Fifteen-year-old oboist Samantha Sandhaus always dreamed of playing with The Philadelphia Orchestra. It started when she first picked up the instrument in fourth grade. But she never thought she’d actually get the chance.
“I’ve never studied privately,” she said, “Which I’ve only recently found out is kind of a problem.”
Growing up in Northeast Philly, her mom, a band teacher, pushed her to play the instrument because “there’s always a need for oboes.” But during the last year, with her school switching to virtual learning due to the pandemic, she struggled to practice as much as she had in previous years. For Samantha, who has dreams of auditioning for music schools in the future, not being able to practice for hours a day is a huge problem.
Samantha was elated when she received an email to be part of Music and Mindfulness, a first-of-its-kind orchestra music summer camp for advanced music students from underserved areas of Philadelphia.
The mission is to help student musicians navigate the future challenges that come with college, conservatory, or whatever career paths they choose after high school. Campers will spend nine days and eight nights at The Stables of Fox Crossing in Chester County, an event training facility for competitive equestrians.
Each day, students participate in dance expression and yoga, learn how to groom the stable’s horses, and have daily chamber orchestra rehearsals with members of The Philadelphia Orchestra, all in the hopes of filling in some of the music learning gaps the pandemic caused campers to experience.
Earlier this week, Samantha’s longtime dream came true. She got the chance to get invaluable one-on-one lessons from Philadelphia Orchestra oboist Elizabeth Starr Masoudni.
“It doesn’t feel real. It’s weird that they’re just regular people. And I think it’s so easy to forget that everyone who plays an instrument is more than their instrument,” Sandhaus said. “People call them gods because they’re just so perfect. But they’re so much more than that. And it’s really amazing to meet them and talk with them.”
She said without the camp, she would never get the opportunity to play with world-class musicians like Masoudnia.
“Definitely not. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, no matter where I am. This is something that I realize is so rare and unique,” she said. ”I’m so grateful for it. I love it!”
During the pandemic, many of Philadelphia’s talented music students from underserved communities have missed out on opportunities to perform in an orchestra and network with professional musicians.
Philadelphia high schools switched to virtual learning last school year. That meant student musicians who ordinarily rely on high school music classes haven’t been able to participate in college or conservatory auditions nearly as much as in an ordinary year. Many of the musicians also live in apartments in close quarters with their family members and struggle to find practice space to play the requisite hours needed to master their craft.
Denise Kinney is the director of the camp and was the former executive director of Musicopia and Dancing Classrooms Philly. She came up with the idea for the week-long sleep-away camp after seeing many students she previously worked with in the city miss out on audition and performance opportunities due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“The really musically talented students like these students here were on track for college. Musically, they could have made it. But with 10 people living in very small spaces, and you have to practice for hours a day to do this,” she said, “how do you do that when you live in one room and you’re always in it? It was too much for most of them to overcome. So I wanted this to be their second chance.”
Kinney also realized talented students in Philly often struggle to build networks of supportive family members and professional mentors.
“When my kids go to a concert, there’s like 30 people from my family there. There’s a village behind them,” Kinney said. “And these kids have like sometimes like a quarter of a parent around because they’re working two jobs trying to make ends meet. And so I’m trying to really build a village around each student.”
To create her “village” for her campers, Denise enlisted friends and former coworkers from her time working at music education nonprofits in Philly. For the venue, she enlisted Marty Armstrong, a friend she met through horse riding who owns The Stables, to let them use her sprawling 40-acre property surrounded by cornfields and rolling green hills.
The setting for these practices is unconventional, to say the least. The 30+ piece orchestra practices in an empty three-car garage with plastic mats on the floor, surrounded by tools hanging on the wall. The backdrop looks like a Microsoft computer screensaver, with lush green hills as far as the eye can see in every direction. The kids sleep in trailers situated off to the side of the makeshift garage chamber hall.
For the music, Kinney reached out to Don Liuzzi, who serves as music director of the camp, and is the principal timpanist for The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Liuzzi said having an involved mentor himself is one of the main reasons he was able to succeed as a timpanist, and motivated him to join the program.
