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Adam Summer School – the inside story

Tabea Squire, violinist and composer, attended the Adam Summer School in Nelson each year between 2009 and 2013. Here she reflects on the impact of the experience on her development as a musician and gives some insights into daily life at the school in the following article.

The Adam Summer School takes place every year, usually in mid-to-late February, in Nelson. The Nelson School of Music generously opens its doors to the young musicians, while sponsors come and go, squeezing into practice rooms with the groups during tutorials, and at mealtimes we queue for the magnificent fare provided by top-notch caterers. For ten days, we revel in the bliss of amazing music, amazing Nelson weather, and an atmosphere of inspiration and exploration which is surely second to none.

Our tutors are the members of the New Zealand String Quartet and Diedre Irons, for the pianists and piano groups. The participants range approximately between eighteen and twenty-eight, although there have been participants who are both younger and older: the youngest I know of was fifteen. We are put into groups and given repertoire a few months before the school starts, and then the tutors probably just sit back and hope like hell that everyone communicates properly, gets hold of the music, and practises. 

Throughout the ten-day course we all get tutorials, usually one per day. It can be amusing to hear us comparing our tutor quotas (‘I’ve got two Dougs, two Helenes and a Diedre!’ or ‘Aw, I only get one Gillian…but two Rolfs!’) Tutorials are given all over the place (sometimes literally): in the concert hall, in the sunny upstairs practice rooms, or in the dining hall between two blocks of the building (with the obligatory pedestrians sneaking through wearing guilty expressions, most probably carrying music-stands to rehearsals), or even at a tutor’s house, carting music stands and cases down the road and hoping we’ve read the map properly. We haven’t had any outdoor tutorials so far, but it’s a close-run thing: this year (2013), evening walkers in Nelson were serenaded by Mozart from outside the school. That may just have been because of the beautiful sunset, though.

Every evening – bar one – there is a masterclass as well. These are open to the public, and often attract a wide range of listeners, who pile up into the choir stalls of the NSOM concert hall – the experienced masterclass attendees bring their own cushions. Old hands at summer school are often kept busy carrying through chairs for the older audience members, but politeness always pays, because they are often sponsors of the school, and are always delightful to chat to. There are two groups per masterclass, who perform a part of their work and then are descended on en masse by the tutors!…well, not really. But they give us lots of ideas and suggestions, and if we’re lucky, we get one or more of the tutors jumping up to show us their idea of how to do it. One year, everyone in a group was temporarily replaced by tutors: all except for one lonely, brave young violist. (I’ve got the photos to prove it!)

Usually, dinner follows the masterclass, with some relief. There’s always at least one tutor at dinner with us, which is really nice. These aren’t standoffish distant maestri: they really are there for us, as mentors and even, to a certain extent, as caregivers; when they say that we can come to them with group troubles, we know they mean it. I know I’ve often felt better for knowing they’re there, if things go pear-shaped.

Which, of course, they do. But summer school veterans know the golden rules: to always try something before panning it, and to really listen to the contributions of others. These, I find, aren’t just good for chamber music: like so much of what I’ve learned in studying music, they can be used in all of life’s facets.

Ultimately, this is what we learn: life skills. They’re life skills of assimilating new techniques in a short time, life skills like the ’salt shaker’, contact point techniques, two birds on a twig (all tutor references), life skills of speaking in public, of pacing oneself through an intensive week, and harnessing enthusiasm towards the energies needed in performance. And of course, that imperative skill, of laying aside differences and egos, in order to perform and exceed as a group.

The final concert day: some of us perform in the afternoon concert, some in the evening. We all write little bios of ourselves, which the tutors read out before we come on. We try to get a laugh from the audiences (sometimes the tutors upstage us with little witticisms in between lines). And then, for a few minutes, it’s us, walking out together under the bright lights and many gazes; remembering to smile, or just beaming because we’re excited. We are as prepared as ten days of intensive work, on wonderful music, with fantastic tutors, will make us.

The moment just before we play is perhaps the biggest moment of all. After all, the tutors tell us: people often remember the silences around the music the most. In that moment when we all meet each other’s eye, and breathe together before the first note, time collapses into that one split second, where the hours of work – stretching right back to when the composer first put quill or pen on paper – reside for an instant before the notes begin.

And then there we are, in the music together. That’s what matters the most, is us – sometimes strangers, sometimes friends or acquaintances, and usually a mix of them all – us, individual young musicians, working together inside the music. That’s what the tutors really want us to have, and it’s what we live for, in that breathing second before the notes begin. And when it’s over and we’re all beaming like crazy backstage, hugging and clapping and congratulating, and when the tutors find us and hug us too (or pat us on the shoulder or just give a hearty congratulation, all depending on their ways), when our smiles are aching in our faces and release and relief pounding our hearts, there is also the sadness, because the music has stopped, the silence is swallowed by applause, and it’s over.

At least, until the next year. 

In 2014 Tabea Squire was commissioned by the New Zealand String Quartet to compose The Travelling Portmanteau along with two other New Zealand composers. Read more information about this project on Chamber Music New Zealand's blog.

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