15-year-old oboist Samantha Sandhaus has always dreamed of playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It all started when she first picked up the instrument in fourth grade. But she never thought she would get the chance.
“I never studied privately,” she said, “what I only recently discovered is kind of a problem.”
Growing up in North East Philly, her harmony teacher mother urged her to play the instrument because “there is always a need for the oboe.” But over the past year, as her school switched to virtual learning due to the pandemic, she struggled to practice as much as she had in previous years. For Samantha, who dreams of auditioning for music schools in the future, not being able to train for hours a day is a huge problem.
Samantha was elated when she received an email to be part of Music and Mindfulness, a one-of-a-kind orchestral music summer camp for advanced music students in underserved areas of Philadelphia.
The mission is to help student musicians meet future challenges related to university, conservatory or any other career path they choose after high school. Campers will spend eight days and seven nights at Fox Crossing Stables in Chester County, a training center for competitive riders.
Each day, students participate in dance and yoga expression, learn to groom stable horses, and have daily chamber orchestral rehearsals with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, all in the hope to fill some of the gaps in music learning that the pandemic has caused among campers. to live.
Earlier this week, Samantha’s longtime dream came true. She was fortunate to receive invaluable one-on-one lessons from Philadelphia Orchestra oboist Elizabeth Starr Masoudni.
“It doesn’t seem real. It’s weird that they’re just ordinary people. And I think it’s so easy to forget that everyone who plays an instrument is more than their instrument, ”said Sandhaus. “People call them gods because they’re so perfect. But they are so much more than that. And it’s really amazing to meet them and chat with them.
She said that without the camp, she would never have the opportunity to play with world-class musicians like Masoudnia.
“Definitely not. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, no matter where I am. It’s something that I realize is so rare and unique,” she said. “I’m so grateful for it. love!”
During the pandemic, many talented Philadelphia music students from underserved communities missed opportunities to perform in an orchestra and network with professional musicians.
Philadelphia high schools switched to virtual learning last year. This meant that the student musicians who usually depend on high school music lessons were unable to participate in college or conservatory auditions nearly as much as in a regular year. Many musicians also live in close quarters with family members and struggle to find a practice space to perform for the hours needed to master their craft.
Denise Kinney is the director of the camp and was the former general manager of Musicopia and Dancing Classrooms Philly. She got the idea for the week-long sleep camp after seeing many students she previously worked with in the city miss hearing and performance opportunities due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Truly musically talented students like these students here were well on their way to college. Musically, they could have succeeded. But with 10 people living in very small spaces, and you have to train for hours a day to do that, ”she said,“ how do you do that when you live in a room and you are there? always ? It was too difficult for most of them to overcome. So I wanted this to be their second chance.
Kinney also realized that talented Philly students often struggle to build networks of family members and professional mentors to support them.
“When my kids go to a concert, there are about 30 people in my family there. There is a village behind them, ”Kinney said. “And these kids sometimes have like a quarter of a parent because they have two jobs trying to make ends meet. And so I really try to build a village around each student.
To create her “village” for her campers, Denise enlisted friends and former coworkers from her work time with nonprofit music education organizations in Philly. For the venue, she enlisted the help of Marty Armstrong, a friend she met through horseback riding and who owns The Stables, to allow them to use her sprawling 40-acre property surrounded by cornfields and rolling hills. green.
The framework for these practices is, to say the least, unconventional. The orchestra of more than 30 musicians performs in an empty three-car garage with plastic mats on the floor, surrounded by tools hanging on the wall. The backdrop resembles a Microsoft computer screensaver, with green hills as far as the eye can see in all directions. Children sleep in trailers located to the side of the makeshift garage bedroom hall.
For music, Kinney reached out to Don Liuzzi, who is the music director of the camp and the principal timpanist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Liuzzi said having an involved mentor himself is one of the main reasons he was successful as a timpanist and motivated him to join the program.
“I was in high school in the All-City Orchestra and got to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra for a concert at the time,” Liuzzi said. “It was exhilarating and I didn’t want to play a bad note because the guys all around me were playing all the right notes, so it raised my level and my expectations of how and when to play and the right notes. “
Part of the camp experience is teaching children about mindfulness, as a tool for students to balance the stressors of pursuing a musical career and to find their own self-esteem as a result. that they continue with their lives after high school.
Students learn through dance lessons with Temple University teacher Rhonda Moore and yoga taught by mindfulness counselor Maddie Fontaine.
Fontaine works with Sky Schools, a non-profit organization that helps teachers and students take care of themselves to deal with stress.
“I noticed when I go to schools that there is this general feeling of apathy, like kids who just don’t care and lose their enthusiasm, motivation and passion,” a- she declared. “And I think mindfulness can really help reinvigorate students and kids to have that sense of awe and wonder about the world and then inspire them to go out and do the things they want to do. and give them the courage they can do. this. “
Music Director Don Liuzzi said mindfulness is a key part of great musicality.
“You have to be a bit like a window where the light goes through you and the music goes through you,” he said. “And so mindfulness is about being present. And in meditation, part of mindfulness is really about letting go of the past or the future or judgments or self-criticism and just letting the best happen.
Liuzzi says he and other musicians at the camp will try to mentor the students afterwards to ensure they reach their full potential.
Kinney also brought in Louis Scaglione, president and musical director of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra Music Institute, one of the oldest community music education and youth orchestral performance programs in the country.
He said he was motivated to join the program to help children fill in some of the gaps in music learning that occurred during the school year.
“It’s important to bring them to a place as beautiful as the stables at Fox Crossing to participate in music learning combined with mindfulness activities,” he said, “… in order to refine their focus and balance, so to speak, so that they can go home after a week of work and really bring that renewed spirit and spirit level to their school and school work and the school year and their learning of the music to come.
The most popular part of the camp for kids, according to Denise Kinney, was the grooming and grazing of the horses on the property, designed to relax the students and put them in a comfortable space to play music.
“They’re lining up for the horses, and none of them have touched a horse. I was surprised when I taught them to lead. … Some of them were pretty good, but none of them had done anything. And last night they fed 40 horses, ”she said. “They had a blast.”
Kera McCarthy, a rising senior and violinist from northeast Philly, said at first that the concept of merging meditation, music and horses didn’t make much sense to her.
“But after living two or three days now, I see the connection. It’s like we’re all so focused on our instruments. This is what we do, ”she said. “Then mindfulness helps you step away and focus on that as well. And then horses are just a whole different area that connects mindfulness through that as well. “
McCarthy said she had missed several auditions because of the pandemic, but felt much better prepared for them now, as Music and Mindfulness welcomed Philadelphia Orchestra cellist Yumi Kendall to speak to the campers for the best preparation for auditions.
“What I’ve learned is don’t audition because you want to be the best or just go out there. Do it for yourself, for the piece of music, ”she said. “Also, so that you don’t get too stuck in your head at the moment, as we all do a lot of preparation before that and when you’re actually there, just focus on the best possible performance and not on what other people are thinking. about you.”
McCarthy said she was thrilled to have made the precious connections and friendships with children she would never have met otherwise, and she looks forward to incorporating mindfulness and breathing techniques into her daily life. in the future.
Campers will spend the remainder of the week learning mindfulness techniques, grooming horses at the stables and training as a chamber orchestra.
On Sunday, the children will play a final concert together and meet the donors who sponsored them to attend the camp. Kinney does not plan to host the camp next summer as it was primarily designed to help students get through this COVID-affected summer. But she, Liuzzi, and Scaglione all hope that children are able to integrate mindfulness into their daily lives and make the most of the invaluable mentoring connections, both of which are essential for success as a musician and in life. post-secondary as a whole.