Program Spotlight: Boston University Tanglewood Institute

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Summer in the Berkshires: bright, breezy days; cool nights; sunsets over the mountains; inviting, green spaces; and the sounds of music drifting through it all. Boston University Tanglewood Institute is nestled in one of the cultural centers of New England, the Berkshire mountain range, which is home to Shakespeare & Company, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, MASS MoCA (Museum of Contemporary Art), the Norman Rockwell Museum, and many more artistic institutions. 

Two hours west of Boston near the New York state line, the Berkshires is also known as the site of Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), and venue for the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, or BUTI. This unique partnership between Boston University (BU) and the venue (which is in Lenox, Massachusetts) offers high school students the chance to study with BU faculty on the magnificent Tanglewood campus. BUTI has programs in strings, wind, brass, percussion, harp, piano, composition, conducting, and voice. 


Nuts and Bolts of the Vocal Program 

The BUTI vocal program lasts for six weeks in the summer and features a robust, conservatory-style training program. Academic classwork includes music history, music theory, and diction, giving students a foundation for future study. Ensembles rehearse daily in preparation for performances in two Tanglewood venues: Seiji Ozawa Hall, a chamber music venue which won numerous awards for its architecture when it was built in 1994, and the Koussevitzky Music Shed, a massive covered stage that opens onto the Tanglewood lawn and named for legendary BSO conductor Serge Koussevitzky. 

Students also have rehearsal time to prepare opera scenes and recitals with opportunities for every participant based on their age and experience. Younger students may sing operetta or Gilbert and Sullivan; more advanced students begin to explore operatic and recital repertoire with guidance from trained faculty. 

Periodic masterclasses include some of the world-class artists that visit Tanglewood for performances throughout the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer season. Past masterclass clinicians have included Thomas Hampson, Renée Fleming, and Stephanie Blythe. Opportunities vary year to year, as do some of the special performance opportunities. Based on the performance schedule at Tanglewood, BUTI ensembles have been included in collaborations with the Boston Symphony, the Boston Pops, and the Tanglewood Music Center (a college and postgraduate music training program that concurrently runs at Tanglewood).  

Each student is assigned to weekly voice lessons and vocal coaching to ensure an individualized experience for every singer. Students earn six credits from Boston University that can be transferred to another college once a student begins their undergraduate studies. 


The Faculty 

An educational initiative is only as strong as its faculty, and BUTI, connected to such a strong institution as Boston University, features an excellent voice faculty year after year. Penelope Bitzas has been director of the BUTI voice program since 2013, taking on the directorship after 20 years on the BU faculty. A distinguished mezzo-soprano, she is also well known as an outstanding teacher and champion of young singers, continuing to teach during the academic year at the university. 

There is some turnover in staff from year to year, but several of the current faculty have been at BUTI for at least five years. The faculty roster includes accomplished singers in most voice types. Katie Woolf conducts the Young Artists Chorus, sharing her experience as a choral conductor, singer, and Boston University alumna. In addition to being the choral director, Woolf previously worked on the BUTI voice faculty. 

Joy McIntyre, former chair of the Boston University voice department and a soprano with extensive international credits, is artist-in-residence. Rounding out the faculty is a full complement of vocal coaches who work with the young singers on repertoire throughout the program. 


Partnerships and Collaboration 

As mentioned before, the Boston University Tanglewood Institute is enriched by the variety of musical programs taking place at Tanglewood during the summer. Bitzas, program director, reflects on the value of this exposure: “The program is special in a variety of ways—which includes the ability to attend concerts throughout the summer at Tanglewood, hearing concerts of the BSO with national and international musicians as well as many concerts presented by the Tanglewood Music Center,” she says. “Both of these opportunities allow them to hear young and seasoned singers and instrumentalists in a wide musical palate. They can also interact within the broader BUTI programs by attending faculty vocal and instrumental recitals and attending piano recitals and wind ensemble and orchestra concerts in Ozawa Hall.” 

