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Are Summer Programs Worth It?

Karen Rile

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Published: June 20, 2014 at 3:12 AM [UTC]


A couple weeks ago I wrote about Kinhaven Music School's junior chamber music program and how, for my kids, it was a life-changing experience. After Kinhaven, my husband and I believed it was important for us to continue sending them to this kind of intensive summer program. Our violinist daughter went on to a long list of summer music "camps" such as ENCORE, The Quartet Program, and Heifetz International Music Institute. Her sisters attended a few music programs, and when they were older they enrolled in programs in their own disciplines—writing, theater, and glassblowing. Like many other parents, my husband and I diverted a lot of our family's resources to make these opportunities possible for our kids. We willingly sacrificed family vacations and—this was more difficult for us—family time together.

Was it worth it? Who can say? In the short run you can try to calibrate how many quartets you studied or whether you improved your vibrato. Then you can hold these results up against dollars spent. But that's shallow bookkeeping. The experiential capital one accrues from learning to live and make music with others is impossible to quantify. Other benefits, such as lifelong career connections, may not be apparent for years to come.

Summer programs are indeed an investment in the future—but they can be a mighty expensive investment. "Camps" as they are quaintly called, range from one week to nine weeks in length, and the settings are equally varied: everything from a collection of rustic lakeside cabins with outdoor plumbing to posh resort-based festivals that cater to the musical entertainment needs of vacationing one-percenters.

The cost of these programs to varies, too: a few are completely subsidized but many are break-the-bank expensive. Some offer need-based financial aid to help offset tuition. Merit scholarships or work-study grants may also be available, but don't count on it. The general rule is that you're less likely to find financial aid and merit money for tuition-based summer programs then you will for conservatories. Tuition-free programs such as Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, the Taos School of Music in New Mexico, and Kneisel Hall in Maine are extremely competitive and rarely open to high school-age students.

Unless you win a fellowship, your child's eight-week summer at Aspen Music Festival will cost about ten thousand dollars, including application fees, tuition, room and board, and airfare. Six weeks at Bowdoin International Music Festival in Maine will set you back over $6000. Two weeks at Kinhaven's junior session runs about $3000.

Is it possible that the program's cost might surpass its potential benefits? The short answer is yes. Think about it this way: my daughter has attended a long list of summer programs. From ages ten through eighteen, we paid for these programs out of pocket. If we had put kept this money in the bank and handed it to her the day she graduated from college, she would be able to pay off all her student loans.

Let me repeat that sentence for emphasis. If she had not attended the summer programs she could have graduated from college debt-free.

But of course, that begs the question: would she have been admitted to college if she had not had these summer experiences? How important were they in her development as a musician?

Parents of young musicians often ask me whether these programs are necessary. The short answer is no. No conservatory or university requires its applicants to have attended summer programs during high school. You could attend an elite auditioned-based camp every summer and still be rejected from all the conservatories you apply to. A summer program can help you prepare, but the most crucial element in your application is the quality of your audition. And you could play a great audition without attending summer camp.

That said, and with the benefit of hindsight, I do believe that my daughter's summer experiences were beneficial for her career in ways that surpass the financial investment that we made in these programs when she was younger. She connected with teachers and fellow students who would come to have a profound influence on her future, and she was able to study chamber and orchestral repertoire in an intensely focused environment, with guidance from coaches and conductors far outside her regular sphere.

Here are a few tips for parents and students to mull over when thinking at summer programs:

  • Keep your expectations reasonable. A few weeks, or even a couple months with a summer teacher could help your technique, but don't look for miracles.

  • Be prepared to handle disappointments. If you're paying dearly for a program, no doubt you'll want it to be perfect. Not everyone can be concertmaster; someone has to sit last chair. Remember that sometimes the best lessons are not the ones you thought you were paying for.

  • Don't get injured. Some programs, particularly orchestra-intensives, have an intense rehearsal and performance schedule. On top of that you'll probably be participating in chamber groups, taking lessons, and practicing many more hours a day than you have time for during the school year. Watch out: summer programs are a breeding ground for tendinitis and other overuse-related injuries. Know your body and know how to say "no" at the first sign of injury.

  • Check out the health care situation in advance. When my daughter was in high school she came down with a bad earache at a remote summer program. At the time we were used to Kinhaven, which had a nurse on staff at all times. We were surprised to learn that the only health facility was the local emergency room.

