By Jason Heath
For me, the very word conjures up images of reading a chunky novel under a tree, without a care in the world.
For you, summer might bring to mind different images, like clocking in at some nondescript job to earn extra cash, or perhaps cranking out a couple of classes for a degree program. Regardless, for most music students and professionals, summer is the season for something a little different.
Even though cramming in an extra class or taking a summer job may seem necessary (I’ve done both in the past), I would highly recommend that all music students find a music camp or festival to attend each and every summer.
Why spend those precious summer days studying music?
There are a ton of reasons, but here are my top three:
- Change of Scenery – It’s quite easy to get comfortable with the routine and familiarity of seeing the same teachers, colleagues, and friends. Getting out of that “safe zone” and doing something new in the summer can jumpstart your thinking and propel you to the next level in your musical development.
- Develop a Network – When we travel somewhere new, we immerse ourselves in a circle of colleagues and mentors that we were unlikely to have met otherwise. Music is like many other professions: your network typically turns out to be the most critical factor in your overall career success. Why not broaden that network? The risks are low and the rewards are huge.
- See the World – While I was in college, I deliberately applied for overseas summer festivals, which enabled me to travel the world for several summers without spending a dime of my own money. I probably learned more in my summers in Russia, Germany, and Japan than I did in my entire undergraduate experience. Travel reorients your perspective in a really healthy way. Even if you can’t make overseas summer festivals work, exploring a different region of your country can have a similar effect on your perspective. My summer experiences in stateside locales like Charleston, South Carolina and Jacksonville, Oregon were a study in contrasts, and I came away from these experiences with greater knowledge and respect for these distinct regions of the United States.
I know that I developed more as a musician during each summer of studies than in an entire year of school. There really is no substitute for summer study.
Might summer study cost you money? Sure.
Might it be inconvenient? Of course.
But find a way to make it happen. It will pay off immensely in the long run.
My Summer Music Experiences
I’ve played in a wide variety of festivals over the years, beginning in high school and continuing to the present day. Here’s a brief summary of what I did in the summer and what I got out of each experience:
National High School Music Institute (1992-93) – For nearly 70 years, Northwestern University had a great summer music program. They killed off the music component of the High School Institute a few years ago right after hiring me as the program’s bass teacher—I hope it wasn’t my fault! The experience of studying with Jeff Bradetich (at the time a professor at Northwestern—Jeff currently teaches bass at the University of North Texas) opened my eyes to the possibilities of the double bass. He was my primary role model through high school, and he totally changed my bass playing.
Take Away: Even though Northwestern was 600 miles away from my hometown, making the effort to study at this program opened my eyes to the vastness of the music world outside of my little safety bubble. I got radically better between 1992 and 1993 mainly through what I learned at this program.
American Russian Youth Orchestra (1997) – Now defunct, this festival was off-the-charts madness. This was my first experience leaving the country besides short jaunts to Canada and Mexico when I was a little kid, and what a way to start out with foreign travel! We were led by American Symphony Orchestra Music Director andBard College President Leon Botstein, an interesting musical figure if ever there was one. I’m so sad that this festival faded. It was insanely cool to tour Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kazan, Yekaterinburg, and other destinations with this strong ensemble. My colleagues from this festival went on to hold positions in the Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, and many other major orchestras.
Take Away: I feel like I began this festival as a kid and finished it as an adult. My worldview and life perspective totally shifted in these seven weeks. I remember having a hard time even remembering what I used to think about prior to doing this festival. Have you ever had an experience like I’m describing? One that shifts your thinking so radically that you have a hard time identifying with yourself from a couple of months earlier? If not, maybe you will in the future—it’s a strange feeling to “jump” like that in your thinking.
Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival (1998) – After the insanity of the American Russian Youth Orchestra, I didn’t know what to expect from Schleswig-Holstein. This turned out to be a much more “traditional” musical festival, though it was really cool for me to play in a majority European orchestra. American Russian was set up to be exactly 50/50 American and Russian in all respects: players, repertoire, conductors, and venues. There were close to 20 countries represented in Schleswig-Holstein, mostly from Europe. Rehearsals were conducted in both German and English, and I learned a huge amount working with double bass coaches Wolfgang Güttler andJanne Saksala.
Take Away: While American Russian was more of a “life experience,” I got a lot more out of Schleswig-Holstein in terms of my double bass education. Playing in a section with players from Germany, Sweden, and Turkey opened my eyes to other approaches to the double bass. These coaches were both interesting to work with, albeit with quite different styles to their teaching. We also played concerts all over Germany as well as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. This was my first chance to see Europe, and doing it in a musical context (and for free) was excellent.
Pacific Music Festival (2000) – This may be the most fun I’ve ever had in a single month! The people organizing this festival really get it right. It was a great orchestra and was also a giant party from beginning to end (Kampai!). Michael Tilson-Thomas was the primary conductor at that time, and a large percentage of the ensemble was made up of people from the New World Symphony. Charles Dutoit was the other conductor that summer. I made a lot of new friends and got to play great repertoire, including Mahler’s Third Symphony outdoors in Sapporo in the summer—certainly one of the most dehydrating performances of my life!
