The summer of 1997 was formative for me.
I was finishing my sophomore year of undergraduate percussion study at the University of Texas at Austin and I had finally fully bought into the idea that I'd pursue music as a career. Things started to click that year and what it meant to be a music major (and therefore what it meant to pursue music professionally) settled into something that finally made a bit of sense. There was a feeling of excitement and anticipation going into the summer of '97.
Now this was 20 years ago and the idea of summer music study was primarily limited to orchestral festivals. The orchestra bug bit me pretty good my sophomore year. Oddly enough this happened during the rehearsal process of a piece by Joan Tower called "Silver Ladders", a work I haven't seen programmed since but one that made a big impression on me. By the end of the year I was ripe for a healthy summer orchestral experience to fan the flame.
I found that nearby, by complete luck, at the International Festival-Institute at Round Top in Round Top, TX. This was before there were any 'official' percussion faculty at the festival. The organizers tapped three students—me, my UT buddy Andy Beaudoin, and Oberlin percussionist Greg Akagi—to join pros Drew Lang and Tyler Mack in the orchestra's percussion section. I spent two incredible weeks playing with other musicians that all wanted to be there for all the same reasons. It was wonderful and it felt decidedly different from school.
I only stayed two weeks because I had already committed to work at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Michigan. So off I went to serve as counselor and cabin leader to middle and high school kids in the Manistee National Forest. There was a festival band and orchestra that the counselors and faculty played in together and that kept me moving in the direction I had previously charted. My mission was pretty straightforward: gain more ensemble experience, play with a bunch of different musicians, cultivate whatever this newfound desire was.
What I didn't expect from my Blue Lake experience was the ample personal practice time every afternoon. I had hours, literally hours, to dedicate to getting better—working my hands over and learning new rep, every single day. My counselor-mate, John Bisesi (now member of the "President's Own" United States Marine Band), and I played for each other, encouraged each other, and taunted each other through a couple of weeks of very intentional practice. For me it was a game changer.
Looking back at the summer of '97 I can now clearly see why it was so important. While the Round Top Festival is what still makes an appearance on my CV, it was my time at Blue Lake that actually made me a better player.
Because I practiced. I practiced intentionally. I practiced with a hunger for getting better. I practiced with time and space to think. I practiced away from my 'normal' school life and without the distractions that sometimes come from our habitualized ritual of the academic-year routine.
I became a different player during the summer of 1997. While I had more 'prestigious' summer activities to come—the following two summers I spent in Sapporo, Japan at the Pacific Music Festival—the summer after my sophomore year was by far the most productive.
Your summer is for growth. Whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whatever your plans may be, don't waste the opportunity. Whether you're marching with a corps, attending an orchestral/chamber music festival, or camping out in your parents' basement (read Rob Knopper's lovely blog post about that), progress awaits.