summer festivals

What’s So Great About Summer Festivals?

On a warm afternoon in Santa Cruz, California, families wound through the Boardwalk amusement park as the morning’s surfers sunned themselves on the beach. A few blocks away, composer Dani Howard packed up her things and made her way to the next event inside the Civic Auditorium – her base for almost every waking hour of the past week.

One of the three young composers selected to attend the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music’s Composer Workshop, Howard had come to Santa Cruz not for its beach appeal, but for the opportunity to deepen her craft.

Each summer, musicians all over the country do the same. They dedicate sometimes a week, sometimes the entirety of what could be an off-season to participate in music festivals – frequently going out of their way to do so. The Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, for instance, consists of professional players volunteering their time. So, why? Summer festivals have become such an ingrained part of the music community that we may forget to ask ourselves that question. Are festivals just a way to keep busy, an extension of the regular concert season? Or is there something about these programs that can feel as rejuvenating as a day in the sun? To find out, 21CM took a closer look at the unique opportunities that summer festivals provide. 


The daily life of a musician is fraught with a thousand concerns, ranging from the purely musical to more complex administrative issues. We balance our activities as best we can, weighing one priority against the other and carving out slivers of time for passion projects. Summer festivals can offer a respite from these acrobatics. By securing a protected block of time, participants can focus on a particular aspect of their musicianship with a depth that may be hard to come by during the rest of the year.

For Dani Howard, Cabrillo was about learning how to work with a conductor and an orchestra to get a piece – “Haven,” written specifically for the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra – in its best possible performance condition. For the young conducting fellows in attendance, Cabrillo is about rising to meet the demands of leading an orchestra – something that ideally requires all of their attention. “It’s a lot of pressure for them,” Howard reported. “They’re constantly critiqued about things like how high their wrist is while they’re trying to think, okay, there’s limited rehearsal time for these new pieces – we need to get the work done.”

And for Marin Alsop, who celebrated her 25th and final season last year as Cabrillo’s music director, the festival has acted not only as an outlet for exploring new music, but also as “an incubator … to play out this fundamental philosophy” about connecting music with local communities. Alsop explained, “I believe deeply in access and inclusion of everyone to this art form. Chance and newness is scary, but Cabrillo is anything but scary. We’ve tried to make it as casual, as open, as welcoming as possible.” 


Make no mistake – the schedules at many summer music festivals are demanding, with days filled by rehearsals and lessons while evenings are reserved for concerts. But many festival attendees are attracted to the kind of breezy, joyful quality that also comes with these programs. Alsop describes Cabrillo as a chance for its orchestral musicians to “connect to that passion we had when we were 17- and 18-year-olds – that connection of why we’re all musicians.” 

Participants at other festivals have similar experiences. Sacha Peiser, a singer and Ph.D. Candidate in Music Theory and History at the University of Connecticut, is going on her seventh summer working at the Bowdoin International Music Festival in Brunswick, Maine, currently as music office director. The long days at Bowdoin can be unpredictable and relentless; when Peiser considers it, the demands of her regular academic year are “quite similar to [her] job at BIMF.” But Peiser thinks of Bowdoin as a place of rejuvenation: “The whole summer is so inspiring to me and I learn so much every year. I remember those aspects afterward, not the exhaustion. Spending a summer in Maine meeting world-class musicians, working with unbelievably talented students and listening to dozens of fantastic concerts – you can’t put a price on that kind of experience.” 


One of the most compelling opportunities of summer festivals is their ability to expose participants to new places, people and ideas. For many, summer festivals offer the chance to see a part of the country or the world for the first time. The Aspen Music Festival in Colorado affords hikes in the Rocky Mountains; the Aldeburgh Festival in the United Kingdom provides views of the rocky seaside that inspired composer Benjamin Britten. And this is to say nothing of the rare opportunity to meet and study with renowned musicians, who often use their time in the summer to teach at festivals, or to learn something you may not have learned anywhere else. 

Short-lived but dense, these impressions can prove to be as enduring as they are unexpected. For Howard, who grew up in Hong Kong and studied in London, not only was the Cabrillo Festival her first exposure to the American classical music scene; it was also the place where she first received an in-depth lesson on orchestral part production. She recalled this lesson with Cabrillo’s orchestra librarian, Ella M. Fredrickson, as one of the highlights of her experience: “It was about all the skills that a composer needs but you’re never taught by a composition teacher. It’s the engraving – she gave us systems for managing part rentals, contracts with commissioning bodies, paper types, paper sizes. I’ve learned a lot already because with some of the parts I sent, the paper was set in type that if you use a pencil, the notes can also be rubbed out. It’s silly things like this that we need to learn, that I think composers just try to figure out as they go along.”


Many musicians may think of summer festivals as something for which they must budget both time and money, but for many, festivals can act as an additional source of income and work experience. During the preceding months, programs all around the country send out recruiting calls for stage crew, technicians and administrators, offering opportunities to test out different work environments while honing skill sets. 

And what about those who run and teach at festivals? The success and abundance of different summer programs in existence should excite and inspire entrepreneurial musicians – why not start your own? The Round Top Music Festival in Texas began in 1971 with pianist James Dick’s desire to work with ten piano students over ten days; it has since expanded to an institution that hosts multiple festivals and concerts throughout the year. Since summer festivals are traditionally brief, starting one could provide the perfect opportunity to experiment with putting a new performance or teaching method into practice. Who knows what could happen afterwards?

Whether you’re a student, a teacher, an organizer, a freelancer, a musician aching for a change of scenery and a renewed sense of purpose – or all of the above – remember, there’s a reason why these kinds of short, inspirational festivals roll around this time of year. Now is the season to shake out your summer clothes, step out into the fresh air and wonder: What comes next? 

Elizabeth Nonemaker

Elizabeth Nonemaker is a composer, writer and managing editor for She writes about classical music for The Baltimore Sun and has worked for Children’s Radio Foundation and KPCC’s “The Frame.” As a composer, …more 

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