Take Away: I did this festival right after completing my masters degree and had a fair amount of anxiety about what the future held for me (sound familiar, anyone?). Spending a summer with musicians around my same age from all over the globe that were in a similar situation of starting to find their path in the world of music turned out to be exactly what I needed at the time.
Spoleto Festival USA (2001-02) – Charleston, South Carolina is a beautiful city with a rich artistic tradition. Gian Carlo Menotti started this festival nearly 40 years ago as an American counterpart to the Festival of Two Worldsin Spoleto, Italy. While I never got the chance to play the Italian festival (I’ve heard that it’s an unforgettable experience), spending parts of May and June in this historic American city was extremely fun. In addition to performing in the festival, I took as much time as possible to check out plays, art exhibitions, and other musical performances. I saw David Sedaris and David Rakoff speak, with predictably hilarious results. I spent my mornings running along the Battery in historic Charleston, admiring the beautiful houses and watching the palmetto fronds sway in the ocean breezes. Illinois seemed as exciting as a wet paper bag in comparison.
Take Away: I had fewer “ah-ha” moments at these later summer festivals—unlike my earlier experiences, these were paid gigs and I approached them more like a working vacation. Still, the experience of getting out of the Midwest and exploring a totally different part of the country with colleagues outside of my familiar circle was rejuvenating.
Britt Festival (2002) – I’ve always loved the West Coast. I love the quirkiness of Venice and the ridiculously multicultural melting pot of Los Angeles. I love the majesty and beauty of San Francisco. I love worrying about seeing a dinosaur poke around a tree in the redwood forests. I could go on and on—the black sand beaches of coastal Oregon, the mysteries of the Olympic Peninsula. I jumped at the chance to go out to southern Oregon and play a summer at the Britt Festival. The bass section, led by the always interesting Dave Anderson, was a pleasure to work with, and the orchestra was excellent. What I really remember most, however, was spending time outdoors in this beautiful part of the country, climbing Mount McLoughlin with other musicians, taking lots of smaller hikes, and spending a lot of time reading outdoors.
Take Away: I really got bitten by the West Coast bug on this festival. It was hard to head back to the land of corn after spending a summer surrounded by this kind of natural beauty. After driving over 5200 miles round-trip, I also started to think a little more critically about cost/benefit ratio when looking at summer festivals. As a result, this was the last festival that I did that was more than a few hours from home.
Des Moines Metro Opera (2002-03) – My wife played in the orchestra for this festival for five years, and I joined her for a couple of summers early in my freelance career. I had a great time, worked with good colleagues, and made some decent money by summer gig standards. I always had two prisms through with I looked at gigs: the regular season prism, which always paid more, and the summer prism, which always paid less. With that as a given, this gig worked out well. Playing in the same orchestra as my wife (which we rarely did) was an added benefit.
Take Away: This may seem strange, but the first thing that comes to mind for this gig are fireflies flashing their “tails” in the thick, humid funk of Iowa summers. The whole festival stayed on the campus of Simpson College in Indianola, a few miles south of Des Moines proper. Indiana is small-town America personified, with friendly townsfolk and great apple pie. No major life lessons learned here—just a good professional gig for the summer.
Midsummer’s Music Festival (2004-16) – I finally “found my home” with this chamber music festival. Aftervagabonding about for so many summers, I finally settled down with this Door County, Wisconsin festival in 2004 and have been doing it every summer since then. Like I did with the Des Moines Opera, I think of beautiful summer days and nights, with plenty of time for hiking, reading, practicing, and relaxing. Check out the Midsummer’s Music website—you’ll see a familiar face on this year’s promotional materials!
Take Away: I feel so lucky to have connected with this opportunity to play chamber music with outstanding colleagues like these. It’s a rare opportunity for bass players to play any chamber music at all, and through this festival I have delved into all corners of the repertoire. These past 11 seasons have been great for my musicianship, and I have looked forward to each summer and the new challenges and satisfactions that this festival will bring.
Programs Worth Checking Out
There are a ton of summer programs out there—way too many for me to list here. The following are my stock recommendations to my students. I’m primarily a classical bass player and am typically pointing students toward these types of summer experiences. There are many other festivals out there that will cater more to your specific needs, but I think that the following are really excellent.
I’ve dropped a few bass teacher recommendations in these descriptions (I can’t help it–it’s my world), and I’ll likely do an addendum post on my blog with bass-specific festivals and camps. If you have a great festival to recommend, leave a comment or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aspen Music Festival and School – The Aspen Festival has been training musicians for well over a half-century, and it’s on the resumes of successful musicians worldwide. Running from mid-June through mid-August, Aspen offers orchestral, opera, conducting,and composition programs, to name a few. I have had many students attend over the years, and they come back with a huge bump in their knowledge and ability. Aspen offers limited fellowships as well as partial financial assistance. Bassists have the opportunity to study with a wide variety of excellent teachers. My students always got a lot out of their time with Bruce Bransby, but there are many excellent opinions for all instrumentalists.