  • Think carefully about your equipment before you leave. Bring an extra set of strings, and a couple of extra E strings. Get your bow re-haired before you leave and bring a spare bow. If you don't have second bow, borrow one, or buy a cheap one. It may not be your dream bow, but you'll be awfully glad for it if your bow breaks 300 miles away from the nearest archetier. 

  • You'll get a packing list from the summer program, but here's one thing they won't tell you. If the performance dress code is "summer white" then women should pack a nude (not white) bra and flesh-colored underwear. This is important, trust me. Don't ask me about men's wardrobe secrets; I have only daughters.

  • Consider taking a year off. Midway through college, my daughter was feeling burned-out from having been at school or in summer programs continuously since age ten. Instead of a summer festival, she went on her conservatory's orchestra tour, which was fun and provided her with a round trip ticket to London. After the performance at the BBC Proms, she met up with a friend from home and together the two girls traveled inexpensively through England, France, and Italy for three weeks. To facilitate light travel, my daughter had to leave her violin at the office of a family friend in London. It was the longest she'd been away from her instrument or practicing since she was old enough to remember. She returned home, refreshed and excited to get back to work.



From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 20, 2014 at 11:46 AM
I would just add that there are halfway alternatives to camps at remote sites. In our town we have a small community music school that has a summer program they call a "camp," but it's not overnight and the students don't live there. They live at home, commute to camp as they would to school, and have the weekends (and the 4th of July) off to spend with family. (It's literally a mile from our house).

My daughter (14, a violinist) is going for her third year and will be a CIT this year. My son (11, a cellist) is going for the first time. It's 4 weeks long, concentrating on chamber music and orchestra, with solo opportunities depending on interest. And there are also theater, chorus, and recreational opportunities.

Neither of my kids has been interested in sleepaway camp, and this has been a good alternative. The audition process is also pretty low-key and lowess. There are some professional- or conservatory-bound kids who go there, but I'd say most of them are not.

From Kate Little
Posted on June 20, 2014 at 2:48 PM
Hi Karen - Be glad your none of your daughters took up figure skating. Nothing compares to that in terms of financial commitment.
From Karen Rile
Posted on June 20, 2014 at 3:18 PM
Actually, we live half a mile from the Wissahickon Skating Club and all of my kids did figure skating. My violinist daughter competed for a while when she was younger, but you're right it was quite expensive (and dangerous--she was drawn to danger-sports like gymnastics, capoiera, diving, and aerials.) But violin turned out to be more long-term...and more expensive.
From Kate Little
Posted on June 20, 2014 at 5:30 PM
With several private coatings every day, I know families spending $50,000 - $100,000 EVERY YEAR on their child's figure skating as they pursue national and international levels. Those kinds of numbers are frightening. The expense of a good violin and pursuing auditions & etc. can seem prohibitive, but do they really reach those levels?
From Karen Rile
Posted on June 20, 2014 at 5:35 PM
You win! I did not spend $400,000 a year on ice skating or violin lessons. :)

From Kate Little
Posted on June 20, 2014 at 5:53 PM
And it is my guess that your daughters are living much more fulfilling lives than skating in the traveling Disney Ice-Capades, which is where most figure skaters end up. Although I know one family who spent half of their pre-tax income on their daughter's skating, and she ended up as a junior pro at the local rink, earning $16.75 an hour. I hope all schooled musicians have a payout better than that.
From Karen Rile
Posted on June 20, 2014 at 10:42 PM
Yes, my violinist daughter consciously chose violin over skating when she was about 7, and then violin over gymnastics at 8. (After she had an accident on the uneven parallel bars and broke her arm.) My husband and I secretly hoped that she would make that choice but it turned out we didn't need to pressure her. The point wasn't the money (no way we would or could spend the kind of cash you are describing for skating.) We just felt it was overall better for her development.
From Kate Little
Posted on June 21, 2014 at 1:31 AM
The other wonderful aspect of violin over skating or gymnastics, is that there is so much more that you can do with the skill, and it is so much more expressive. It is easy to imagine being a violinist for one's entire life. It is difficult to imagine being a gymnast for one's entire life.
From Karen Rile
Posted on June 21, 2014 at 3:40 AM
When I met my husband for the first time, at the Philomathean Society at Penn in 1978, he was practicing the Moonlight Sonata on one of the grand pianos. He told me that he was a gymnast, but that he knew, at age 20, that he would only be able to do gymnastics for a few years. Piano would be with him for his whole life. (He's still practicing that piece.)
Posted on June 21, 2014 at 4:07 AM
Ice hockey is a much more healthy sport than figure skating--for girls, too--but that's another story.

