Summer days don’t drift away for the middle and high school musicians in the National Philharmonic Summer String Institutes (NPSSI). Instead, 85 committed, uber-talented players studied a challenging repertoire for weeks in advance of five intense days of mentoring, coaching, lessons, movement classes, rehearsals and performances.
During the first week in August, Piotr Gajewski, the National Philharmonic’s (NP) music director and conductor, led the high school institute’s 18th year; the following week, Victoria Gau–violist, associate conductor and string institutes director—guided summer number 17 for the middle school group. NP principal musicians and other respected instructors as well as 15 high school and college student interns offered additional instruction, coaching and supervision.
Using interns in the middle school institute was initially a practical decision–“Students that age need to be supervised, and we didn’t have faculty available to supervise the rehearsal periods,” Gau said. The internships also help the older students to acquire “leadership and pedagogical skills,” she noted. “As any teacher is likely to tell you, we often feel like we learn the most when we are teaching.”
After Gau’s first summer with the institutes, in 2010, she “realized the interns would benefit from regular guidance and sharing of the challenges they faced with their groups. So, I initiated daily intern meetings where we discuss challenges and possible solutions.”
College interns were added to the high school program in 2014. “In this case, it’s not a supervisory capacity, but the interns are still functioning as assistant coaches,” Gau said. “I love the culture that has been built of students returning year after year to participate, and then often becoming interns and continuing as college interns.
Three of the students-turned-mentors that return year after year agreed that the institutes have enriched their own experience and learning.
This was violist Patrick Sykes’ eighth summer. The Richard Montgomery High School alumnus, now studying music education and therapy at Towson University, considers the week “the single most anticipated event of my summers.”
“From a student’s perspective,” he said, “the camp is rigorous yet a ton of fun,” adding that there’s “a lot to learn from as long as you’re willing to work hard and keep your mind open. The orchestral repertoire is challenging and diverse.” For him, the commitment “has always been refreshing and reinvigorating to my musical motivation” during that “period of time when a student’s practicing habits could potentially start to decay.”
Sykes contended that participating in chamber groups—“quartets, quintets and even octets”—is “the most rewarding and unique reason to attend. …Playing music with a small, intimate group of experienced musicians requires an extremely different approach to music, (one) that can teach a number of musical aspects: balance, communication, emotion, etc., that you wouldn’t normally get around to in an orchestral or solo setting.”
The chance “to ask questions and opinions, to observe new perspectives and offer my own” is similarly beneficial. “As an intern,” Sykes explained, “you’re paired with a member of the NP, and you get to observe how they work with the students as well as what the staff work on, which can aid you when you work with the group by yourself as well as improve your own musicianship. Even if you don’t plan on being a teacher or pursue a career in music, this is an extremely valuable life experience.”
Working with the younger musicians, Sykes said, “helped me develop unique communication techniques, as well balance having fun and getting work done at the same time.” In his first stint as an intern for the high schoolers this summer, he hoped to “gain new experiences working with older students that have more technical skills and potential musicality that will blossom throughout the week.”
The connections made at the institutes are invaluable. “I’ve gotten to meet so many wonderful people that are like-minded and musically inclined, but more importantly, they’ve become great friends and mentors,” Sykes said.
His self-knowledge was enhanced, too. Not only did Sykes learn “that I love working with students and teaching musicians to love music instead of just play it,” but also it “revealed to me that music is a huge part of who I am as a person. It was already obvious to me that I would never want to give up music completely, but the SSI made it clear that it’s something I want to pursue as a career.”
Cellist Preetcharn Saund followed four years as an institute student with interning annually since her 2014 graduation from Northwest High School. The rising junior at the University of Maryland-College Park (UMD) is pursuing a bachelor of music degree with a focus on cello performance.
Saund identified her biggest takeaways as “confidence, connections and clarity. I played with much more confidence and in a more self-assured manner, and I made so many connections with other players, and playing in the institute really clarified how much I love playing cello.”
Among her middle school peers she regarded as more accomplished and talented than herself, Saund once felt insecure. “But as the week progressed, I found myself getting better and better,” she said. The high school institute “was a new playing field, and a new standard. I still found myself feeling a little behind, but with a new confidence. Each year I met new people, and each year I came back a better and stronger player than before.”
Upon returning as an intern, Saund noted “the dynamic changed drastically. I was the one coaching the young students in their chamber music, and I was the one giving them advice. I had the privilege of watching these young people literally stand in the same place I once stood, doing the same thing I did, and I had the opportunity to inspire them, and help them along with their musical endeavors.” Interning, she said, “gave me the opportunity to practice my teaching skills, and put what I learn at UMD into practice with others.”
Sadly, violist Joseph DeMartini, who had spent six summers at SSI, could not come back this summer. Gau described him as among the “most engaged, enthusiastic, and positive interns” she has had. Still, the Urbana High School graduate, now a sophomore studying astrophysics at UMD, recalled his first student day as “overwhelming. I was nowhere near the level of the other students.” During the next day’s private lesson, Gau helped him adjust. “She gave me advice that would change the way that I played for the next five years. She said, ‘No matter where you’re sitting, play like you’re the first chair.’” Although he acknowledged not knowing “the notes well enough to really play like the first chair,” he said. “I was on time and playing with the rest of the section.” His peers noticed, and they became friends, and the connections with students as well as teachers “kept me coming back.”
“That first year,” said DeMartini, “changed my entire perspective on what it meant to be a musician and a strings player. Instead of just being one of the best violists in Frederick, I hungered to be one of the best in all of Maryland, and maybe beyond.”
Preparing for the chamber music groupings gave DeMartini new insight. “Once I knew the notes, it became about the musicality, and when I grasped that, it opened my eyes to a whole new concept of music. No longer was I just playing notes on a page, but I was creating something—feeling something—and putting it out there for other people to feel and experience for themselves. I finally saw music for what it is: something truly, unequivocally beautiful, no matter what its form.”
Each summer, DeMartini felt he was in “a whole other world, one where the beauty of music was dominant over the drudgery of schoolwork and other responsibilities. The institute became a place I could let go, have fun, and truly be myself.
“Being a mentor was a completely different challenge,” DeMartini said. “I worked closely with the coach to make sure the time I had alone with the middle-schoolers would be used efficiently, and to make sure I understood the coach’s goal for the group.” By the end of that week, he said, “I felt that I had learned more about music theory than I had in all my years of studying solo music. I discovered that teaching a group of people to play a piece of music required a significantly deeper understanding of music in general.”
DeMartini’s decision to pursue a career as an astronaut meant that 2015 would be his final SSI summer. Although he played in an orchestra during his first semester at UMD, he hasn’t had time to pick up his viola since, but he hopes to return to his instrument someday. “Perhaps, when I’m way off on Mars or somewhere else, I’ll be able to bring my viola with me, and play it to remind me of the best times of my young life.”