Camping with Strings Attached—Plus Brass, Woodwinds, Percussion

Camping with Strings Attached—Plus Brass, Woodwinds, Percussion

For many Minnesotans, summer camp means mosquitos, al fresco cooking, fishing, and fireside singalongs of old-time camp tunes. Few campers, however, can report learning to play the boisterous Roman Carnival Overture by Hector Berlioz. Or performing it in a sold-out concert hall alongside world-class members of the Minnesota Orchestra led by Osmo Vänskä. Or earning a standing ovation.

“There’s nothing like 150 to 200 individuals coming together and becoming its own instrument,” said Victoria Honetschlager, a flutist and physics teacher who decided to revive her interest in performing by applying to the Orchestra’s Fantasy Camp. 

That’s what the camp was like for 51 musicians ranging in age from 20 to 70—two full days of musical immersion in late July at Orchestra Hall. For some, the experience fulfilled enduring dreams of playing with a major symphony orchestra. Although not required to audition, they submitted essays describing their backgrounds and motivations. Many had played with other ensembles but sometimes not for decades. For part of one week, they were embedded in every section of the orchestra.

This was the Orchestra’s second Fantasy Camp, six years after the first, and musicians attended from across the state― and some even from outside Minnesota. Each camper paid $600 for the experience, plus travel expenses.

Before gathering in Minneapolis, they had practiced their parts for weeks at home and played along with YouTube recordings of the Berlioz piece.

During the camp, they rehearsed in small groups led by orchestra members and with the full Orchestra led by Vänskä and Sarah Hicks, principal conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall. They learned what it takes to conduct (three campers briefly conducted a string quartet), as well as to plan a season’s worth of concerts and to audition for a job with a symphony orchestra. And they shared music stands with full-time Orchestra musicians during rehearsals and the concluding concert.

Some campers grew apprehensive at the tempo they thought Maestro Vänskä might demand. Laura McCullough, a 56-year-old violinist from Chanhassen, was among them.

“I might step out and just keep counting” beats until the speed becomes more manageable, she said the day before the concert. 

She need not have worried. Orchestra members who led sectional rehearsals said such “air bowing” or phantom playing would be acceptable during difficult passages.

Gabriel Campos Zamora, the Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, told woodwind Campers, “If you feel your tongue getting fatigued, you can skip every other beat. I won’t fault you for that.”

But he also cautioned them to reenter precisely on time: “Maintain the pulse when you’re not playing….Don’t try to slow down the train and then get on it.” Such split-second playing might require taking a breath a little sooner than usual, he said.

Raye Eyrich, a 62-year-old oboist from Willmar, said she felt “a moment of panic” before the first orchestral rehearsal when a key on her instrument fell off. But she found the screw that held it in place and the orchestra’s second-chair oboist used his oboe toolkit to reattach the key. 

“Hindsight tells me I should have had the horn looked over before camp,” she said.

Sam Grabarski, a 70-year old bassoonist who once studied at the Juilliard School in New York, said the rehearsals showed him how much the professionals focus on details.

“The specifics of the rhythms, the tempos, the blending of sounds are elements that matter much to professionals but are often lost in playing with less-trained musicians,” he said.

As for battling performance anxiety, Orchestra violinist Michael Sutton tried to put the campers at ease.

“You don’t need to be as nervous as you think you do,” he said. “Trust your training…your gut and instinct. For one piece, you belong here…You’ve practiced. You’ve paid money….It’s going to be fun….It’s fantastical. It’s a fantasy camp.”

Besides, he added, “So many little [musical] sins disappear over the lip of the stage” between orchestra and audience. “Something magic happens.”

He urged the campers to enjoy the camaraderie and humor that infuses the Minnesota Orchestra.

“We are an exceptionally goofy set of people,” he said. “The violas are almost out of control.”

His advice resonated with some campers, who chose not to spend the night before the concert sweating over their parts. Oboist Eyrich said she chatted with a friend and watched TV: “My state of mind was pretty peaceful.”

