The Heifetz Institute Goes Virtual

April 29, 2020, 3:38 PM · Summer music programs all over the world have been struggling with how to proceed for the summer of 2020. What will happen, when it comes to the lockdowns and quarantines imposed by the global pandemic? Will it be possible to proceed with an in-person program, and how different would that look? How about conducting a summer program online? Or does it make sense to just cancel it all this year?

Heifetz goes virtual

One of the first summer programs to pivot to offering an all-online program this year is the The Heifetz Institute, a summer training program that was founded in 1996 by violinist Daniel Heifetz. The Institute, which named violinist Nicholas Kitchen artistic director in 2018 after Heifetz retired, normally takes place for six weeks each summer on the campus of Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Va. It specializes in developing the expressive potential in young musicians, using a unique curriculum of communication training developed especially for the Institute.

What made this institute decide to "go virtual" - and how are they going about it? Have they learned any lessons that will be helpful to other summer programs that are considering or already planning to do the same? We spoke to CEO and President Benjamin Roe about what went into the decision, what hurdles they've faced, and how students and faculty are responding.

Laurie: Many summer programs have chosen to cancel or to "wait and see" this year - what made you decide to go ahead and devise an online program? Was this a difficult decision? You made the decision early, too, what prompted that?

Benjamin: I would say that there were two big drivers in our decision. The first was our Artistic Director Nicholas Kitchen’s firm conviction that for so many of our students a summer without the focus, intensity, and learning potential of an elite summer program like ours would be catastrophic for their development – it’s like an Olympic athlete having their training put on hold. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but in my five years at Heifetz I can bear witness to how the time students spend here truly can have a powerful, transformative impact on the arc of their lives and careers: the colleagues they meet, the teachers they encounter, the pieces they play; the personal challenges they meet and overcome. As it happened, before this all hit we had a record number of applicants to the Heifetz Institute, and the level of talent was exceptional. And we felt that we really owed it to our students to honor the work and commitment that they had put into that entire process to get accepted into the Institute in the first place.

So, on the one hand, there was a keen, even moral sense of commitment to figure out a way to keep the program going. And the other being that the Heifetz Institute just happens to be a place that has made digital technology one of its calling cards. A lot of people discover us through our regular broadcasts on Performance Today, or on Facebook Live, or our YouTube channel, which averages between 10 – 20,000 views per day. After all, we have an Artistic Director whose Borromeo Quartet is famous for being the first major ensemble to perform exclusively off of laptops. (Remember how that used to controversial?). Nicholas Kitchen actually builds his own foot pedals for page turning, for goodness sake! So we’re extremely fortunate to have someone in Nick who has both a keen musical mind, as well as an intuitive understanding and embrace of how technology can enhance artistic aspirations and accomplishment.

All to say that contemplating a move into a completely online arena was perhaps not as big of a leap for us as it may be for other organizations. But that’s not to say that there has been anything easy about the process!

Fortunately, we have a great Board, which includes both doctors and attorneys and community leaders with deep ties to the medical, educational, and entertainment worlds. And they gave us magnificent support. We convened a Task Force early on, and forged a pretty decisive consensus that for any number of reasons that the odds of holding a physical Institute this summer in Virginia were between slim and none. Of course it was a difficult decision, but it also represented a moment of clarity: We knew that if we were going to try to accomplish this, we had no time to lose by sitting around wishing and hoping for things to change. So we’ve been holding our breath, and we braced ourselves for a lot of disappointed students to opt out of the program. But I’m thrilled to say that we’ve enrolled 92 students for the summer, and many are as excited as we are that the program will continue.

Laurie: What specific technology are you having to use to make this happen? What kind of help have you had to get?

Benjamin: I’m not going to pretend for a minute that the technology we’re using its proprietary or that we have developed some secret sauce that is unavailable elsewhere. What we ARE doing under Nick Kitchen’s leadership is working to create a systemic, orderly method for creating musical collaborations across distances that is artistically valid, and faithful to our communicative mission. So creating the architecture – the standards, practices, protocols, and equipment – has been the most important component. We’ve also been testing out a lot of different equipment that we will be providing to our students and faculty as part of the "technology toolkit" scheme to help them create a higher standard of music-making.

What has been remarkable in this "R and D" phase however is how many people have reached out to us who want to contribute and collaborate in this arena that is challenging all of us. Equipment manufacturers, software developers, app makers, you name ‘em, we’ve talked to them. We’re all trying to figure out this puzzle together, and I think one of the silver linings to this coronavirus cloud is that we have a lot of very smart and motivated people who are going to make profound, positive improvements in the challenge of creating satisfying musical experiences in the distance-learning arena.

