Going Big From Home
How DSO musicians created the orchestra’s first summer institute – entirely online
Everyone has heard the phrase ‘go big or go home.’ But when the pandemic left DSO musicians unable to perform in person, they knew they had to go big from home — fortified by a few hundred post-it notes.
When the 82 musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra went home in March, with no way of knowing when they would be able to return to the stage, they started asking: what can we do? As more concerts and events were cancelled, their thoughts turned to the pre-professional musicians who would be finding themselves in the same situation: wanting to perform and grow and becoming increasingly starved for community.
From this new reality, an idea hatched: a week-long summer festival that would guarantee each student private lessons, masterclasses, and participation in mock auditions, as well as more holistic offerings such as panel conversations and wellness courses: the first DSO Summer Institute.
Attending summer festivals is a vital ritual for young musicians pursuing performance careers. At 26, Principal Flute Hannah Hammel was still attending festivals herself during the summer immediately leading up to her winning audition with the DSO in the fall of 2019. “The lessons I had were extremely beneficial for my development,” says Hannah, who co-led the institute planning process with horn Johanna Yarbrough. “At these festivals you have close access to musicians playing at an incredible level. At the Tanglewood Music Center I was able to study with Boston Symphony Orchestra Principal Flute Elizabeth Rowe, who is a personal role model for me—the only female principal flute playing in a top five orchestra. Beyond the lessons, she’s stayed available to me and helped me with auditions and career advice.”
“ Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and coordinating the Summer Institute! It meant a lot to me as an international student who’s stuck here alone for the summer. I definitely see a clearer path towards a successful audition now. I’m looking forward to my first real audition after the pandemic. ”Summer Institute Participant You Yang (flute)
Getting from point a to point b to produce the new DSO summer festival, and facilitating the inaugural program entirely online, meant a lot of conversations and determining what expectations would be realistic while ensuring top-of-the-line instruction—with quality microphones largely out of stock from pandemic-caused demand for technology products, musicians and participants alike would have to be comfortable working with the best they had available to them.
The technology alone could have been the sticking point, but “I was really impressed with the musicians’ willingness to learn new technology tools,” says Hannah. “As musicians we’re required to know how to reply to emails. Technology is just not part of our job description.” Ultimately, the format chosen for the Institute was, you guessed it: Zoom.
Along with its challenges, the virtual scenario also created new opportunity. From the idea’s inception, access and diversity were important goals. “Holding the institute online meant that candidates from across the US could attend without travel expenses and allowed us to make tuition itself entirely free. To support racial equity we reached out to the Sphinx Organization and the National Alliance for Audition Support and I directly emailed many HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges or Universities). Diversity in classical music is an important goal of the entire DSO organization, and it’s what we are most proud of achieving with the institute.”
With 113 participants chosen from 400 applications, organization and scheduling became a full-time job, “From securing the seventy musicians who volunteered to instruct, to leading the application adjudication process and scheduling the daily activities, Hannah and I worked 6-8 hours each day in the months leading up to the Institute,” says Johanna. The schedule for each institute day was rigorous; on opening day there were fourteen group classes, seventy individual lessons, and eight masterclasses, along with a panel conversation, “Auditions: The Other Side of the Screen and Secrets to Success.”
The mock audition process mirrored what musicians would experience in-person as closely as possible, “This is something we paid close attention to,” say Hannah and Johanna. “We didn’t want them to experience any blips or delays that can occur over Zoom, so they were allowed to record their audition in advance. They were given a master list of possible works weeks in advance, but since they would be recording the piece and not playing it live, we notified them which piece from the list they would need to perform just one hour before their scheduled time, so the process would reflect what happens at a real audition, including the pressure that comes along with that. We have a new appreciation and understanding of what arts administration entails now!”
The community formed during a traditional summer institute, where participants often dorm together and can bond at the end of demanding days with conversation, games, and a drink or two, wasn’t overlooked. Zoom “afterglows” were held with conversation often riffing off topics covered during the day to break the ice. After a panel conversation on auditions, the night’s afterglow naturally evolved into a share circle on audition horror stories, “My horror story was turning right into a Q-line train on my way to play a concert during my trial period last year,” says Hannah. “The front bumper of my Buick Encore fell off, and the train’s back bumper. I was standing in the dark, unfamiliar with Detroit, waiting for the transit police to come make a report, with the concert time getting closer. I literally told them I was on my way to an audition and I couldn’t miss it. One of the police officers said he’d been to a DSO concert and I told him he should definitely come back!” These are the priceless connections that humanize professional musicians in the eyes of students, and encourage them that while things may happen that are outside of their control, the stage is just beyond the obstacle at hand and is so worth fighting for.
The DSO has a long history of overcoming challenges, and that ability to overcome is in large thanks to a lesson learned at the start of the decade: a healthy organizational culture means musicians and staff work together to produce artistic excellence; everyone has a voice, and transparency in decision making is a cornerstone. One week into Michigan’s stay-at-home order, this philosophy led to the creation of an Innovation Team; comprised of administrative staff and six musicians, the team met weekly and was tasked with conceptualizing and facilitating projects that would help the organization thrive. It was here that the idea was first brought to the table of a summer music festival.
“ The DSO is the right organization to create and host a summer festival because the musicians’ leadership, involvement, and enthusiasm is unparalleled. ”
“The musicians that comprised the faculty were eager to be a part of the Summer Institute and give back to the next generation of musicians," says Hannah. "Everyone went above and beyond to plan their lessons and classes. The DSO management was very supportive of this initiative and the participants were prepared, respectful, and grateful. The excitement, willingness, and support of all involved was crucial to the Summer Institute’s success. It is rare to find this kind of commitment and passion and that’s a big part of what makes the DSO so special.”
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