Tanglewood Music Center – Tanglewood is another highly desirable summer program. Originating in 1940 as the Berkshire Music Center, Tanglewood offers full fellowships for all participants and opportunities to closely collaborate with members of the Boston Symphony like Principal Bass Ed Barker and Assistant Principal BassLawrence Wolfe. Highly competitive and highly recommended.
Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) – This is the high school companion program that also takes place at Tanglewood. Students at BUTI also get to work with Boston Symphony musicians, perform in master classes, and check out the multitude of live performances taking place.
Interlochen Center for the Arts – Interlochen is another long-running program (it’s almost 90 years old!) with an established tradition of excellence. Their Summer Music Camp is designed for students from 3rd through 12th grade. Much more than music is offered at Interlochen, including dance, creative writing, visual arts, and film. It truly is a summer arts experience. Bassists get to study with Lawrence Hurst and Jack Budrow, two venerable masters of the instrument.
National Repertory Orchestra – This program (NRO for short) is an interesting model. Led by the Cleveland Institute’s Carl Topilow, this program is focused on cramming as much orchestral repertoire as humanly possible into eight weeks. I’ve never done this program but have heard that it rocks. It’s all-expenses-paid and moves through repertoire at an astonishing pace. It’s a great way to get experience and learn repertoire.
Music Academy of the West – Would you like to live in paradise for a summer? Then check out this festival! Set in Santa Barbara, California, it’s another great all-expense-paid festival that provides lessons, ensemble experience, chamber music, and much more. I was actually slated to go to this festival but bailed at the last minute (never bail at the last minute, by the way—it’s bad karma) to do the Britt Festival. I’ve had students attend and have heard great things.
National Orchestral Institute – At only four weeks, this is one of the shorter festivals on this list. This is another festival that I got into but bailed on to do… something… American Russian? I can’t remember. Regardless, it’s like a short and intensive Aspen, and bassists get a chance to study with three Jedi masters of the instrument: Max Dimoff, Jeff Turner, and Ali Yazdanfar.
Domaine Forget – Based in Quebec, this festival runs from early June through late August. I’ve never been myself,but I’ve had a lot of students go and have heard rave reviews from all. Bassists get the chance to study with another couple of superstars: Paul Ellison and David Allen Moore.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Summer Music Experiences
Regardless of the specific festival that you end up doing, there are a few strategies that, if followed, can help you to wring the most value out of your summer study.
- Arrive with an open mind – Maybe you got into your “dream program,” or maybe you’re headed to something that sounds a bit more dodgy. Keeping an open mind and being receptive to new ideas is crucial to growth and development.
- Appreciate the differences in your colleagues – When you see a different approach, rather than thinking “hey, that’s not how I do it!”, try thinking “wow—that’s really different that what I do—what can I take away from this?” Being mixed up with people from different musical backgrounds and styles of training is one of the most beneficial things about doing a festival, after all. Embrace the differences, even if they strike you as peculiar. At worst, you’ll find out what not to do, and you’re likely to walk away with some new concepts and techniques.
- Absorb the culture of the locale – You’ve probably picked up on this already, but a big part of what I love about summer festivals is the opportunity to travel somewhere far from my regular digs. Though I am working on my craft and attending musical events at festivals, I try to reserve at least a portion of every day to soak in the local culture. I hit up the most recommended restaurants, hiking trails, and coffee shops. I try to get to know some locals and check out some events outside of the specific festival. To me, that’s another essential part of the experience.
- Learn from your summer mentors – Music students spend a large amount of time with their primary private teacher. Summer study is a great way to get that intense one-on-one experience but from someone new. You’ll be amazed what you can learn from a great teacher in only a few lessons if you really focus on taking in all that this experience has to offer. Other mentors could include your orchestra conductor, chamber coach, or your fellow colleagues at the festival. There are potential mentors everywhere—seek them out!
- Relax and enjoy the experience! – My final bit of advice is simple—don’t be in too much of a hurry to solve all of the world’s problems. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all. Be open-minded and absorb what you can, but relax and enjoy the journey. Humans are much more receptive to new ideas when they’re relaxed. Try to find a sense of balance between the intensity of learning new things and the languid and uncrushed pace of absorption, reflection, and synthesis. You need both. The great book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman comes to mind as a good model for approaching your learning. Look for the moments of lightheartedness in the learning process, and don’t be afraid to kick up your feet on a hot summer night and watch the fireflies light up the sky.
Jason Heath teaches double bass at DePaul University and hosts the podcast Contrabass Conversations (http://contrabassconversations.com), featuring interviews from principal bassists from major orchestras.