What's Next?: Part Three

This is part three in a series about the planning of the annual Summer School and Festival. Be sure catch up on parts one and two.

Google the phrases “Big Picture” and “Detail-Oriented” together and you’ll find dozens of search results, many of which read something like: “Are you a Big Picture Thinker or a Detail-Oriented Person?” This way of framing it – as an either/or proposition – is common; you’re either someone who sees the Big Picture (capital-B, capital-P, mind you) or you’re someone who’s good at working through the details. Real life, though, isn’t as simple as this either/or question might imply and planning and executing something as complicated as the Music Academy Summer School and Festival requires both Big Picture thinking and a high degree of detail-oriented work. And for no Music Academy department is this more true than Student Services.

“Student Services’ primary focus,” according to Dean Tiffany DeVries, “is the off-stage experience of our fellows. We are responsible for every element of the program that occurs outside of rehearsals, lessons, and performances.” Their purview covers everything from visas and housing to transportation and room and board, each of which comes with its own set of complicated logistical challenges. It would be easy, even understandable, for Dean DeVries and her other full-time colleague, Director of Student Services and Alumni Programs, Isabel Dickinson, to get lost in all these details. But Student Services’ role is bigger than that. “The personal experience of the fellows is just as vital and important to us as their artistic experience,” says DeVries, “and Student Services has the privilege of focusing on this personal experience.” Every little decision – every detail – is filtered through this commitment to providing the fellows with a sense of a supportive culture and community. It isn’t enough to settle for an either/or scenario. If you want to pull off what the Student Services team does so incredibly well, you’d better be prepared for both/and.

Planning for any given Summer Festival starts well before its preceding Summer Festival has even begun, meaning the Student Services team is always balancing the logistics of multiple festivals at once. The groundwork for things like auditions, long-term contracts with caterers or transportation companies, and housing (Music Academy contracts with Westmont College to provide housing for our fellows) is already being laid years before any particular group of fellows have even thought of applying to the Music Academy, let alone actually started the process.

Tiffany DeVries, Dean

Things really ramp up around the month of July as preparations begin in earnest for the application and audition cycle. This begins with recruitment, which requires the Student Services team to work with Artistic Operations and Marketing and Communications to compile, present, and advertise repertoire for the upcoming festival, dates, deadlines, and other useful information. The question of repertoire is especially critical when it comes to the Vocal Institute, since for the singers the auditions double as the casting process for opera productions. Student Services works closely with the faculty, whose job it is to decide what works the prospective fellows are required to play in their auditions. DeVries and Dickinson also use this time to secure the many details of the actual application, audition, and adjudication process (more on that in a moment). Oh, and keep in mind this is all happening while the current Festival is actively underway!!

Each year, the Music Academy receives around 2,000 applications for 139 spots in the Summer School and Festival. The process for screening these applicants varies based on whether the applicant is applying for the Vocal Institute (voice and vocal piano) or as an instrumentalist (orchestral instruments, solo piano, and collaborative piano). Vocal Institute auditions take place in November and December and involve a video pre-screening round and typically live final round, which are all reviewed by a panel of Vocal Institute faculty. Collaborative Piano auditions also take place in the Fall and involve their own panel of Collaborative Piano faculty. Live audition cities for each of these programs have regularly included New York, Chicago, and Santa Barbara.

The Instrumental and Solo Piano Programs audition applications remain open from November through February and each studio is carefully adjudicated by its respective faculty. In recent years, the Music Academy has seen an approximately 50/50 split between live and self-taped instrumental auditions, with over eleven cities represented among recent instrumental live audition tours, spanning not only the United States but also occurring across the pond in London. Auditions have even taken place as far away as Kotor, Montenegro, a sister-city of Santa Barbara! The live auditions are recorded by a team of at least six Academy personnel, including DeVries and Dickinson and several recording artists, who are scattered among the audition cities, most of which overlap as the whirlwind tour across the US and abroad takes place over just a two-week period. All live auditions are then uploaded to the Academy’s online application and audition recording platform. This allows the faculty, who are located around the country and the world, to fairly judge all applicants at once, ensuring equal consideration for both in-person and self-recorded applicants.

Isabel Dickinson, Director of Student Services and Alumni Programs

Whether it be for singers, instrumentalists, or pianists, the audition process entails countless complicated logistics in coordinating responses to applicants’ questions and managing their data; compiling over 30 adjudicators’ rankings; and the complex web of scheduling, travel, venues, staffing, recording, and catering for the live audition tours. And the person most responsible for pulling off this marvel of organization is Isabel Dickinson. Dickinson also acts as the faculty liaison during the applicant review process, ensuring that faculty have what they need and that every audition recording is heard. While this process is certainly complicated, it’s also rewarding, so much so, in fact, that Dickinson describes it as perhaps the most fulfilling aspect of her job. “I absolutely love interacting with the applicants, whether or not they become a fellow! I just love meeting these musicians who are at the beginning of their careers. There’s so much hope and excitement and nerves; it’s the most palpable, sensory part of my job.”

With the pandemic shifting most music programs’ auditions online only for the foreseeable future, DeVries is confident that the Academy’s already robust online audition model will further expand the accessibility of the audition processes. “While we have been very proactive and intentional about our recruiting and audition practices over the years – annually reaching out to over 7,000 music teachers, department chairs, deans, former applicants, alumni and others in order to promote our program and garner the most diverse and qualified applicant pool – we always want to do more, and do better, to expand our reach and at the same time ensure our audition process helps represent the culture and excellence of the Music Academy. Whether we interact with our applicants over email or phone, or meet them at a live audition, we want them to immediately feel welcome, valued, and supported.”

