Printer-friendly version
Brian Hong

The Music Academy of the West: Recollections and Memories

August 27, 2009 at 3:04 AM

       I got back from the Music Academy of the West about two weeks ago.  This was possibly the most inspiring and beneficial two months I’ve ever had in my musical life.  It wasn’t a miracle festival; I didn’t become some flawless player who can perform with complete confidence, but I gained a lifetime’s worth of necessary skills and ways of thinking that will benefit me for the rest of my years.
       The Music Academy is held in the beautiful area of Santa Barbara, California, on a campus called Miraflores, exclusively dedicated to the Academy.  The people who lived in the dorm (everyone except me, as I am too young) lived in a boarding school called the Cate School, which is about 20 minutes from Miraflores.  The Cate School is in the nearby city of Carpenteria, on the top of a beautiful mountain.  Hard to think that the beach is only a few minutes away!  There were two charter buses which provided transportation between the Cate School, Miraflores, and the various concert venues in town.
       The Academy has some of the most dedicated and experienced faculty and staff in the country as far as summer festivals are concerned.  I was very lucky to be accepted into the studio of Professor Zvi Zeitlin, who teaches at the Eastman School.  Mr. Zeitlin’s teaching encourages one to think for himself, to try to take his instruction and extract the musical meaning from deep within it.  This is something I am not very good at; I was very challenged throughout the summer to understand his instruction fully.  However, that is not his problem, it is mine. Mr. Zeitlin is a knowledgeable, tactful, and effective teacher.  Even though he can be a bit sharp and gruff, he is a very caring person and only becomes more intense because he cares about each and every student he works with and wants them to reach their full potential.  One of his former students, Jeff Thayer, concertmaster of the San Diego Symphony, is the Orchestral Studies teacher at the Academy and was our guest concertmaster for our Festival Orchestra.  Mr. Thayer’s playing reflects everything Mr. Zeitlin values in a player: focus and depth of sound (his sound is like molten fire), a love and thoughtfulness about every single note in the piece regardless of value or pitch, but most importantly, an expressive individuality that belongs to the player and the player only.  That, I believe, is Mr. Zeitlin’s overall goal for a student; to create a musical and precise violinist, yes, but more importantly, to bring out the individual musician in each and every one of us, our own personal sense of style and interpretation.
       Besides lessons, another highlight of the festival was the orchestra.  The Music Academy Festival Orchestra was split into many separate groups during certain sections of the summer, such as a chamber orchestra and an opera orchestra (which performed the opera Mignon).  However, we always got back together and re-collaborated as a full symphony orchestra (about three times throughout the summer).  We were honored to be visited by such distinguished conductors as Larry Rachleff, Peter Oundjian, Nicholas McGegan, and Leonard Slatkin, each of whom brought a different set of skills and ideas to the repertoire we were working on, which included Ravel’s Second Daphnis et Chloe Suite, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, Britten’s Sinfonia di Requiem, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.  Under Maestro McGegan, we played such gems like Ramaeu’s Nais suite, Purcell’s Abdelazer, and a few suites from Handel’s Watermusik.  A select group of students also performed Bach’s Third Brandenburg concerto with the Maestro.
       Like most great music festivals, the Music Academy incorporates a HUGE amount of chamber music into its curriculum.  At the beginning of the summer, we were all grouped into various ensembles, which ranged from string quartets, to piano quintets, to groups with woodwinds and cellos.  Every single student at the festival is very talented and can handle their instrument with supreme skill, so naturally these ensembles blossomed quite early underneath the tutelage of such distinguished coaches as Peter Salaaf, Nico Abondolo, Zvi Zeitlin, and many others.  This doesn’t mean that the groups didn’t have problems, though.  In fact, there were several cases throughout the summer in which a chamber ensemble had a huge personal issue and made a scene.  More often than not, though, the people settled down and reformed to be able to perform very well at the culminating event for chamber groups at the end of the summer, a very long all-day Chamber Marathon that extended from 10 AM to 5 PM.   The level of every chamber group was very high, and it had reached the point that we were not necessarily worried about the intonation, ensemble, and togetherness as much as the woven phrases, the meaning of each piece, and the harmonies (well, I think the group that played Bartok’s Second Quartet was probably worrying about both aspects, but they pulled their quartet off better than most other groups).
