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Camaraderie keeps kids at this music camp upbeat

Kinhaven rejects relentless competition and boosts a love for simply playing music

After two summers of cutthroat competition at music camp, budding cello player Zoe Weiss began to reconsider her enthusiasm for the experience.

"At [my previous camp], all 700 of us were categorized by age, with uniforms and different-colored socks ... it was really quite silly," laughs the high-schooler, lounging barefoot on a grassy knoll that overlooks thirtysome acres of green hillsides. "We rushed through lessons, and on 'Bloody Friday' we had to challenge our friends for better orchestra seats."

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So this summer, Zoe opted for a different approach. Her music-playing still occupies most of her day at her sleepover camp. The competition to get in is tough - about 1 in 3 applicants are accepted. But the philosophy at Kinhaven Music School in Weston, Vt., has won her over.

Instead of jockeying rabidly for orchestra seats, students receive assignments on a rotating basis. Kids experience sitting at the front and back of the orchestra and learn to play because the music is beautiful, not because they want to beat out every other violinist for first chair.

"The goal of Kinhaven is not just to take the really good players and get them into a music conservatory, but to teach them more about themselves through the dedicated study and performance of music," says Mary Watt, a longtime oboe teacher at the camp.

The camp strives to remind kids of the pure enjoyment of playing music - regardless of whether their skills land them in a famous orchestra. At mealtime, for example, a few students or teachers spontaneously break into singing. In seconds, more singers join in, and soon a cacophony of normal camp chatter yields to a chorus of old English madrigals. "We're an aesthetic music camp ... sometimes we just like to break into spontaneous combustions for the pure love of music," says director of admissions Nancy Bidlack.

Pottery and practicing

The daily routine at the camp blends both music and more traditional summer-camp activities. In the afternoon, kids can do pottery, sports, or sit on the hill talking. In line with camp philosophy, there are rousing athletic games, but no one keeps score in soccer, and no one is allowed to strike out in softball games.

All other hours are devoted to instrumental practice and private lessons. Students share at least one common musical experience: choral singing. "We believe choir improves their ability to play their instruments. We're purists that way," Mrs. Bidlack says. Some activities are more individualized, such as learning to make one's own reeds in the workshop. Each weekend, both staff and students perform free concerts for the public.

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The idea, staff members say, is to give fourth- through 12th-graders a well-rounded and memorable musical experience. "Maybe a third of students here will go on to play professionally, but everyone takes with them an experience that will last their whole life," says Ms. Watt, a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music in New York and professional oboist. "Alumni always remember the Vermont hillsides, and recall how they learned from their time here, especially having to concentrate really intensely on a goal for a long time and learning to work together. It's amazing how it seems to work year after year."

The story of Kinhaven began with Dorothy and David Dushkin in 1953. The musician couple moved to Weston and began to experiment with David's dream of having kids in a musical setting for 24 hours a day instead of only teaching them for an hour or so in the midst of other activities. The Dushkins were exacting musicians and understood the rigors of practicing, But they also kept a weather eye to individual needs and what experiences would build well-rounded people.

In the late 1960s, Jerry Bidlack, Nancy' husband, arrived at camp to take a friend's place on the faculty for a week. He never left. He recently retired from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania but still conducts the Young People's Philharmonic of Lehigh Valley. He spends every summer at Kinhaven, where he and his wife have been directors since 1981. Jerry and Nancy audition students during the year and plan the summer programs, which range from junior and senior groups to an adult workshop. They also teach and conduct.

Conducting in bare feet

The Bidlacks have worked to maintain the low-key character of the camp - Jerry has been seen wielding his baton while sporting bare feet. They have kept up with camp traditions, ranging from the focus on chamber music, to folk dancing, to having students join hands and sing madrigals around the belltower before bedtime.

That focus on singing has changed the views of at least some campers. "Before I came here, I hated singing. Now I can't go a day without singing," says Bob Stevens, a high school senior who plays percussion. "You just fall into the traditions here and make them your own." Bob came here this summer to decide if he wanted to pursue art or music in college. He had thought for years that he would pursue art, but after two weeks at Kinhaven, he decided on music. "The best part is, I've learned how to really feel music, and not just play it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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