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:
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