Amal Biskin has been playing the violin since she was 5 years old. His parents, both musicians, demanded it. “It was as basic and obligatory as doing my homework or brushing my teeth,” she said. Originally from New York, his training included private lessons and attendance at an intensive music school from kindergarten through eighth grade.
In 2017, when she was 14, she heard about the senior session at Weston’s Kinhaven Music School – a unique six-week immersive experience for top notch young musicians like herself.
At first, Amal was skeptical. She had spent two weeks at a music camp the previous summer and found it “full of highly competitive 13-year-olds, tough teachers and exclusive social cliques”. She feared not enjoying a month and a half in an environment like that.
Luckily, that’s not what she found in Kinhaven. When she arrived at Weston, students and faculty greeted her with “overwhelming warmth and enthusiasm”, she said. “I could tell I was in a very different place.”
Indeed, Kinhaven is a music camp that proudly marches to its own pace.
Located on a 31-acre former dairy farm, Kinhaven specializes in classical chamber music, orchestral and piano instruction. Students live, rehearse and perform on campus. The school hosts a variety of music programs each summer for middle and high school students, as well as adults, though it is perhaps best known for the senior session, which features 100 elite level musicians. secondary schools across the country. The students who come to Kinhaven are serious musicians, and about 70% of them study music at university, often in prestigious programs such as the Juilliard School, the Curtis Institute of Music and the Manhattan School of Music.
Getting into senior session is tough, said trombonist Anthony Mazzocchi, who has co-directed the program with his wife, violinist Deborah Buck, since 2011. About 40 of the 100 slots are taken by returning students – once they are accepted, they don’t have to apply again. This leaves only 50-60 places open to newcomers, and hundreds apply each year.
But while each student must go through a competitive audition process, “that’s where the competition ends,” Mazzocchi said. Instead of Hunger Games-style competition or the brute-force teaching methods portrayed in movies like WhiplashKinhaven gets the most out of its young musicians by focusing on community, collaboration and fun.
This approach has been part of Kinhaven’s mission since its inception in 1952 by pioneering music teachers David and Dorothy Dushkin. The couple established the School of Musical Arts and Crafts, now known as the Music Institute of Chicago, before moving to Vermont. They turned the old barn on their property into music studios and living quarters for the initial cohort of 13 students. The Dushkins envisioned an immersive musical experience centered around vocals and chamber music – classical music performed by a handful of musicians rather than a full orchestra. They believed that students, freed from the stresses of their daily lives and surrounded by the outdoors and blue skies, could thrive there.
This was the case for Amal, who spent three summers in Kinhaven. She said performing chamber music with her peers was transformative. “It allowed me to discover a new relationship to music that was completely unique to me and that was no longer tied to my parents or my school,” she said. And being around other musicians in this idyllic setting helped her discover “the fun and camaraderie of playing music…I realized it was something that could bring me closer to people, rather than to force myself in a rehearsal room alone for hours every day.”
In Kinhaven, students spend at least four hours a day playing music. But after morning rehearsals and lunch, they can hit the pottery studio or the tennis court, or walk two miles to Weston to buy candy at the Vermont Country Store. Softball games, swimming and spontaneous folk dancing are also part of the experience.
Some Kinhaven beginners are surprised how much time they spend without their instruments in hand. For example, each evening ends with all the students (and some teachers) gathered outside to sing a set of Bach madrigals and chorales together.
New Jersey native and three-time attendee Gabriel Roth, currently a freshman at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, said students singing together under the stars “is probably my favorite Kinhaven tradition. You hear beautiful music floating around campus and see a community of music lovers making music together.”
Mazzocchi called it “the most magical part of camp”.
Cellist Frida Rahmani, a freshman at Purchase College at the State University of New York, admits that at 17 she was embarrassed to display her vulnerability. “The thought of my singing voice being heard or people seeing me dancing really sent shivers down my spine,” she said. “But in the end, I miss singing and dancing as much as the orchestra and chamber music, if not more.”
These activities make demanding music education more bearable. The students work extremely hard to perfect the chosen scores each week. Performances every Friday and Sunday are open to the public. Mazzocchi said that by the time the students leave they have performed six orchestral works and up to 10 or 12 chamber pieces. “It’s very intense,” he said.
Kinhaven’s emphasis on chamber music helps students become better musicians overall, said faculty member Carolyn Wahl, who plays French horn with the Florida Orchestra. In a chamber music setting, “You have to listen. You have to adapt. You have to move together,” she said.
Most faculty members, like Wahl, teach at universities or play in professional orchestras and chamber ensembles. Many have been Kinhaven instructors for decades. At Kinhaven they work closely with the students, getting to know them musically and personally. Students and faculty eat meals together, help clean side-by-side facilities, and even just hang out.
This type of instruction does not come cheap. Although tuition has increased this year for the first time in a decade, the 2022 all-inclusive cost for the six-week senior session is $7,200. During his tenure as co-director, Mazzocchi worked to make Kinhaven more accessible. Need-based financial assistance is available. Mazzocchi and Buck have also developed partnerships with organizations in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles to enable more students to attend. About 20% of Kinhaven attendees are now students of color. However, Kinhaven does not attract many local students; just a handful each summer hails from Vermont.
Although Kinhaven was forced to cancel its 2020 session due to the pandemic, students returned last summer and will be back in June.
Mazzocchi said being on campus there relieved the stress and fatigue of everyday life during a pandemic. “The world needs places like Kinhaven more than ever,” he said.
Amal, who is now a freshman at Yale University, said her experiences at Kinhaven were nothing short of life changing. “I saw myself go from a shy 14-year-old to an outgoing freshman who took younger students under my wing (just like graduating seniors did for me),” he said. she writes in an email. She grew “from just an individual to part of something much bigger than me”.
That’s what Kinhaven is.