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Work, fun and Brahms at Innsbrook

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 1, 2009 - When asked how long he has played violin, David Ramos must think for a minute.

"I guess this would be my fifteenth year."

A recent graduate of Metro High School, Ramos, who is 18, will head to the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in the fall. In the meantime, he plans to hone his skills at the Innsbrook Institute Summer Music Academy.

Running from June 5-14, the institute brings together gifted high school and college students to practice and perform classical music within the Innsbrook resort's natural setting. Each day the students dedicate several hours to solo practice, group rehearsal and coaching sessions. Their instructors include internationally renowned professional musicians led by Artistic Director David Halen, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster. These musicians perform in nightly concerts, that showcase a variety of pieces and performers.

As Ramos explains, "It's like nine days of intensive chamber music."

No "I" in "chamber"

Unlike orchestral pieces, in which many musicians play parts in response to their conductor, chamber music requires a self-coordinated small group, such as a quartet. Each musician plays his or her own part but must respond to the performances and ideas of the other teammates.

"One of the most essential things in music is being able to work with the people around you, and that can be very difficult at times, because everybody has very distinct ideas of what to do," notes Sean Riley. A violinist from West St. Louis County currently working on his master's degree at the Juilliard School, Riley has attended the institute every year since its founding in 2001. Positioned between the student and professional worlds, Riley can reflect on the lessons that the younger students need to learn.

"You can't rub each other the wrong way," he says. "The music world is so small that if you start to insult musicians early on, then it's going to last the rest of your life."

To help students learn to collaborate, the institute assigns them to small groups. The person charged with creating these groups is Vera Parkin, director of student life. A self-described "pianist-den mother-fairy godmother," Parkin takes responsibility for the students' formation. Based on each student's background, audition tape and skill level, she figures out which students will "click." She estimates that she has formed approximately 100 of these groups and considers only one a failure. "So, if only one of them didn't work out, that's a pretty good success rate," she says with a laugh.

In their groups, the students work on communicating with each other. By learning to share their ideas for each piece, they develop a unified vision for the music. The result increases their enthusiasm for teamwork and their respect for one another.

"You're sharing in the performance experience with three or four other people," Ramos says. "I like the entire experience of all our sounds blending into one."

Teaching Life Lessons

When the students are not teaching each other, they look to the institute's faculty and staff. Drawn from many prestigious orchestras and conservatories, the professional musicians represent the pinnacle of achievement in their fields. (Included in the faculty is the Jupiter Quartet, two of whose members are the daughters of Beacon editor Margaret Wolf Freivogel.

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In addition to instructing the students, the faculty musicians perform at nightly concerts. Although the classroom has closed for the day, the students continue to learn. "It's kind of eye-opening to have them teach you what they know and then have them perform what they taught you," explains Ramos.

The musicians' ability to teach, both through word and action, contributes to their selection for the festival. According to Parkin, "Innsbrook is the kind of place where the performing artists are always going to be teaching artists as well."

The link between performance and learning realizes Artistic Director David Halen's vision for the festival. "If you perform a great work of art, and it is played extremely well, that's something the students will learn from."

Beyond their performing and teaching abilities, the instructors also share an underlying philosophy. Rather than pushing all their students to follow the same career path, they hope to encourage certain worldviews.

"Their success as a professional musician is not our primary goal," explains Parkin. "What we're concerned with is training people who know how to pursue excellence."

While the program can be just as exhausting for the instructors as it is for their students, the musicians find their reward in the students' progress. "What I really love most is to feel like I helped somebody else," Halen says. "It helps you really leave a more important legacy than having been a great player yourself."

The musicians' efforts reach the students. "At most festivals, there's a wall between the performers and the community itself," Riley notes. "At Innsbrook, we're directly interacting with them, we live with them, and we get to know them really, really well."

When the Curtain Falls

After working all day, everyone needs a little time to relax. Separated from the city and its suburbs, the Innsbrook resort offers the students a retreat. Its 100 lakes and 7,500 acres of land allow plenty of opportunities for recreation. "It just becomes a place very far removed from everyday life," explains Ron James, executive director of the institute and vice president of marketing for the resort.

While studying at the institute, the students stay with Innsbrook host families. The families serve the students breakfast and drive them to and from practice and meals. Parkin hopes her students can learn from the examples set by their host families. "These people are modeling what it means to be generous and gracious," she says. "It just makes such a wonderful, caring climate."

For Halen, the natural setting is also a laboratory. Playing classical music within nature provides a more immediate link to its creation. "So much of it is inspired by nature," he explains.

However, Ramos and Riley like to spend their time outdoors with a different kind of instrument: "We usually play Ultimate Frisbee."

The Show

Despite their own achievements, the students have only one piece of advice for visitors. "Go see the faculty concerts at night," urges Ramos. "Each night it's always a different concert, and it's always great music."

Fifteen shows take place over the course of the institute's 11 days. Student performances open the nightly concerts, and the guest musicians provide the rest of the show. Most occur inside the Innsbrook Conference Center, which seats about 300 guests and creates a more intimate atmosphere than at larger concert halls. "There's a certain informality," says Halen. "It's a little more casual; there's a little more interaction between our audience and the musicians."

For Riley, the experience is unforgettable. "I've been through lots of music festivals," he says, but Innsbrook is always "the place to go."

Joe Milner is an intern with the St. Louis Beacon.

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