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Two Weeks, All Music
SYMS has been a summer home for young musicians for six decades

By Katy Kramer

The trek begins in the heat of summer. From all around New England—as well as a handful from far-flung states and foreign countries—high school students carting telltale instrument cases will travel to Durham, a ritual unbroken for 64 years. For two weeks, except for eating, sleeping and the routines of dorm life, they will be immersed in music. It is here in this hothouse that another more introspective journey takes place: when many students make important decisions about who they are, where they belong, and how they want to live the rest of their lives. Although it has the ring of a cliche, UNH's Summer Youth Music School program, SYMS (or "Sims," as it is pronounced), is reputed to be, by those who attend, transformative. In the years that follow this hajj of sorts, many SYMS alumni will choose music as a vocation; others will pick careers as varied as the instruments they play. But tucked into all their pasts will be two weeks in late summer which many will remember not only as time away from mom and dad but as a seminal event, one that will resonate well into adulthood.

Bill Barwick, from Hampton, NH, named 2009 "Male Performer of the Year" by the Western Music Association and the "voice" of television's Western channel as well as numerous radio and TV commercials, went to SYMS as a trumpet player in the 1960s. Now a resident of Colorado and a nationally known singer/songwriter and guitarist, he easily calls up the SYMS experience. "I don't know where my life would have gone," he said, "if I hadn't met people who loved music as much as I did."

Finding a "home" is a common theme among SYMS alumni—as is finding resolve. "I also learned," says Barwick, "there were people more talented than me, better at their instruments who worked harder, who practiced more. The only way I would get better, I realized, was to work at it. I learned diligence and a practice ethic. I can remember the entire brass section of the band sweating it out in one of the locker rooms below the bleachers, playing until 'we got it right.' It was that kind of discipline." Barwick struggled to return the following years. "Every summer I found a job for all the weeks leading up to SYMS. I was running a jackhammer, cutting trees or washing dishes so I could go and be with people of a like mind; this is what they wanted to be doing, not playing sports or doing something else. All these people loved to play music as much as I did."


This commonality forges not only a group ethic but strong bonds. Saxophonist Jeff Coffin, Grammy winner with the Flectones and now a member of the renowned Dave Matthews band, attended SYMS for two summers in the 80s, and made life-long friends. "It was an epiphany," said Coffin, of his first summer at SYMS. "It was the last day and everyone was leaving, hugging and crying and exchanging information. And I suddenly thought, 'These are my people; this is the community I belong in.'" Coffin, like other SYMS alumni, found his future recast. "It had a big impact. I'd never been surrounded before with just musicians. Those are the people I stay in touch with."

High school music teachers, the linchpins, often recommend SYMS, nudging their students into the fold. "I lived in Rochester, close to Durham," said Coffin. "The band director [at Spaulding High School] was an amazing guy. He influenced a whole cadre of players. He was one of the ones who turned me on to SYMS. He said, 'This would be a good place to go to be around a community of musicians.'" Coffin returned a second summer. "It was," he said," affirming and life changing" and credits SYMS with cultivating his desire to mentor other young musicians through educational outreach. Coffin, who now lives in Tennessee, is a Yamaha Performing Artist/Clinician conducting workshops for students around the country. To paraphrase his website: "Public education is very important to me and I continue to carry that message, whenever, wherever and to whomever I can."

For others, SYMS was a place where a pastime became a passion. Madelyn Spring Gearheart, who currently directs the New Hampshire Youth Chorus, which she founded, remembers her summers at UNH. "SYMS," she says, "was a pivotal thing for me. In so many ways my love of music started there." Gearheart is also the past president of the NH chapter of The American Choral Directors Association, frequently adjudicates at choral festivals and runs an opera school for college kids in Verona, Italy, called Opera Viva. "I went to SYMS because my brother and sister went," says Gearheart who played flute and sang. "[Music teacher] Arthur Mirabile at Memorial [High School in Manchester] encouraged all students to go to SYMS. "The concerts at the Snively Arena had a huge impact on me."

The culmination of the two weeks of intense practicing, the final concert is often thrilling for both audience and performers and afterward many summer students choose to become fall students. "SYMS is always a recruitment tool: 25 percent of SYMS students come to UNH," Gearheart says. She was one of them, majoring in music education then receiving her master's degree from the University of Illinois in Champaign and a doctorate in music and music education from Columbia University, while pursuing her vocal career. "My own children went to SYMS" says Gearheart, who would later come back to conduct the chorus for Junior SYMS, a one-week middle school version begun in 1997.

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