Meanwhile, Pam Jaworski, 45, a horn player and a doctor, said she logged on to her computer to catch up on work, then “fed my kids and snuggled with them while they watched a movie. When we tucked them in, we talked about how they would be going to Orchestra Hall to watch the morning rehearsal the next day….I think they were just as excited to come there and see me on the stage as I was to be there.”

For Music Director Vänskä, the infusion of campers into his Grammy-winning Orchestra was not a recipe for lower quality. 

“It’s not a sacrifice,” he said. “We want to share the joy of music here with other people too.”

During rehearsals, he said, “I haven’t heard too many wrong notes….I don’t hear every individual instrument.” That should have reassured the campers, he added, because the Orchestra’s professional musicians surround them with a musical safety net.

During the concert, Vänskä was his usual lively self on the podium, and the campers looked just as intense as the regulars. If there was the errant “click” of a violin bow striking a music stand, the casual listener couldn’t tell who committed that particular little sin.

In any case, Vänskä said he would like the Orchestra to hold another Fantasy Camp sooner rather than later.

After the concert, it was clear the experience had ignited a spark.

Flutist Honetschlager already has signed up for weekly lessons and plans “to get serious about refining my technique and skills and auditioning for several local community orchestras.” She also will be able to add substance to her message to students at Lakeville South High School.

“I tell them to get outside their comfort zone,” she said. “It’s important to try new things.” Thanks to the Fantasy Camp, “I got to walk the talk.”

She also can use her camp gig to reinforce her physics lessons with mid-teens students “who always have their earbuds in” listening to music: “I can teach simple harmonic motion, closed-and open-pipe resonators” and the ways that meter and chords play out harmonically. She has been known to drop by the high school’s band rehearsals and play along because “You can’t teach without making connections.”

Grabarski, who considered a career performing music before turning to arts administration and later heading the Minneapolis Downtown Council, hopes to fill in occasionally in larger ensembles. He figures the Fantasy Camp may have enhanced his chances.

“My insights have changed about what I might need to do to prepare for auditions, especially in the materials I might face or choose to use myself,” he said.

Frank David, a biotech consultant from Milton, Massachusetts, relished the chance to play clarinet with a major orchestra. “It was a big [financial] splurge, to be sure—especially coming from Boston!” But he enjoyed the experience, although he remains convinced he made the right choice not to pursue a musical career. 

“I love my work, I love music, and I have no need or desire to combine them,” he wrote afterward. “For the Orchestra musicians, practicing and performing is a job, whereas for me, it’s 100 percent fun. I’d like to keep it that way.”

That doesn’t mean he’ll give up playing chamber music back home, partly because it provides a renewing outlet from work.

“When you’re playing music, you have to be all in,” he said. “It forces me to turn off my job.”

That’s part of the goal, Vänskä said. “I like the idea so much—to have a chance for someone who has something else than music for a job. Bring them back [to making music]. It’s not a question of age.”

For trombonist Rick Carlson, his age, 59, and health did matter. He is battling cancer, and although his treatments have not interfered with his playing, “I don’t know whether I’ll be able to do this next year.” The Fantasy Camp was a welcome experience to play with the “heightened intensity” of a major orchestra. 

“I’m excited,” he said. “I’m happy I did it.”

For Jaworski, the camp also held bittersweet overtones.

“This was going to be a short-lived opportunity for me to return to music for a very limited period, because the demands of my day-to-day life (as a physician, mother and part-time solo parent) just don’t permit the time it requires to play even in a non-professional community group. During each of the rehearsals and the concert, I found a time where I really had to try very hard NOT to think about that, because I started to get choked up—and you really can’t play well while you’re crying and trying not to cry….”


Dan Wascoe is a retired reporter and columnist at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and co-founder of Nuance/a duo with vocalist Baibi Vegners.

Dan Wascoe