experience in itself, and I came away that summer with a greater awareness and newfound respect for all the work that takes place behind the scenes of every solo, chamber, or orchestral concert.

There are certainly other important experiences I could relate here, but I think the description I’ve given so far should be adequate.  Suffice it to say Round Top is an excellent summer festival, and a great professional training ground.  Aside from the musical experiences, I made some great friends, and ate some great food!  All of the meals at Round Top are prepared daily in house, complete with fresh herbs harvested from the local gardens.

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Of Summers Past: Brevard Music Center

Now that most college summer breaks are over, and with the “official” end of summer approaching (Sept. 22), I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss some of the summer festivals I attended during my high school and college years.  These festivals were extremely important to my musical development in a number of areas.  In the next few posts I’ll give a brief overview of each festival, and some random thoughts about what I learned while there.

Brevard Music Center

Growing up in western North Carolina, I was fortunate to live within a few hours of this excellent summer festival.  I attended BMC a total of four years, two as a high school “camper” and two as a college student. Although I had attended other music camps earlier in high school, Brevard was my first real taste of what life as a professional musician might be like.  My first two  summers at Brevard were when (and where) I decided to pursue music as a career, and those summer experiences helped me develop many of the skills necessary to do so.  While I’m sure BMC has changed since I was there, I believe it still is a “comprehensive” music festival, featuring programs in orchestral and band performance, opera and choral music, chamber music, collaborative piano, theory/composition, conducting, and more. The students encompass all levels of ability and experience, from junior high through doctoral level and young professionals.  I strongly encourage my own students to attend some kind of summer festival, even if it isn’t a full six or seven week program like Brevard.  Even a one or two week summer festival can prove invaluable to your education and career.  Speaking from my own experience, here are some reasons why festivals like Brevard are so important.

Being a Little Fish: Festivals like Brevard attract students nationally and internationally, so attending one as a young student can be an eye-opening experience.  Essentially all of the high school wind and brass players I met at Brevard were at or near the top of their sections in their respective programs, so the level of talent, motivation, and competition (almost always friendly!) was high every summer. Add to that the very high level of college student that usually attends Brevard and you have capable players on every part in every section of the bands and orchestras.  I think it’s crucial for young players to see the level of playing that’s out there, both from their peers, and from older, more experienced players.  In my case, I wasn’t really discouraged by the high quality horn playing I heard at Brevard – instead I was inspired to work harder, practice smarter, and try to learn everything I possibly could from everyone I met.

Models of Professionalism: BMC had, and still has, a world-class faculty, with renowned teachers and performers on every instrument and in every concentration.  The orchestral faculty perform together with advanced students in the top orchestra, which usually presents at least one concert every week of the festival, plus several opera productions and chamber music. Other than a few performances by the North Carolina Symphony and the occasional military band, the BMC faculty orchestra was the first truly professional ensemble I had ever heard in a live concert. And because most BMCO rehearsals were open to student observers, I got to hear a very high level of playing day in and day out.  During my four summers I had the opportunity to study with and hear the playing of several nationally known artist-faculty, including Cynthia Carr,  Eli Epstein, Dr. John Ericson, and Dr. Jean Martin.  In addition to weekly private lessons with the horn faculty, I got to observe their professional deportment and collegial cooperation first hand.

Repertoire, Repertoire, Repertoire: The student ensembles at Brevard performed frequently, usually giving at least one full concert every two weeks. And because most of the instrumental students during my time there participated in two large ensembles, we were constantly learning repertoire and preparing for concerts.  One Brevard  ensemble I remember in particular was the Repertory Symphony Orchestra (RSO). The RSO was made up primarily of college students, with a few high school players as well. The RSO was a reading and performing orchestra, so we not only performed concerts but spent several rehearsals reading standards of the orchestral literature like Brahms and Tchaikovsky symphonies, and Strauss tone poems.  I will admit that much of the material I encountered in the reading sessions was beyond my abilities at the time, but I benefited greatly from hearing the more experienced players and observing the world class conductors, one of whom was Gunther Schuller.

Networking: Many of the students I met at Brevard went on to professional playing and teaching careers, and I still remain in contact with several of them. Even as a young student I was able to learn about the importance of professional relationships by interacting with older students and the BMC faculty. The first time I ever heard of Douglas Hill and the horn studio at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was from a student at Brevard (little did I know then that years later I would earn M.M. and D.M.A. degrees from UW-Madison!) And over ten years later I remain in contact with current and former BMC horn faculty, including Dr. John Ericson and Dr. Jean Martin.  Both Dr. Ericson and Dr. Martin contributed enormously in making my summers at Brevard fun, educational, and professionally relevant.  In recent years Dr. Ericson has become a trusted mentor in many areas relating to my professional life, and each year I look forward to reconnecting with my former teachers at horn workshops.

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