Celia Sieckert, 16, an aspiring cellist from Minnesota, attended summer music camp this year at the Philadelphia International Music Festival and Camp (PIMF) in Bryn Mawr, PA. In an intensive week of study and practice, she had private lessons with three different cellists, workshops with a piano accompanist (Anna Kislitsyna), a master class with Hai-Ye Ni, principal cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, in-depth study of Brahms’s C minor cello sonata and lectures by guest experts such as Anthony Prisk, who plays trumpet with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

PIMF virtual wind and brass class with Maestro Thomas Hong
© Philadelphia International Music Festival

Celia was amazed at how much they packed into a week, but even more amazing was the location: Celia experienced this plethora of skill- and knowledge-building activities without leaving her home. “Actually, I was at a neighbor’s house. My mom runs a daycare at home and it gets kind of wild!” Celia's first major encounter with online learning, summer camp style, happened thanks to PIMF and technologies such as Zoom.

Summer music camps in the United States were hit fast and hard by the economic realities of the virus this spring. With their programs pretty much finalized by the time the pandemic appeared, these camps had to go back to the drawing board quickly, and in some cases, completely revisit budgets and revise pedagogical goals while sticking to stringent virus-prevention guidelines from their states and county boards of health.

For its part, PIMF developed new websites, added online programs and went entirely virtual, a pattern seen across the country as many summer music schools met the Covid-19 challenge.

“It was very shocking at the time,” Celia recalled. “Some of my friends were in orchestras and suddenly everything was over. Nothing came back.” While she missed in-person contact with teachers and fellow students, Celia said PIMF’s virtual camp was stimulating and a great learning experience, an affirmation shared by students at other summer camps and festivals contacted for this article.

What they missed in 2020: Aspen Festival campus
© Grittani Creative

“In May, we decided to go 100 percent virtual,” said Alan Fletcher, president of the Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado, which deals with students in a higher age bracket approaching their professional careers and is one of the largest and oldest institutions of its kind in the US. While the 2020 summer festival season was canceled, “…we offered concerts, recitals, private lessons, many of which were open to the public from all over the world.” 

Matt Lengas, an oboist who had attended the Aspen summer program in Colorado three times before, found distance learning an effective way to learn and prepare for a music career. In the past, Matt was in residence during the summer, sometimes living in donor housing (families in the area host students in their homes as a donation to the school). This year, he could take the program with him as he relocated from Texas (where he recently earned a doctorate) to Wisconsin and then to Minnesota where he currently resides. Through Aspen’s program, Matt took lessons online with Metropolitan Opera principal oboist Elaine Douvas and participated in a master class (viewable below).

“I never did anything like that before and it was great,” Matt said. Things he missed? The conference at the beginning of the term with a major musical superstar (this year, it would have been Renée Fleming) and being able to try other students’ instruments. “Most of all, I missed the social aspect,” he noted. “Not just hanging out, but meeting new oboists from around the country and the world, seeing how they do things, what their instruments and reeds are like.”

Virtual flute class at Interlochen, led by Detroit Symphony's Hannah Hammel
© Interlochen Center for the Arts

Interlochen Summer Arts Camp in Michigan offers programs in disciplines such as visual arts, dance, writing and film as well as music. Typically, Interlochen offers a real camp experience complete with crackling campfires and toasted marshmallows, but this year students had to get those campfires from a screen-saver, or the fireplace in the family den. “Students typically live in cabins on campus, sleeping in bunk beds, a fairly rustic setup,” said Keith Aleo, director and instructor of orchestral percussion, who has been with the summer program 28 years.

Keith Aleo
© Interlochen Center for the Arts

As the pandemic moved swiftly from casual rumor to in-your-face reality, Aleo vigorously advocated for online learning. “I felt that kids need education. They’re passionate about music, they’ve already been studying at home since March.” This was also an opportunity for Interlochen to step in and help students who were turned away from other summer programs because of the pandemic. Once Interlochen opted for online, Aleo had 21 percussion students for the summer term (not very different from the number in his usual summer program).

The percussion students followed a fixed schedule to keep everyone together and on track. Private lessons lasted from 8 to 11 a.m., followed by a group warm-up at 11. “We would mute everyone (on Zoom) except the student leading the warmup session,” Aleo said, “then unmute one by one and discover, for example, the tempo at which individual students were playing. I was so happy! The kids did it every single day during the program. I was frankly a little skeptical at first, but the minute they got into it, it started to explode!”

Just as PIMF turns to Philadelphia Orchestra musicians for master classes, Interlochen has a long-standing relationship with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In the afternoon, members of the orchestra would play four parts of a musical selection, with a student playing the fifth part. “This gave the feeling you were playing with members of the Detroit Symphony. Can you imagine? It was spectacular!” At the end of the program, as they do at the conclusion of every camp, students performed in an orchestral performance of Liszt’s Les Preludes, but this time on Zoom.

“I was nervous about the online program before it started,” said Aleo. “But it worked for the kids and it exceeded our expectations.”

Alan Fletcher
© Lynn Goldsmith

Aspen’s Alan Fletcher succinctly summed up the pros and cons: “All the students I heard from said, ‘Thank you, we’re so glad you’re doing this.’ But at the same time, they also said, ‘We want more. We really do want to be together, work together, learning live.’ I find that encouraging.”

Looking back on virtual camp in an unsettling time, PIMF student Celia Sieckert felt the lessons she learned this summer applied not just to music. “Be open to new ideas and formats,” she said. You have to be patient and see it for what it (the pandemic) is. Through it all, I’ve become more confident and that’s really important.”