By Aleo Esparza
This summer, I spent six weeks in Brevard, North Carolina at Brevard Music Center Summer Institute studying classical percussion. Brevard is an orchestrally focused summer program for both high school and college musicians. The majority of the students at Brevard played orchestral instruments, but there were also pianists, guitarists, saxophonists, singers, composers, and musical theater students. The campus itself is surrounded by trees and has three small lakes. It is also close to downtown Brevard so during your free time, you could walk down to get a bite to eat or visit the local stores.
While at Brevard, I had either a music theory class, music literature class, or convocation at 8 am every weekday. On Monday and Wednesday mornings, I would have theory, and on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I would have music literature, and every Friday morning, I had convocation. In theory, I learned part-writing, chord progressions, modes, melodic dictation, etc. And in convocation, the whole high school division would get together as various faculty would do presentations on insights about majoring in music in college and how to handle performance anxiety to name a few. Along with this, at the end of convocation, a few students would perform for everyone. Lastly, music literature went in great detail about the pieces that would be played by the Brevard Music Center Orchestra that week.
The Brevard Music Orchestra was an orchestra composed of the professional faculty and college students. Every weekend, the orchestra held performances for both Brevard locals and students. The orchestra played a variety of music, which I really appreciated. They had concerts featuring black composers and women composers, but also played some amazing classics such as Rhapsody in Blue, Scheherazade, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, and Brahms’ First Symphony. Watching these performances was definitely one of the best things about attending Brevard. It was cool to see your teachers up there playing along with the college students who you may have befriended. I personally was close with a lot of the college percussionists, which brings me to another feature of the program that I loved: being alongside the college students.
Being able to get to know the college students that played your instrument was something I was super grateful for while being there. I was able to connect with them personally and ask them all types of questions about what conservatory was like, what kind of repertoire they were playing, a question about technique, or their practice regiment. Just getting to know them in itself was fun because they were all very cool people. I learned just as much, if not more, from talking to the college students and getting advice from them as I did from the teachers. I definitely would not have had as good of a time there without them.
The faculty there was AMAZING! There were four teachers in total on the percussion faculty: Leonardo Soto, principal timpanist of Houston Symphony Orchestra; Gwendolyn Dease, percussion faculty at Michigan State; Jeremy Epp, principal timpanist of Detroit Symphony Orchestra; and Steve Merrill, principal percussionist of Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. With there being so many teachers, there had to be a rotation. Two teachers were there for the first three weeks and then two new teachers replaced them for the last three weeks. With this system, I was able to hear so many different perspectives on technique, phrasing ideas, and tone quality. The downside of having this rotation was that it means you could only have one to two lessons with each teacher and some of their ideas may conflict. But, this was a good lesson in learning to pick and choose what musical ideas I wanted to apply to my playing, and made me better understand and develop my sound. This faculty was definitely the best faculty I’ve studied with at a summer program!
In terms of ensembles, I played with the Brevard Symphonic Winds (BSW) and Brevard Concert Orchestra (BCO). We had numerous performances and overall played some fun repertoire. My favorite performance was our last performance of the summer, which was a joint BSW and BCO concert. For BSW, my favorite piece that we played was Until the Scars by John Mackey. The Mackey featured a lot of the percussion section, in which I played the snare drum part. Mackey basically wrote a drumline-esque part for the snare drum, which is like a drummers’ dream in a band. When we get parts like that, which don’t come often, we really get to be soloistic and show off our chops.
For BCO, we played two pieces that I both really enjoyed playing, Boléro by Maurice Ravel and the Suite from The Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky. For Boléro, no, I did not get the infamous snare drum part, but I did play timpani. I was super surprised that I enjoyed playing this piece since I was fully expecting to not enjoy it since I did not really find it interesting when listening to recording. But, listening to it in person in my opinion is ten times better than listening to a recording. It’s just overall a really cool piece. The theme is great, the way in which Ravel plays with color and pairings of instruments is fascinating, and the ending is really awesome. For Sleeping Beauty, I played the snare drum, tam-tam, and glockenspiel parts. This piece is incredibly beautiful and definitely one of my favorite pieces ever. Every movement is unique and short and sweet. I really enjoy the third movement, pas de caractére, in which Tchaikovsky uses the clarinet to imitate a creeping cat. The movement is very animated and clever.
Lasty, one of my most memorable experiences was playing in a chamber group with all the high school percussionists. During the fifth week of the program, the entire percussion studio hosted a percussion recital. Every college and high school student had to perform a solo of their choice and also be a part of a chamber group. The college students had their own and we had our own. Our group performed Catching Shadows by Ivan Trevino. I had a lot of fun rehearsing and getting to know my fellow high school percussionists. We all shared many laughs and bonded a lot through these rehearsals. And the performance itself was really good. Our group performed well and it was also great to hear all the college students play their solos and chamber pieces.
Overall, I really enjoyed my time at Brevard’s Summer Institute. I definitely recommend anyone who is looking to study with a variety of great teachers and play a lot of orchestral repertoire to check it out. I would definitely love to go back as a college student for a summer!
Aleo at Brevard