Some of the vocal students collaborate with their counterparts in the composition program, gaining valuable experience in performing new works and working with composers. For many young students, this program may be their first time working with a vocal coach or performing choral works in such a large venue. Both the facilities and the concurrent BUTI programming in other disciplines provide exciting opportunities for high school singers. 

The camaraderie with fellow students is also a notable aspect of the program. Baritone Preston Jones studied at BUTI in 2017 and 2018 and is now a student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music studying voice. He identified his fellow students as a key aspect of his positive experience. “I would say the most valuable experience that I’ve had at Tanglewood was working with others and appreciating each other,” he says. 

“As a vocal performer, it is very important to learn how to work with others, and BUTI definitely allowed me to get out of my comfort zone and work with so many amazing performers. Also, all of the students within the vocal program really enjoyed working with one another. This program really teaches you how to not just be a performer but a well rounded individual as well, which is very important. That is something that I truly cherish.” 


Preparation for the Future 

The BUTI vocal program is designed to give students interested in pursuing music professionally a taste of the intensity and rigor of a conservatory and the joys and hard work of the life of a professional musician. Students learn to manage their vocal health during six weeks of frequent singing and are encouraged, but not required, to take various health and wellness classes such as yoga and Alexander Technique. They learn to make the most of musical enrichment: masterclasses, concerts, recitals, and collaborations. They begin to take ownership of their own learning in an age-appropriate setting. 

Jones credits BUTI with helping him succeed at Oberlin. “BUTI has truly helped me in a lot of ways,” he says. “BUTI has helped me understand what college is like but just within a span of six weeks. I would have never been prepared for college if it wasn’t for the amazing faculty that has helped me along the way to learn and grow as a performer. I have a better sense of what it takes to be a responsible, independent college student because of the way BUTI runs their program. Also, having a loving, caring environment really helps as well.” 

Approximately 70 students participate in the vocal program and live with other BUTI students in single-sex, dormitory-style housing on the campus of Tanglewood. They eat in the Tanglewood cafeteria and have access to extracurricular events as varied as hiking trips up Mount Greylock and the BUTI prom. 

Students’ social growth happens in tandem with their musical growth. When asked to describe her hopes for how BUTI will benefit young singers, Bitzas states, “I have several hopes for what the program can do for these young singers. I hope the summer increases their overall musical skills, both academic and vocal. 

“One of the things that the program does is that it lets them become aware that there are other people their age who love classical music and want to actively be engaged in performing it, whether they are a singer or an instrumentalist. This then makes them become part of a big musical community, bigger than themselves, but something they can be a part of for a long time. They develop lifelong friendships and musical collaborations—a community of musical artists—whether they go on to perform or teach. It’s their way to express themselves and to bring people together through music.” 


Program Details

The educational investment for this summer program was $7,550 in 2019, covering tuition, housing, and meals. Boston University offers both need-based and merit scholarships. Scholarship applications are best submitted with the program application. Applying for a scholarship does not affect a student’s chance of being admitted. 

Live auditions are held in Boston, New York, greater Washington DC, Interlochen, and Los Angeles. Pianists are not provided, so applicants need to plan for finding an accompanist. Auditions are about 10 minutes long, and students sing two memorized songs of their choosing from the classical vocal repertoire, including one in English. These are then recorded and shared with faculty who make admissions decisions by March. Applicants can also record their own audition and upload it by the application deadline, which in 2020 is January 21. 

The payoff for all that hard work during the winter months? The chance to arrive at Tanglewood on July 5, 2020, and enjoy an idyllic, educational summer in one of America’s most charming cultural hotspots. The Boston University Tanglewood Institute is a worthy option for high school singers who can set aside six weeks in the summer and who want to experience a vocal intensive with other aspiring artists in the mountains of Western Massachusetts. 


For more information about BUTI, including how to apply and audition, see 

Margaret Felice

Margaret Felice is a singer, educator, and writer living in Boston. She is executive director of Boston Singers’ Resource. Read more at or find her on social media.