If you look at who really makes things happen in music, the money and the camps are not it. Except that violin is very much subsumed by the 0.01 tenth of 1% crowd and that gets everything screwy. So is horsy stuff and figure skaty stuff.

In the end, connections are obviously important but do you have to shell out $10k extra every summer for that? I don't think so. Rather, I think you need to endeavor to avoid being a potted plant.

That all being said, one of mine will be at Curtis this summer as the result of a particular gift from a relative. Of course I think it will be great. But I don't know what the long-term value will be.

Posted on June 21, 2014 at 6:41 AM
My daughter is getting ready to go off for a seven week camp.

We've been fortunate in getting some good scholarship contributions because we have definitely fallen out of the upper 20% and are now rubbing shoulders with the lower 46.
Even with the scholarship money it's still a lot, and the other three kids get considerably less money-wise as a result.

I don't see it so much as an investment in improved technique or motivator; but as a way of providing for a short while an environment my daughter loves. We live in a rural area with limited musical opportunities. It's so important to her that sending her is up at the top of our priority list.

I think the right camp is important. She wants to be with other kids who love music as much as she does. The first "big" camp she went to was a disappointment. Most of the kids were "dutiful". They put in their time, but no more. Last year was great at the Castleman Quartet Program. She's talked about it all year, and has been longingly looking at the Facebook site for this year. We chose a different camp this year because it has a winter program as well. This particular camp also has a reputation for being fun and their website shows the kids being silly. We have a friend who went last year and he had a lot of fun.

From Karen Rile
Posted on June 21, 2014 at 1:04 PM, a couple of responses:
1) I agree about hockey . Figure skating was not really the right culture for our family, although it was fun at first, and we live so close to a rink. At the time (this was ten years ago) girls were not allowed to play ice hockey at our local club, but now that has changed. :D My oldest daughter was on the ice hockey team at Swarthmore (The Motherpuckers--great name.)

2) Last summer my daughter attended a very short summer festival at Curtis (Sejong.) She went because she wanted to study a little extra with her teacher, who was going to be there, but circumstances changed and her teacher was not able to attend. My daughter almost didn't go when she found out her teacher would not be there. But then she did--and the results were life-changing. She met the teacher and mentor she will study with in grad school. Her new teacher and her college teacher are great friends and share a similar philosophy, so it is a perfect match. In this case, a very short program changed the course of her life. You never know. I hope your daughter has a wonderful experience!

Posted on June 21, 2014 at 1:19 PM
"If we had put kept this money in the bank and handed it to her the day she graduated from college, she would be able to pay off all her student loans."

But I think you answered this caveat yourself - you said you gave up may things, including family vacations to send them. So if they hadn't gone would you still have saved the money? Probably not. You and they would have needed other distractions. Vacations would have come and gone. Instead you chose to put the money to this use. Having been to wummer camps, but not been magically turned into concertmaster at the LSO by it, I still say "well spent"!

From Paul Deck
Posted on June 21, 2014 at 6:49 PM
I just came back from a wonderful summer Suzuki camp: Blue Ridge Suzuki Camp in Orkney Springs, Virginia, organized by Katherine Wiley. BRSC has an accomplished artist faculty of violinists, violists, cellists, guitarists, and (new this year) pianists, and it's an awesome family atmosphere in a beautiful and safe place where kids can be kids. My whole family attends, but teenagers can be dropped off. There are no auditions, all levels are welcome, and there's lots for parents to do both musically and otherwise. They have group classes, recitals, master classes, orchestras, chamber ensembles, dance, fiddle, Celtic cello, and much more. Your child will learn a lot at this camp whether they're playing Lightly Row or Lalo Symphonie Espagnole (both were on the student recital programs).

Bottom line: A summer program doesn't have to be a competitive pressure-cooker to be "worth it." Maybe the low-key variety like BRSC would be better for your child -- and for you!

From Paul Deck
Posted on June 21, 2014 at 6:54 PM
If $400,000 a year for figure skating lessons was half of someone's pre-tax income then, honestly, I'm not shedding any tears for them.
From Kate Little
Posted on June 22, 2014 at 2:02 AM
Paul - $400,000 per year would be an approximation for someone with 4 children all competing at the international level, which Karen chose not to pursue. The case I am familiar had only one child competing only at the national level at a cost of $50,000 per year. Still a lot, but something an upper-middle-class American family (2 wage earners bringing in $60,000+ each, which generally describes professionals) can do if it is their priority.

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