Breathing After Their Own Fashion: The Walden School At 30

Breathing After Their Own Fashion: The Walden School At 30

Faculty member Cody Wright teaching from the piano

The Walden School envisions a world with a higher concentration of people who approach life creatively, collaboratively, and with conviction; support music and the arts; and understand and respect each other’s differences.

For the 30th summer this year, 45 student composers will gather in a small New Hampshire town to study and write music together for five weeks under the auspices of The Walden School. Though not Thoreau‘s original utopian conception, every summer the school does create it’s own ideal community for nurturing developing musicians. The idyllic setting has even attracted the attention of Pauline Oliveros, who will offer a four-day residency of daily Deep Listening™ workshops and lead an improvisatory performance with the students there this summer.

Faculty Snapshot:
Bill Stevens

Stevens and guide dog Doris
Photo by Carla Stevens

By Patricia Plude

Bill Stevens came to us as a young high school student from Louisville, Kentucky, in 1992. Legally blind since birth, Bill lost most of his remaining vision during the months just before he first attended Walden. This was a pivotal summer of change and in his own words, Walden helped instill a sense of hope and direction…read more.

Walden’s education program, while emphasizing creativity through music, is ultimately geared toward the larger goal of fostering each student’s overall personal development and creativity, a concept clearly defined in its mission statement which emphasizes a “life-long commitment to creative expression, all resulting in the development of individuals who are capable of effecting positive change in the world around them.” Oliveros says she was attracted by the possibilities offered by that kind of learning environment. “I believe that it is important for young people to be involved in creating their own music. I am looking forward to working with the students in this wonderful New Hampshire environment to see what we can create together.”

This philosophy also attracts a rather eclectic group of 10 to 18-year-olds to the camp each summer for the intensive study experience. Walden students are generally creative, self-motivated kids with some musical training, but Executive Director Patricia Plude explains that they haven’t necessarily written a lot of music and not all are conservatory bound. A demonstrated creative side is much more important. “These are the kids who write poetry, who do visual art, who act in all the plays and sing in musicals,” she illustrates. “The kids who play in youth orchestras, sing in youth choirs, but who are really looking to go a step beyond just the performance thing that is so common in middle school and high school. We’re looking for kids who want to do more with it than that, who actually want to be able to have the tools to write in the same way that they would take a creative writing class or publish their poetry in their school journal.”

Tom Lopez, faculty member, works with student Georgann Nedwell in the computer music lab.

That being said, she also acknowledges that many students who have quite a bit of compositional experience–who are either studying composition or just doing a lot of writing on their own–come to Walden because there aren’t many places for them to get this sort of training during the summer.

Eliza Brown, a cellist and composer, will spend her third summer at Walden this year. “Going to Walden never felt like ‘giving up’ five weeks of my summer,” she says, explaining that the school’s approach to both musical and non-musical life have kept her coming back each year. “Music is presented first and foremost as an organic part of our lives. We sing all the time.” But the study of music is also approached with a serious intensity that makes Walden much more than a summer diversion. “Music is also a discipline requiring focus and effort, and Walden students generally put in the effort enthusiastically, helped by the school’s supportive atmosphere. But frisbee and mountain hiking are important parts of Walden as well. The balance of activities creates an intentional community of normal kids for whom music happens to be a very important part of life.”

Walden faculty member (and former student) Danielle Schindler agrees and speaks highly of the positive effect the school has on students, both musically and personally. “Inspiration and growth as a musician remain the top priorities at Walden, even as faculty and students change from summer to summer,” she explains. “Here, the drive for success is still based on loving one’s work. This is true for the young composers, and it’s true for everyone on the faculty and staff.”

She recalls stumbling upon two of her students at the piano, improvising on a rote piano exercise she had assigned that morning. “This was a tremendously powerful reminder to me that Walden students come every summer because they love to be creators–they love finding ways to express themselves and find sheer joy in making music. Every summer, I relearn that the best teaching is in finding a way to tap into passion that students already bring with them to Walden.”

Students doing relay races on the Fourth of July.