       Throughout the summer, there were many solo opportunities that presented themselves.  We had our usual weekly masterclasses, not all of which we participated in, though.  However, every Friday evening, there were concerts in the Music Academy’s beautiful, grandiose Hahn Hall, dubbed our weekly Picnic Concerts.  They were packed to the brim with performers; sometimes the concerts went as long as three hours, until about 10-10:30 PM.  However, that didn’t stop countless people from Santa Barbara from coming to these recitals.  Hahn Hall was overflowing with audience members at every Picnic Concert.  We also had concerts at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, every Thursday.  Here, the performers got paid to play!  Naturally, many of the Fellows (Music Academy students) signed up for these events.  What astounded me about the Academy was the fact that, besides it being incredibly well organized, it stressed independence in every student.  In order to perform in any of these solo or chamber opportunities, we had to sign forms and put ourselves up for them; we weren't automatically placed.  We were also not forced to practice, to rehearse, or to perform, but the staff expected us to have the motivation and the confidence to be able to work by and for ourselves.  I am sure that many people would find that as an aspect unique to this camp.
       One program of the Music Academy of the West that completely sets it apart from other festivals is its Compeer Program.  A Compeer is an adult from the Santa Barbara area who was selected to pair up with one of the Fellows.  They did many activities with the students, ranging from taking them out to dinner, whale watching, or just having fun.  This program was, in my eyes, meant to decrease the vast amount of stress the Fellows had dumped on their shoulders during the summer, and to provide them with joyful memories full of things other than music.  The Compeer Program is a wonderful program that really raises the already high standard that the Music Academy set for itself.
       To me, the most important aspect of a summer music festival is the atmosphere and the students.  Sure, we can argue that the teachers and the level of playing are just as important.  Still, you went to a festival to study with a top class teacher, and all the students were unfriendly, arrogant, and unkind, it wouldn’t be a good experience, and quite frankly, you wouldn’t learn as much.  Well, at least I wouldn’t.  The social aspect of the Academy is what made it special for me; every single student there is a nice, caring, and appreciative person who could very well be a lifelong friend.  I am, I readily admit, a naturally talkative, insensitive, and rather annoying person. However, most of the Fellows treated me as an equal.  They tolerated my antics, and even included me in many of their activities, such as their daily walks to the nearby Coffee Bean and the beach.  One of them even worked with me for countless hours on my technique and musical ideas, patiently helping me clean up passages and make my musical templates even more convincing.  I believe that he is a very talented teacher and could very well be on the level of Mr. Zeitlin someday.  Although I tried to express my heartfelt gratitude and thanks to the Fellows at the end of the summer, I still don’t think they could fathom the happiness and joy they have given me.  As I write this, I still extend a profound thank-you to each and every single one of them.
       I may thank the students, but there are countless people that all of the Fellows need to thank for this incredible experience that is the Music Academy of the West.  For starters, there are the teachers and the coaches, who have given countless hours, extreme patience, and huge amounts of musical wisdom.  However, we must also thank the people behind the scenes-they are just as important.  Our wonderful office staff, who have put in the painstaking work to arrange all the concerts, gatherings, parties, and rides into town, deserve our undivided applause.  The one group of people, though, whom I think were taken for granted, were the facility workers.  When I arrived at Miraflores every morning at 8 for an hour of practice before orchestra rehearsal, I always saw countless people watering the lawns, cleaning rooms, stacking chairs, and getting the campus ready for use.  There were also the cooks at the Cate School who provided food, the workers who handed out/sold tickets at the Box Office, and the janitors.  These are people who usually get glossed over by the Fellows, so I wanted to personally thank them here for all their efforts in helping to make such a spectacular festival possible.
       As the summer draws to a close, I find myself looking back and reliving the wonderful memories that I have accumulated throughout my stay.  There are joyful moments, hard times, and many amusing instances of drama.  I had such a fantastic time, and I will definitely be applying next year.  I look forward to seeing old friends again, and making new ones in the years to come.


From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 27, 2009 at 5:06 PM

 >This was possibly the most inspiring and beneficial two months I’ve ever had in my musical life.

That is a very cool thing. Glad you had such a productive and good time. 

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on August 27, 2009 at 8:49 PM

Thank you for writing that up!  After your first blog entry about the Academy, I was looking forward to hearing more.  What an intense summer.

From Royce Faina
Posted on August 27, 2009 at 11:07 PM

These are the best times to remember.  These are the moments that you really live!  and there are many more to come.


R. Faina

From Michelle Ippolito
Posted on August 30, 2009 at 6:06 PM

It sounds like a wonderful experience, musically and in every other way possible.  And I loved that you recognized the contribution made by the groundskeepers and cleaning people, not just the teachers, conductors and other musicians.  With that awareness and sensitivity, I'm sure you excel as a musician and a person. 

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker

The Soraya
The Soraya

Classic Violin Olympus

Coltman Chamber Music Competition

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Jargar Strings


Violin Lab



Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine