Professional Choral Institute at
Aspen Music Festival and School
Our Executive Director Rhett M. Del Campo discusses his experiences with the Aspen Music Festival and School.
Tell us about your professional music background and AMFS’s influence on your music career.
I was trained as a classical percussionist at New England Conservatory of Music and received two degrees in music performance. During my junior year of college, I realized I needed to broaden my education, and was accepted into the Aspen Music Festival. I returned for two more summers because, at AMFS, I had the unique experience of studying with a number of world-class teachers, while also performing alongside them. The ability to play next to my teachers, to learn what it takes to do the job and become a world-class performer, was the best music education I could have received. My playing, level of confidence and professionalism improved immensely during my three summers in Aspen.
How did the idea of partnering with the Aspen Music Festival and School come about?
The partnership idea came about as I considered ways we could accomplish our goals with the Professional Choral Institute. I was looking for opportunities that lined up with what we stand for – and Aspen Music Festival was definitely top of mind for me because I knew our missions aligned perfectly. We both strive to educate talented, college-aged, pre-professional musicians and give them a chance to perform with the world’s finest artists. The Aspen Music Festival and School gives previous iterations of the Professional Choral Institute much more validation and context because not only will students be immersed in Seraphic Fire’s artistic culture, but our students also will be surrounded by hundreds of professional musicians, administrators and world-class conductors.
What was the process of forming the partnership like?
Forming the partnership took about three years. First, we brought the idea to AMFS President and CEO Alan Fletcher — who was also the Provost at New England Conservatory during the late 90s, when I was an undergraduate student there. The ideation process involved back and forth conversations between the two institutions so that all constituents could get to know each other and see if a symbiotic partnership could form.
The second part of the development process began by studying the logistics, costs and funding requirements of getting our program launched and serving our students. Keep in mind, we had to balance the resources of a large organization, the Aspen Music Festival, with those of a small organization, Seraphic Fire.
The third and final phase was to execute, and to do so quickly. We finalized our agreement in August 2017 and applications for our first cohort opened in September 2017. We had to find ways to spread the word around the country through college professors who were actively working with pre-professional vocalists. We held live auditions at a national conference in November and fielded and reviewed nearly 60 applications, all the while working through logistical kinks and developing collateral, policies and procedures on the fly. We were extremely pleased with the high level of interest and of talent. Getting a chance to see the students and faculty in one room on the first day of the program gave me a tremendous sense of pride – within the first five minutes of rehearsal the students were already being groomed and learning from the country’s best vocal ensemble artists.
What do you hope students with gain from PCI?
1) Contacts. At AMFS, you have the opportunity to meet, work and connect with musicians and administrators from all around the world. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to leverage these connections throughout your entire music career. You can rely on them as part of your network of support – someone who can help you with an audition, a job interview, or just provide some sage advice.
2) Insight on how to prepare a challenging program in little time. We want these talented students to learn the nuances and techniques of singing in a small ensemble, of putting a challenging program together in very little time, of being held to the highest professional standards. From our first rehearsal we reminded students of AMFS’s high standard of professionalism and the importance of upholding its long tradition of artistic excellence. They are setting the bar for this program’s future student cohorts.
3) Access to contractors of professional ensembles. At the end of their time with PCI, students will sing in a showcase that serves as an audition for contractors of various professional ensembles from around the country. Our hope is that, with the high degree of professionalism students have already demonstrated, many of them will begin finding professional work and launching their careers.
What is one piece of advice you wish you had received during your time as an AMFS student?
Take care of your relationships. As a student it’s very easy to put your head down and bury yourself in the practice room. I certainly don’t discourage it. But, this is a time when you are traveling around the country meeting hundreds of different people. You have the opportunity to build relationships with those who can influence your career — as a performer, an administrator, in whatever you do. Take care of those relationships. Maintain those relationships. Don’t let your ego get in the way of asking for help or advice. As a student it’s easy to get competitive with your colleagues, but remember: down the road, those relationships can greatly influence your career.
One anecdote: I went on a hike this week with Cynthia Yeh, the principal percussionist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We met 20 years ago, in 1998, at AMFS. We were young, green and ambitious. Our music paths were very different. Cynthia got her first full-time job with the San Diego Symphony before obtaining her current position in Chicago. I took a little longer to develop as a player (perhaps I didn’t get enough head-down time in the practice room), then worked in the opera and ballet world in Europe before leaving performance and finding myself (unexpectedly) in a prolonged period of career transition. But Cynthia and I stayed in touch, and we frequently have discussions on, for instance, how to improve communications between artists and administrators. I truly value my friends and colleagues with different experiences, viewpoints and expertise. I never have a shortage of people to call on for advice, and that is thanks to the myriad opportunities I’ve had to interact with artists from all walks of life — opportunities that the Professional Choral Institute is providing to its first class of students.