Doorways to Excellence
In Environmental Science
In Chamber Music


The following article was written by Henry McNulty for the Hotchkiss Magazine.

They caught crayfish in the streams, performed Mozart at dusk, considered the environmental impact of a beaver dam, practiced vocal technique, removed invasive species from a pond, and heard breathtaking performances by some of the world's top chamber musicians. For students in the Hotchkiss Summer Portals program, 2005 was not only a year to remember, but also it was a life-shaping experience.

"Hotchkiss has probably jump-started my highest leap in musicality," says Zenas Hsu, one of last summer's students, who is now in the 10th grade at Lynbrook High School in Cupertino, Calif. Adds Charlotte Day-Reiss, now a prep at Hotchkiss: "I have lived in this area for almost six years, but until my first environmental summer program here, I really had no idea where I was living or what was happening around me."

Hotchkiss Summer Portals, which began in 2004, is an intense, in-depth, three-week immersion in either instrumental chamber music or environmental science for students ages 12 to 15; a parallel two-week vocal chamber music program is held for students 15 to 18. Summer Portals is highly selective; of the 240 already high-achieving students who applied last year, only 73 were accepted. But those who made the cut are enthusiastic about the experience. "There were so many things that I learned from all the wonderful guest artists who came to teach at Summer Portals," says Madeline Fayette, a cellist now in the 9th grade at Albert Prodell Middle School in Shoreham, New York "I got to experience working with a lot of professionals. It was really cool, to put it bluntly!"

Learning by Doing

Although both music and environmental students share dorm space, eat together, and attend one another's performances and presentations during three weeks in July, the science and music components have separate faculty and curricula. They are together at Hotchkiss largely because of the School's long-standing parallel commitments to environmental responsibility and musical excellence.

Robert J. Barker, Dean of Summer Programs at Hotchkiss, maintains that a key to the success of Summer Portals is its emphasis on hands-on learning. "It's not really accurate to say that the kids 'learn' environmental science here," he says. "They actually 'do' environmental science – quite literally in the field. And in the music program, although there are fabulous opportunities to hear first-class chamber music being performed, that's not where the emphasis is. We emphasize making music yourself, and with others."

Students come from around the world to attend Summer Portals: In 2005, Jamaica, the Netherlands, Poland, Canada, Australia, and China were represented, as well as the states of Virginia, Ohio, New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, Georgia, and Illinois. "The most enjoyable part of the summer program for me was the time to learn about each other," says Zenas Hsu. "Everyone came from a different part of the world, and it was extremely fun eating, practicing, and just hanging out with each other." Maddy Fayette concurs: "It is an awesome experience to meet kids from all over," she says, "and to learn about their lives and see just how similar they are to you in some ways."

There is also a measure of independence. "You are taught a lot about working with your peers without a teacher always sitting next to you," Maddy says. "It teaches you how to work with others – which I think is important not only in music but also in life."

Developing Eco-Awareness

For some students, the environmental science program is a two- or even three-year learning experience, Robert Barker notes. "The first year gives students the tools," he explains. "They study aquatic and terrestrial ecology, and learn how to select, collect, and analyze data; you might say they are given an environmental vocabulary. The second year, some students are invited back to spend three weeks with real-life environmental problems around Lakeville, to put into practice the skills they have learned."

Kevin Mattingly, the program's Environmental Director, says it's a thrill to see students become more aware of their part in the natural world. "For a lot of kids, particularly those from urban areas," he says, "one tree is pretty much like another the first time we go out in the woods. But then we start making distinctions – noting differences – and soon, they see things they never noticed before."

Last summer, Mattingly says, one student from the Bronx who previously hadn't identified species suddenly noticed a tree out of its natural habitat. "That's a black cherry!" he exclaimed. "What's a black cherry doing here?" Such moments "are what make teaching and learning so much fun," he says.

Mattingly, who is the former Aldo Leopold Environmental Science Chair holder at Lawrenceville, says an important part of the summer program is making students understand "the uncertainty of scientific knowledge – what you know and what you don't know. Science isn't just a collection of facts. A lot of the time, we don't know the answers ahead of time. 'What do you think?' is something you hear a lot."

Becoming Passionately Involved

This is particularly true, he says, when analyzing real-world environmental issues. Last summer, the students studied the ecology of the School's mulch and brush dump behind the golf course, and how it might affect a nearby brook; discussed the environmental impact of a beaver dam on property recently acquired by the School; studied invasive species at Beeslick Pond; and even debated the eco-friendliness of the Hotchkiss dining hall. No answers were known beforehand, Mattingly notes, but that's the way science is: "Good critical thinking," he says, "is asking good questions."

The out-in-the-wild aspect of Summer Portals is one of its attractions, says student Charlotte Day-Reiss. "Even if you didn't think you liked science," she says, "believe me, you'll like this, and learn more than you ever would in a classroom. In fact, I would recommend Summer Portals more to the kids who think they don't like science, who won't learn a thing in a regular classroom."

