The Week to SOAR (String Orchestra Adult Retreat)
by Kaylene Duttchen
Aug. 7-12, 2022 I attended the String Orchestra Adult Retreat (SOAR) week in New Denver and Silverton, British Columbia. This is run concurrently with the Valhalla Fine Arts Summer School of Music. SOAR is organized by Anne Scott (cello instructor and conductor) and Ronelle Schaufele (viola and violin instructor). It provides opportunities for beginner to intermediate string players to play in an immersive orchestra, chamber music, attend technique classes and have private lessons from world class faculty. The culture is one of inclusive. The adult students range from a couple years of experience on
their instruments to one gentleman who started playing almost 70 years ago (yes he is still playing Mozart at over 80 years of age!). One brave soul who had only picked up a cello a couple years before described it as “drinking from a fire hose.” Yet the faculty makes it feel possible and the newer players do well. It is inspiring to see an adult take a chance and try something so challenging as playing a string instrument. This is truly a testament that adults can learn music at any age.
For me, it has been almost 30 years since I played in an orchestra or chamber music group. The camp came with etiquette guides for orchestra and chamber music. This helped me feel less likely to make a mistake but the orchestra experience was also joyously relaxed. When I would forget myself and tap my toe to the beat (an etiquette no-no), there was no reprisal. There were 9 violins, 4 violas, 7 cellos and a bass player. We played 3 different selections – an early baroque suite, a romantic period piece and a contemporary one. Each person is given a different orchestra seat and part for the pieces within the violin section. This is to give you the different orchestra experiences. I was surprised that sitting in the back of the second violins was much more challenging than at the first desk! It is much easier to follow a good conductor up close than try to know what it going on from the back row. Thank goodness for an experienced second violinist as a stand partner and a player with amazing rhythmic skills leading that second part for the baroque piece. I was so lucky to get to be in the “concert mistress” chair for our romantic piece – a big responsibility and beautiful piece of music. For the contemporary piece I was first violin, first desk, second chair. Here I got to rely on a very focused concert master beside me who hit some tough rhythms with great timing. The sense of being part of this group was exhilarating.
The afternoons included technique classes, chamber music and private lessons that were available but optional. I did not want to miss an opportunity so I did it all! Technique for violins and violas was instructed by Ronelle. She is both an inspirationally
accomplished player and a kind, encouraging teacher with a great sense of humor. She endeavored to provide the group of 5 students with enough technique exercises to fill a whole year. The 45 minutes was always too short and left me with the need to take notes so I did not forget all the great material. I also came away with hardcopies of many of the exercises.
My chamber music group started with 2 violins. My partner violin had just less than 70 years playing experience and a love of Mozart’s quartets, and we had a cello. The cellist brought a wonderful piece to work on, an enthusiastic smile and a lovely tone that I could listen to for hours. Our primary goal was a concerto for 2 violins from Vivaldi with our sonorous cello providing the bass part. However, our coach Ronelle, joined us to add viola for 2 other pieces and we had the fortune to acquire a violinist with such a great sense of rhythm for those 2 pieces so we also had a quintet. Sadly on the last day the cello player developed enough “symptoms” to wisely step out of the group environments (he is already recovering well and tested negative). The professional and amazing cellist Nigel Boehm stepped in so we could still perform. It took a true professional to be able to essentially sight read the cello part with us and that is a sign of how great our “amateur” cello was doing. The retreat and participants were committed to providing a safe environment and showed excellent judgement around risk management. This chamber music group was definitely a highlight for me.
Late in the afternoons I took part in the unbelievable opportunity to have private lessons with world class faculty. My first 2 were with Maria van der Sloot, a first violin for the Calgary Philharmonic, the concert mistress of the Calgary CIVIC and an overall extremely accomplished young woman. There is great intimidation for an adult music learner to play for this kind of performer. She was kind, constructive and listened to my personal challenges to adapt advice and technique to me. She clearly was not just a standardized teacher but a dynamic person who considered ways to solve problems more individualistically. I did not feel that as an adult learner I was less important than the virtuosic kids at the concurrent camp in that room. I did feel that the long hours I put into practice were starting to pay off and that there is hope I am advancing. My next two lessons were with Ronelle, who had already wowed me with her skill set and teaching attitude in our technique classes. I also felt a lot of pressure to be able to even play my solo Bach and concerto movement for this musician. I came away with encouragement, specific techniques to improve and details for phrasing and right hand improvement. I am a huge violin geek who reads everything I can get my hands on from technique books to things like the science of intonation. I am always trying to figure how to overcome my personal challenges. Both highly educated instructors welcomed my “geeky” over read thoughts with the grace of
The evenings had a welcome concert (Sunday), a world class faculty concert (Tuesday), a hootenanny sing along (Wednesday) and a wrap up concert (Friday). There were also offerings for adult woodwind players who had separate classes but joined some of the strings for chamber music. I met a flutist who had tried other retreats/camps but had to come back to this one because it was the best.
I came away with inspiration, the hope of a regular quartet to play with in Calgary and desire to play even more! The faculty at the overall summer school for music included us adult learners with right combination of support and kindness to make me feel they understood the value of adult learners. The two primary leaders of the SOAR, Anne and Ronelle, clearly dedicated their week to a passion to promote adults learning music. They understood how playing music lights a soul, stimulates a mind and keeps us all young.