Recently, I was heading home on the subway and talking with Juilliard’s Director of Music Admissions, Rachel Kunce. Our conversation moved toward summer programs. Having BM and MM degrees in vocal performance, Rachel noted how she wished she had been better prepared to attend summer programs when she was a student.
That conversation prompted me to reach out to one of Juilliard’s Vocal Arts faculty members: Amy Burton, who teaches at SongFest every summer, to find an answer to Rachel’s wish. I asked Amy a number of questions, and she provided a lot of helpful information about summer study.
For starters, I asked Amy about her work at SongFest. “I teach at SongFest, a program primarily focused on art song that is currently based at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. My duties vary slightly from year to year, but essentially, I do three things: teach voice lessons, coach alongside my husband (composer John Musto) for performances of his songs, and coach and direct the final concert of the season.” During the academic year, Amy teaches voice at Juilliard and other schools and performs. This past year, she helped coach a large vocal chamber piece of her husband’s that was presented at Juilliard.
Students who attend SongFest “are involved in performances and master classes as well as group-specific classes. They get two voice lessons per week, plus coachings for the repertoire they will be studying and performing. The master classes are wide-ranging, and students attend them even when they’re not performing in them. There are also many recitals to attend, from each group of singers, plus returning alumni and guest artist events. There are also composers and pianists in the program, and students get to work with composers such as John [Musto], Libby Larsen, John Harbison, Jake Heggie and others. For those interested in Bach, there is a week of Bach cantatas directed by John Harbison. This year there will also be some opportunity to work on opera scenes and arias.”
With all that going on, I wondered if students have to arrive with repertoire already prepared, or if they are assigned new repertoire once they are at the summer program. Amy said that “there is the opportunity to work on repertoire they already know as well as new pieces that they are interested in. Some repertoire will be assigned, so the better prepared they are, the more they will get out of the experience. New assignments can also crop up once they’re there, so it’s best to know your assigned repertoire before you arrive.”
So what are some tips for finding a summer program? Amy’s advice included the following:
- Do your due diligence. Not all summer programs are created equal. How many lessons will you receive during the program? What performance opportunities are offered? If the program is outside of your native country, how much emphasis will there be on learning the local language?
- Talk with your primary teacher about who your summer teachers and coaches will be, and which of those would meet your needs at this stage of your development.
- Get in touch with alumni of the summer programs you are considering. What was their experience? Did the program deliver what they expected?
It is also important to create goals for yourself when thinking about your summer program. Amy noted that “summer programs are great for changing routines, getting other perspectives, and having novel experiences.” You will work with different teachers and coaches, be exposed to new repertoire, and gain ideas for future recital repertoire. Above all, summer programs can be “a great catalyst for growth and inspiration.”
Circling back to Rachel’s wish that she had been better prepared for the summer programs that she attended, I asked Amy what she wished her summer students knew before they came to work with her. Being prepared with repertoire was noted above, but in addition to that, “it’s important to know how to not get vocally tired! Know your limits and speak to your teacher about protecting your vocal health. Don’t be afraid to say no to an assignment if it doesn’t feel right for you, but be considerate of others and don’t wait too long to speak up!”
I will add one more note. There were many summers during which I had to work in order to earn money for the academic year. While a summer full of various programs sounds wonderful, it is not always possible. My advice is to look for short-term summer programs and apply. If you are admitted, ask about scholarship support. In the end, you may still have to hold down a summer job, but if you put yourself out there, you never know what opportunities may open up.