The philosophy of The Walden School–personal and intellectual development through music education–is built on the musicianship curriculum developed by the music theorist Grace Newsom Cushman at the Junior Conservatory Camp she ran from the 1940s to 1972. When she died, her mission was taken on by her protégés–David Hogan, Pamela Layman Quist, and Lynn Taylor Hebden–who founded The Walden School in 1973.

“For 25 years, it was kind of a family run organization really,” explains Plude, who assumed her role as executive director in 1996. “[Hogan, Quist, and Hebden] were the founders. They were the board. They did the teaching. It was smaller of course, but it was still very much the same in philosophy and in spirit. And a lot of the curriculum was still the same.”

But in the years just before their 25th anniversary, things reached a kind of crisis point. “Nobody knew who we were,” Plude admits. “We just had no name recognition anywhere.” For many years, the faculty members, often students themselves at the Peabody Conservatory, had simply recruited their own students from the Washington-Baltimore area. “We would rent a bus and drive up the east coast and make a couple stops along the way,” she says. But when the school’s young teachers graduated and began to move away from the area, the school found it had no national recruiting base or fund raising pool. “We were very much in danger of just closing down,” she recalls. “By that point the founders were pretty tired. They’d been doing this thing hook, line, and sinker for 20 some odd years. Then a group of us, sort of the next generation, said ‘Let us come in we’ve got some fresh energy.’ It was a nice passing of the mantle. The leadership at that point was really kind of ready to hand it on.”

It was at that point that Stephen Coxe, Patricia Plude, Laura Mehiel, and Seth Brenzel took over the reigns. They quickly set out to establish a separate board of directors, work on fundraising, and develop a national reputation. “It’s just been uphill ever since,” Plude says now. “We feel pretty good about what we’ve been able to do in a fairly short period of time.”

From the very beginning, the emphasis has been on valuing the students for who they are and then challenging them to take risks and grow beyond that through music composition, “really embracing the depth of their gift and being able to use everything they have to say what they want to say and be who they want to be,” Plude says. That goal is very much in force today.

Five weeks of such intense music study does seem like a lot, though, even against the aspirations of the most die-hard young composer. Plude acknowledges that it can get intense, “but I think it does balance out. Our kids really want to be there so I think they just embrace it from that point of view. We work pretty hard to keep the climate as stress free as we can. It’s really about supporting one another across the board both artistically as well as just learning to live with other people.”

Bill Stevens and guide dog Doris with students on top of Mt. Monadnock.

Brown illustrates how normal camp activities–even the purely recreational–end up influencing the students this way. Saturday hikes in July are a Walden community tradition. “My mountain hikes have been particularly memorable because I was one of two people who hiked with Bill, a faculty member who is blind, and his guide dog. My favorite memory of Walden might be the euphoria of singing at the top of Mt. Monadnock after our group reached the top first. Hiking with Bill has changed how I perceive space and movement, and the music I write reflects those changes.”

And though the environment seems a hotbed for breeding competition, Plude senses that most of it is dispelled by the third day of camp, once everyone has met and is comfortably settled in, and the staff (17 faculty/staff/leadership people for 45 students) works hard to keep it that way throughout the summer weeks. “You know it’s really fascinating,” Plude says. “[The students] work really hard to support one another across the board. When certain kids are up against deadlines, others step in to help copy parts or volunteer to take their dish crew duties. It’s pretty remarkable.”

During the final week at camp, the students’ compositions are each given their world premieres and every year Plude says she continues to be amazed by their complexity. “You hear everything from some fairly sophisticated pop songs to a ten-minute sextet that is definitely undergraduate level material. I think the thing that’s astonishing is that you hear the music first, and it’s given the best performance it can possibly get, given that the ink is barely dry, and then this 12-year-old kid stands up. I think that’s the moment when people realize, ‘Oh my goodness this child just wrote that piece of music.’ ”

Watching those children take pride in what they’ve accomplished year after year is what keeps Plude, and likely all of the staff members, energized. “It’s very satisfying to me. We’re blessed that the kids tend to want to come back, so you meet a student at 11 or 12 and then they come back five years in a row and you have this wonderful opportunity to watch them develop as people as well as artists. It really changes their lives.”

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