Two Weeks of All Music
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Secondly, students say that many high school counselors think that the arts are a distraction, failing to recognize the value of the structure that studying music provides. "'If you take music and art,' counselors tell the students, 'it will take time away from the more important subjects.' So when they get to SYMS the 'don't do this' talk disappears. There is a palpable sense of relief: 'I can do what I want to do and be surrounded with people who feel the same.' It is a harmonious music environment that's very rich," says DeTurk. "There's a spirit and enthusiasm generated from finally being out from under the rock."

On an almost tropical morning last August, Elizabeth Abbott, a high school senior and French horn player from Hanover, Mass., was performing on-stage at Johnson Theater in the culminating concert after two non-stop weeks of practice, instruction, and rehearsal. Her parents, out of the heat, were sitting in box seats, where during the course of the day, the orchestra, three bands and three choruses would perform; a guitar recital was next door and jazz night put to bed. "She loves it," said her father Mark Abbott '88, '91G, "and she gets to experience college life." Students eat at the dining halls as well as live in the dorms. "At home she's in the marching, concert and jazz bands," he says, who met his wife Michelle—an earth science and oceanography major—in graduate school at UNH. Michelle tracked down SYMS on the Internet. Later Elizabeth talked about her experience in the metamorphic speak of SYMS alums: "It was a new experience," she said, "fantastic. All we talked about was music—music all the time. And it was easy to make friends, I made so many friends." She too mentions a new work ethic: "I practiced more and learned to express myself in a different way. I liked the atmosphere; you wanted the music atmosphere in your life all the time. It kind of changed the way I look at music—really changed."

The two-week span serves as a kind of incubator. With limited time to learn challenging music, students have to practice—with not only the band, orchestra or chorus but also in sectionals, ensembles, master classes, and alone in practice rooms. Any hit-or-miss practice methods morph, by necessity, into a daily ritual that not only provides group cohesion and raises the level of performance, but exposes students to a more sophisticated musical repertoire.


Conductors and instructors who, like their charges, come from across New England and other parts of the country, mentor, guide and instruct students through the sometimes unfamiliar landscape. This was the sixth summer for Tom Bourgault's '04, '06G. A French horn player from Free Academy in Norwich, Connecticut—where he heads all bands, the orchestra and guitar classes—he teaches music theory at SYMS, one of 27 instructors who provide a smorgasbord of classes for students. Choices include conducting, piano accompanying, musical theater, solo performance, music history, composing and arranging. He sees many returning students whose skill levels not only increase, but who have formed links with other musicians. "It's what musicians do," he says. "They form groups and stay in touch. Personally, I look forward to SYMS each summer to connect with my old professors—giving each other updates—and to talk about and teach music with young students who are avid learners and clearly interested in the profession."

Not all graduates become professional musicians or music educators, but most keep music in their lives. Steve Toub, a native of Nashua, NH, who works at Microsoft in Seattle, Washington, went to SYMS for three summers in the mid-90s. A baritone who began voice lessons in his teens, he found SYMS to be qualitatively different from high school. "In high school, there were only a few guys in chorus, and while singing together was a fun experience, our sound wasn't exactly rousing. SYMS attracted guys serious about singing and with serious talent, many of whom sang in All-State and All-Eastern choirs. This was the first time I sang with a group that really inspired me." Toub continued to sing throughout college, participating in musical theater and Harvard's all-male a cappella group Din and Tonic—that made a world tour and garnered a cameo appearance in the movie Mona Lisa Smile. "Music has always been a big part of my life. It's how I met my wonderful wife. But nearing graduation, with many of my friends choosing to pursue music as a profession, I faced a dilemma," he said, finally deciding not to make music a career, instead pursuing his other interest: software development. He and Tamara, previously a professional actress and vocalist, now seek other musical opportunities. SYMS, however, still resonates. "It fueled my passion for music. I had a truly outstanding time, and I met people with whom I've become life-long friends."

In the afternoon, after Elizabeth Abbott and her parents have left Johnson Theater—a fluctuating group of students and parents linger all day outside Paul Arts Center seemingly unaware of the oppressive humidity—the vocal groups perform. Amy Kotsonis '06 conducts the women's chorus. Her program is a varied one: a Quaker hymn, an African American spiritual, Hotaru Koi, sung in Japanese, Criome Mi Madre, in Spanish. Currently pursuing her doctorate in music education and choral conducting at The Florida State University in Tallahassee after receiving her masters in music history and choral conducting at UNH, Kotsonis has come full circle. A SYMS participant herself in the 90s, she went on to become an administrative assistant for the program and an instructor and conductor. Kotsonis has an interesting take on why SYMS has such a clear impact on young musicians. First, she says, the shared ethic means kids do not have to justify their choices. "At SYMS you do not have to explain why you are taking piano lessons. They get it. People assume that if you are here these things are important to you personally." Secondly, students are in the company of other skilled musicians who enjoy what they are doing. They have role models "This is something beyond high school. You are around a lot of talent and with a large group of people that are inspired to practice and work harder, but are also having fun!" says Kotsonis. "Being on the other side, I saw quite quickly that it was more of a sharing situation rather than a competition."

Third, she says, students get to try out career choices in a safe environment—role-playing possible vocations. "You can experiment with performing and conducting, music technology and recording, music history or theory. The professors and teachers are generous and approachable and you see how you could work in music at the college level. You have conversations with other musicians who are also making these decisions and thinking, 'Is this something I want to do for the rest of my life?'" Then Kotsonis joins the chorus of other SYMS alums who mention the one unanticipated benefit of two uninterrupted weeks of music: "I still hang out with people I met at SYMS," she says. "You take away all these amazing friendships!"

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