Kari Ostrem, the math and science department chair at Bronx Lab School in New York City, teaches at Summer Portals. She says it doesn't take long for the students to become passionately concerned about the environment. "One afternoon, we discovered water chestnut, a potentially damaging invasive species, in Beeslick Pond," she said. "It got later and later, but the kids insisted on removing it all. 'We're not leaving until we get all the water chestnut out!' one of them shouted."

Studying environmental science firsthand "is a rare opportunity to immerse yourself in a subject," she says. "And it makes the kids actually think about the impact of the lifestyle decisions they make."

Director Mattingly expects that Summer Portals has another effect on the high-schoolers. "We hope it excites and interests them so much that they will think of science as a career path, if they hadn't before," he says.

Making Music -- Together

Christopher Shepard, the program's Music Director, has similar expectations. "Since we are talking about kids who will very likely pursue music as a career, we hope that they will be inspired by their experience at Hotchkiss," he says.

For the young musicians, an important goal of their weeks in Lakeville is to learn to perform not just better, but more cooperatively. "So much of learning an instrument at this stage is the slog of daily practice, working on technique and repertoire," Shepard says. "Too few programs focus on the collaborative experience of making music together, and learning to express your musical and artistic intentions and opinions. It's hard enough to stand up for yourself as an adult; it is infinitely more difficult to do it at a point in your life where 'what people think of you' is of such importance."

Shepard is Director of Music at Sydney Grammar School in Australia. For him, one of last summer's highlights was seeing four individual musicians learn to work as an ensemble. "I watched a quartet in which communication had almost completely broken down grow into a wonderful group, each member learning to express his or her opinion and also listen to others' thoughts," he says.

In addition to student performances – there are three Saturday afternoon concerts – visiting artists and resident faculty also perform. All the events, many in the new Katherine M. Elfers Hall in the Esther Eastman Music Center, are free and open to the public. In 2005, performers included the Miami String Quartet, the Mendelssohn String Quartet, and acclaimed violinist Ida Kavafian. This year, the Miami String Quartet, the Brentano Quartet, and Opus One (Kavafian's quartet) are scheduled. Two members of the Philadelphia Singers will return as resident voice teachers for this year's vocal program.

Lakeville in the Summer

Word is getting out about the excellence of the performances, Dean Robert Barker says. In 2004, the average attendance was about 50 to 100. Last year, the numbers had at least doubled; one concert drew almost 300 people.

Artistic Director of the music program is pianist Melvin Chen. "When we were able to hire Melvin, it was clear that we were on the road to something significant," Shepard says. "The generous funding that benefactors have provided is only one aspect of the success of a program like this. It's important to remember that these top professionals have very busy schedules, so you really can only engage them if they trust the people involved – and Melvin is one of the most respected musicians in the chamber music scene."

Even in an intense three weeks, the administrators of Summer Portals recognize that teenagers need some breaks – and the campus presents plenty of opportunities for that in the summer. "We don't just work and study," explains student Maddy Fayette. "There is definitely a lot of that, but you are not doing it 24/7. The campus is just marvelous; there are so many awesome planned activities. You can go swimming at the lake, use the fabulous fitness center, watch movies, or just hang in the common rooms with your friends."

Charlotte Day-Reiss agrees. "We ran around in the woods, caught crayfish in streams, went canoeing and spelunking," she says. "Any kid can appreciate that."

Adds violin student Zenas Hsu: "Within three weeks, you find that your attachment to Hotchkiss, its staff, and its participants, are almost that of family."

More Popular, More Selective

With the number of applicants growing, Director of Admission for Summer Programs Christie Rawlings '85 says the need is also growing to focus on the best and most diverse group possible. "We're looking for students who will interact with each other," she says. "And they must have passion, and be ready to throw themselves into the program, whether it's chamber music or environmental science."

Adds Robert Barker: "We don't want anybody here who thinks this is summer camp. It's not." And with such a highly selective group, it's important that egos don't get in the way of learning. "With all their gifts and talents, we expect the students to be humble," Rawlings says.

Music Director Christopher Shepard says that in a successful program, excellence builds on excellence. "The highest-quality music programs are a bit of a 'chicken and egg' affair," he explains. "You can't attract the best students without engaging the best faculty, and the best faculty won't come unless they can teach the best students. Hotchkiss Summer Portals' greatest strength is the happy synthesis of these two: the best students available taught by the best teachers available. Or is it the best teachers teaching the best students?"

Robert Barker and Christie Rawlings expect that the 2006 program will be only slightly larger than last year's. "We're hoping to have 70 to 80 students," he says. "We don't want it to grow so big that we lose the personal interaction. That's a vital part of Summer Portals."

« Back