Updated Sept 27, 2023
Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music
Session 5, August 16-25, 1996
by Ryan Thomson
I'll confess that I'm writing about Apple Hill from a folk musician's point of view. I'm opinionated, and I know what I do and don't like. That said, I'll set the record straight from the beginning: I liked the camp a lot, the faculty, the location, the food, the music, and the other students I met. My own musicianship improved measurably as a result of my experience and I plan to attend again.
Apple Hill has an admirable mission, that is, to help bring peace and cooperation to the world through the language of classical music. The school is open to the paying public and in addition offers scholarships to mideastern students from several different countries with great political and religious differences. This is done on purpose because the process of bringing them together at Apple Hill proves that they can work together with a common goal.
The very nature of chamber music requires close teamwork and so to make really good music together, the musicians must work together, and in the process, often become close friends. We all know that improved communication between peoples can resolve lots of cultural and political divisions. The spirit of communication at Apple Hill involves students and staff growing together in both musical and social ways.
The camp site itself, situated in rural New Hampshire, is similar to that of most other music camps I've attended. The cabins are rustic, with simple cots. The setting is woodsy and situated on a hillside involving a bit of hiking up and down from cabin to dining hall and back several times a day. The surrounding woods were full of wild blackberries during the particular session I attended, a real plus from my point of view.
There is a fine clay tennis court for those so inclined, and a swimming pond within hiking or jogging distance. There's a rehearsal building, formerly a barn, with numerous practice rooms and a ping pong table that received continuous use. Everyone ate meals together in the dining hall which doubled as a performance space for student and public concerts. The food was good and plentiful. Between meals snacks were available 24 hours a day.
Besides lots of organized music making, activities at the camp included going to town to the movies, a skit night, an open coffee house performance evening, meal time concerts for and by the assembled campers, a joke telling session, jazz performances by local musicians and a final public performance of the classical pieces we had all worked diligently on for the entire session.
There were no formal individual music lessons as such at Apple Hill. Rather, students were expected to study their assigned pieces on their own, and the faculty acted as "coaches," to shape the evolving chamber pieces into the best possible group form. I found the process to be a mix of very hard work with very rewarding consequences.
At the final public performances of my Bach and Handel ensembles, I felt all of my hard work and that of my fellow musician's paying off, as we all played our best to a very appreciative audience of other campers, staff, parents, and community members. In short, I had a blast!
I was aware of the social and cultural purpose of Apple Hill from the printed information I received on applying, but I'll admit that my first impulse was to attend merely upon the basis of the high quality of the musical experience available. As this was my first experience with formal classical music making, I'll comment upon the differences from my folk music experiences.
The biggest difference I found was that the classical musicians played or practiced in intense and isolated bursts of activity. After a typical practice, rehearsal, or performance session, all of the instruments would be carefully packed away in a separate instrument storage place, and most everyone would go off to play pingpong, hike, eat, or swim etc.
At a folk music camp there is always spontaneous live music happening continuously, before and after practices, rehearsals, and performances. I found this difference a bit disconcerting at first. After productive rehearsals with my ensemble I was usually warmed up and ready to play more music, perhaps a different piece or with another group, but not yet ready to go off to do a non musical activity.
I'm used to unwinding after an intense group practice by improvising, or playing a completely different type of music in a relaxed way. After several days at Apple Hill I had worked out a personal routine that helped me adjust to the classical regimen. After a Bach or Handel rehearsal I would head outside with my fiddle and play a few jigs and reels to work the kinks out of my muscles.
This caused another interesting phenomena. On three separate occasions when doing this, someone approached me and asked a question like: "Why are you standing facing the parking lot?, or "why are you playing next to the clothes line?" At the time, I was intent on my playing, and didn't notice which direction I was facing or where I was standing.
I had merely gone outside the building to play, out of courtesy for those inside who may have not wished to be subject to my choice of pieces. I don't know if these occurrences were coincidences, or part of a larger pattern. It may be that classical musicians prefer to practice and perform in rehearsal rooms and on the public stage, and folk musicians are inclined to play virtually anywhere: on the bus; in the park; on a street corner, at the back yard barbecue, etc.
I found a great cooperative spirit at Apple Hill where everyone enthusiastically encourages everyone else in their musical endeavors. In this respect, the positive effect is greater than in most but not all folk music camps I've attended. Certainly the personalities and abilities of the Apple Hill staff led by Director and pianist Eric Stumacher had a lot to do with this, but since I haven't attended any other classical camps I can't generalize this finding. I suspect that Mr. Stumacher and his coworkers work their behinds off because they really believe in what they are doing at Apple Hill, and I tip my hat to them for their efforts.
There were two different night time events involving dancing, one to a rock and roll recording, and the other a "folk dance" to tapes. I had a difficult time participating at either of these dances due to my aversion to recreational dancing to recorded music. After 25 years of being a dance musician and an avid folk dancer, I guess that I've been spoiled by always being around wonderful live music.
Most everyone else though, seemed to be having a good time. I hope that the other campers didn't think that I was anti-social when I went off alone to play my fiddle or piano during these events. I felt a bit better about this situation after I took my fiddle into the camp kitchen one night and started played Celtic and French folk dance tunes. Within a couple minutes there were several dancing couples spontaneously whirling around the food preparation table.
I found the musical experience incredibly rewarding at Apple Hill. The musicianship was extremely high from both the staff and most of the students. I enjoy being around people who's dedication to music is similar to my own. There is a common bond between people who devote most of their life activity to such a purpose. I also made a good number of new friends. From my observations, the camp is succeeding well in its aims and goals. Check it out!
written by Ryan Thomson, 1996