“I was in high school in the All-City Orchestra and I got to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra for a concert way back in the day,” Liuzzi said. “It was exhilarating and I didn’t want to play a wrong note because the guys all around me were playing all the right notes, so it raised my level and my expectation of how to play and when to play and the right notes.”
Part of the experience at the camp is teaching kids mindfulness, as a tool for the students to both balance the stressors that come with pursuing a music career and to find their own sense of self as they pursue life after high school.
Students learn through dance lessons with Temple University professor Rhonda Moore and yoga taught by mindfulness counselor Maddie Fontaine.
Fontaine works with Sky Schools, a nonprofit organization that helps teachers and students practice self-care to manage stress.
“I’ve noticed when I’m going into schools that there’s this general sense of apathy, like kids just not caring and losing excitement and motivation and passion,” she said. “And I think that mindfulness can really help reinvigorate students and kids to have that sense of awe and wonder about the world and then actually inspire them to go out and do the things that they want to do and give them the courage that they can do that.”
Music director Don Liuzzi said mindfulness is a key tenet of great musicianship.
“You have to be kind of like a window where light goes through you and the music just goes through you,” he said. “And so mindfulness is all about being present. And in the meditation, part of mindfulness is really letting go of past or future or judgments or self-criticisms and just letting your best happen.”
Liuzzi says he and other musicians at the camp will try and mentor students afterward to make sure they reach their full potential.
Kinney also brought in Louis Scaglione, president and music director of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra Music Institute, one of the nation’s oldest community music education and youth orchestra performance programs.
He said he was motivated to join the program to help kids fill in some of the music learning gaps that arose during the school year.
“It’s important to bring them out to a place as beautiful as the Stables at Fox Crossing to participate in music learning combined with the mindfulness activities,” he said, “… in order to refine their center and refine their balance, as it were, so that they could go back home after a week of doing this and really bring this level of renewed spirit and mind to their school and to their school work and the school year and their music learning that’s to come.”
The most popular part of the camp for the kids, according to Denise Kinney, has been the grooming and grazing of the horses on the property, designed to relax the students and put them in a comfortable headspace to play music.
“They stand in line for the horses, and none of them have touched a horse. I was surprised when I would teach them to lead. … Some of them were pretty good, but none of them had done anything. And last night, they did all the feeding for 40 horses,” she said. “They had a blast.”
Kera McCarthy, a rising senior and violinist from Northeast Philly, said at first, the concept of merging meditation, music, and horses didn’t make much sense to her.
“But then after experiencing two or three days of it now, I see the connection. It’s like we’re all so focused on our instruments. That’s what we do,” she said. “Then the mindfulness helps you step away and also focus on that. And then horses are just a completely different area that also connected mindfulness through that.”
McCarthy said she missed out on multiple auditions because of the pandemic, but feels much better prepared for them now, since Music and Mindfulness hosted Philadelphia Orchestra cellist Yumi Kendall to talk to the campers about best preparing for auditions.
“What I learned was, don’t do the audition because you want to be the best or you just want to go to the place. Do it for yourself, for the piece of music,” she said. “Also, not to get too stuck in your head in the moment, because we all do so much preparation leading up to it and when you’re actually there, just focus on giving the best performance you can give and not what others are thinking about you.”
McCarthy said she’s excited to have made valuable connections and friendships with kids she otherwise never would have met, and she looks forward to incorporating mindfulness and breathing techniques into her everyday life moving forward.
Campers will spend the rest of the week learning mindfulness techniques, grooming horses at the stables, and practicing as a chamber orchestra.
On Sunday, the kids will play one final concert together and meet the donors who sponsored them to attend the camp. Kinney doesn’t plan on running the camp next summer, since it was principally designed to help students through this COVID-affected summer. But she, Liuzzi, and Scaglione all hope the kids will be able to incorporate mindfulness into their everyday lives, and make the most of the invaluable mentorship connections, both of which are vital to succeeding as a musician and in post-high school life as a whole.
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