Laurie: Do you feel like you can still offer the "same" experience online? That is to say, what is the core of what you are offering, and how does that stay the same online?

Benjamin: There’s no question that we can’t replicate everything that makes a Heifetz summer so special, be it the camaraderie in the dining hall, the late-night runs to the ice-cream shop, the intense chamber music rehearsals, and the sheer energy, passion and fun of a Heifetz concert. That’s one of the reasons why we slashed tuition by more than 50 percent. But we are committed to doing as much as we can to replicate online what you might expect for a typical day at the Institute, e.g., private lessons in the morning, Communication classes and symposia in the afternoon, concerts in the evening. We believe that there will be a real value to our students – no matter where they are in the world – to the dailiness and consistency of the schedule. (Though factoring in the time zones is a tricky business, to say the least!)

We are going to have a "Director of Virtual Life" to help us foster a sense of cohesion and esprit de corps among our far-flung students, to help them feel connected to this extraordinary community of young artists and great teachers. For example, through their studios, collaborative assignments, Communication classes, and things like our "watch parties" for our virtual concerts, every single one of our students will be interacting with a number of their peers in different settings. We have a saying at the Institute that "No one gets to hide here," particularly with our focus on solo and chamber music. That ethos will be especially important this summer, as we all have had our lives disrupted, displaced, and isolated. We want Heifetz to be a place to which people can feel a real sense of belonging – not just for the six weeks of the program, but forever after.

Laurie: How are the faculty responding?

Benjamin: It has been truly heartening. Despite this upheaval, 100 percent of our faculty are committed to teaching in this virtual environment – adhering to the same weekly schedule we laid out months ago. Of course, some have been offering private lessons by video for some time now. For others who are not as technically inclined, they’ve had no choice but to come up to speed quickly at their own institutions. So they all will have ascended that learning curve by the time the summer rolls around. Truly, however, from the string teachers to the communication training instructors to our collaborative pianists, our faculty’s support and commitment to the Institute has been incredible, and they are all pledged to do what it takes to succeed. Some are even offering us MORE time to teach this summer! I think the collegial relationship with our faculty – and the loyalty they have displayed to the institution – is a real tribute to the "core DNA" that Daniel Heifetz instilled in the Institute that is now being carried on by Nicholas Kitchen.

Laurie: In what kind of new form are you offering your classes/performances/lessons/etc., and how did you, as an institution, come up with those ideas? Are they changing as you go along?

Benjamin: One of the reasons I think that the faculty likes coming to Heifetz is that we pride ourselves on "making the trains run on time," with a fierce commitment to making the dizzying and complex daily schedules of each every student and faculty member work as smoothly as possible. That is obviously going to get tested this summer like never before. So between now and the end of June, I imagine we will be constantly iterating. But because of that challenge, we figured that the best starting point would be to mirror as much as possible what actually happens during a typical day at the Institute, and proceed from there. That has permitted us to then delve into the particular issues facing each component, e.g., when to schedule the private lesson with the student from Hong Kong versus the student in Spain versus the one in California. How to structure the studio classes when you can’t have a live pianist. How to choose chamber music partners and arrange their schedules. The best time to hold masterclasses. And so on. So I can’t proclaim we’re doing anything especially unique and innovative so much as saying we are trying to adapt what we’re already doing into this new arena, and by doing so, it will invariably be altered.

Laurie: What advice do you have for other programs who are trying to pivot to doing things online?

Benjamin: The best advice I can do is to repeat what Nick Kitchen has been saying to all of the #VirtualHeifetz2020 students joining us on our Q & A webinars: "When you first do this, it will be awful, time-consuming, and depressing. You will hate it……and then you will start to figure it out, and it will slowly get better." I think it’s important to acknowledge that there is no magic solution to any of this – we are literally bolting on parts to the airplane as we’re trying to get it up in the air. And a lot of it IS awful. There are compromises to make left and right, and sacrifices to make that you really don’t want to have to make. Finances are of course a huge factor. We’ve had to lay off people, and all who have stayed on, (including yours truly) have taken big pay cuts. The choices we have made may not be the right choices for other programs in other locations, with a completely different set of financial, locational, and civic factors. But for us, the only direction is going full-throttle, and hope that we can survive the turbulence!

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