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.
Karl Bratton, who was its director for 22 years, founded the older more well known high school SYMS in 1947 after World War II. Bratton, a native of Kiowa, Kansas, served as director of a USO Club before coming to UNH in 1945. He was chair of the music department until 1964 and director of the highly acclaimed UNH Concert Choir. The group sang for President Eisenhower and their concerts were broadcast globally by the Armed Forces Radio and Television Services.
SYMS began with about 200 students—and tuition of $40 that included room and board—and reflected Bratton's vision: to provide excellent instruction and tutelage under notable professionals and freelance musicians, the opportunity to mix with other students, and perform high caliber music. With some tweaking, this is still the basic formula. In addition, students are part of performance groups much larger than those in their high schools, replete with a wider range of voice parts and lesser-known instruments: English horn, bass clarinet, piccolo trumpet, baritone saxophone, euphonium. The sound quality is often a cut above what students are used to.
Alexis Zaricki (Music Education `76 , MA `93), Program Director for the Department of Music, talks about the mix of students who attend each year. Zaricki who majored in music education with a vocal emphasis, also taught at SYMS for several summers. On average, she says, 350-400 come to the two-week high school program in August—the highest being 525 one summer—and currently about 275 for the one-week junior SYMS in July, which in a better economy has reached 350. There is an even split of males and females in both groups.
"The beauty of the program" says Zaricki, "is that you have a real variety of kids who love to participate in music, but won't necessarily major in it. They get an opportunity to make music with students from other areas of the country, other backgrounds and walks of life. They are with people other than those in their school. It brings a different perspective and a richer life experience. It's a benefit no matter what you do afterwards."
"Even with the economy, attendance has been pretty steady," says Linda Seiler, an oboist with a degree in music education and performance and, since 1983, the SYMS "registrar." "About a third are repeaters. Students tell their friends 'SYMS was so great' and recruit others; a lot of it is by word of mouth." There is no admission audition per se, Seiler explains, but students bring a piece to play for the appropriate instructor: vocal, piano, strings, brass, woodwind, guitar, or percussion. From the auditions, students are placed in one or two performing groups. The more experienced players and singers may be in several groups. Many instrumentalists join a chorus if they like to sing. Students may also audition for the select groups: jazz band, select chorus, jazz choir or musical theater. The system seems to work. "We rarely have discipline problems. There is a sense of community; everyone is here for one reason: the discipline of music."
Mark DeTurk is the fourth director of SYMS since its inception. He is also coordinator of the UNH music education program and founder and director of the NH Youth Band. The SYMS esprit de corps, DeTurk contends, comes not only from a shared purpose but also from shared hardship. "We only get the ones who are tough enough to get through the school obstacle course," he says. He hears tales from students about high school guidance counselors who mistakenly steer kids away from the arts; counselors who hear college admissions officers say that music grades are given short shrift because they are not good predictors of how students will do in their required general education courses.
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 (Electrical Engineering, `88, grad school `91), "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 Tom Bourgault's (BA, Music `04, MA '06, Music Ed) sixth summer. 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!"Return to UNH Magazine Web Extras