Once the faculty have made their admissions decisions, enrollment officially begins. DeVries is responsible for contacting all the admitted fellows, teaming up with faculty so invited candidates are personally congratulated on behalf of both the administration and faculty, while Dickinson contacts those who are waitlisted or are denied admission, as well as those receiving encouragement notices from the faculty. The enrollment process itself happens fairly quickly as part of a timeline agreed upon by other summer music festivals, including those at Aspen and Tanglewood. This allows successful applicants to weigh any and all possibilities before officially committing to any particular summer festival or training program. The entire process is completed by the end of March.

“After the fellows are officially enrolled, that’s when the fun begins,” says Dean Tiffany DeVries. It’s at this point that the Student Services team dedicates themselves fully to the logistics of the Summer Festival itself. First up is an intense process of information sending and information gathering. DeVries and Dickinson revise and distribute various admissions materials including the Fellow Handbook, a useful document that provides direction and guidance, but also governs fellow expectations and behavior. As with anything else in the process, detail is key; the inclusion of even seemingly trivial bits of information can prevent lots of future headaches. “It’s our job in Student Services to make sure the fellows know what to expect, but also what to look forward to,” according to DeVries.

During this time, the fellows submit to the Academy things like their emergency contacts and dietary or health needs, as well as their professional biographies and headshots which are featured in the Festival Guidebook and Academy website. Fellows also submit goals surveys during the spring, which allow them to identify what they’d most like to get out of the Summer Festival and allow the Student Services department, the Artistic Operations department, and the Academy’s faculty to help the fellows make the most of their time at the Academy. DeVries and Dickinson assist the fellows with travel planning. For those who are international – an average of 60 per year – they also help with visa guidance and documentation. “We use this time as an opportunity to start engaging often with our new fellows,” says DeVries, “to start building a relationship and rapport with them before they’ve even arrived.”

That personal level of service is evident in Student Services’ departmental motto: Live well, perform well. Yes, that includes coordinating things like regular social opportunities, access to free on-demand therapy sessions, and a well-developed wellness program that provides access to trainers, fitness classes, mindfulness, and yoga. But the idea of “live well, perform well” also extends to the more quotidian details of fellow life. For example, a typical week during the Summer Festival involves an average of more than 100 individual bus trips, each one of which must be painstakingly planned out months in advance in order to ensure that fellows are able travel in a timely fashion between their residences at Westmont College and rehearsals, lessons, and free-time activities taking place not just on the Music Academy’s campus, but in various spots in Santa Barbara. And with an average of 2,300 individual meals per week meal-planning is likewise complicated, and the Student Services team must coordinate with both Westmont Dining Services (for meals on their campus) and a third-party caterer (for lunches served at the Academy). This involves not only handling special menu requests for vegans, vegetarians, and those with other dietary needs, but also ensuring that meals are healthy, exciting, and not repeated with too much frequency. But wait, there’s more! “We deal with everything from linens and sheets rental requests to whether or not the ATM machine and laundry card dispenser at Westmont are available,” Isabel Dickinson says of the pre-festival planning. “It’s all the little mundane details that people don’t think about, but we have to.”

Music Academy fellows after a yoga class with Santa Barbara fitness trainer Jenny Schatzle

In the midst of this logistical planning, DeVries and Dickinson also working diligently on the Compeer Program. One of the most unique aspects of the Music Academy, the Compeer Program pairs every fellow with a volunteer member of the community. These Compeers attend fellows’ performances and plan gatherings ranging from pool parties to wine tasting. Fellows often form lifelong relationships with their Compeers, many of whom come to feel like family.

Recruitment for approximately 100 annual volunteers, representing both new and returning Compeers, begins in January and February. With the help of the board’s Compeer and Alumni Committee, the Student Services team collects information about every prospective Compeer, not only what studios are of interest to them, but also more general things like background and hobbies. Are they avid hikers? Do they love to sail on the weekends? Are they originally from a particular part of the country or world? All of this is extremely useful during the next phase of the Compeer process: matching. After months of collecting data from both fellows and Compeers, Student Services and the Compeer and Alumni Committee spend days carefully curating each and every fellow-Compeer match. Over the course the program’s twenty years of existence, that hard work has certainly paid off; the Compeer Program is regularly mentioned by fellows as one of their favorite elements of the Academy’s offerings. Tiffany DeVries calls the matching of fellows with Compeers “an incredibly crucial” process. “It allows Santa Barbara to feel like a second home for our fellows, a truly genuine community that’s there for them personally. It is a hallmark of the Academy culture.”

During the Summer Festival, the Academy fellows live on the campus of Westmont College in Montecito.

Finally, after months of hard work and anticipation, the fellows arrive in June. The Student Services team’s first job is to make them feel welcome; their second job is to execute their carefully made plans. Advance work and organization certainly helps keep things running smoothly, but they always expect the unexpected. “Planned chaos” is the term Isabel Dickinson uses to describe the execution of the Festival itself. “We plan for everything knowing full well that anything can happen at any time, whether it be a fellow illness or an added rehearsal requiring additional bus trips.” They’re assisted in managing this planned chaos by a team of summer staffers: one Housing Director and two Residence Directors, as well as two to three fellows who sign on as Resident Assistants.

Keeping everything on track requires a lot of work. Dickinson meets weekly with members of the Artistic Operations team to ensure that transportation schedules still match up with rehearsal, lesson, and performance times, then meets with the team of bus drivers to confirm schedules and routes. There are also weekly meetings with the members of the Residence Life team and with representatives from Westmont College to ensure campus operations are running smoothly, as well as regular check-ins with the on-campus catering team and the Academy’s wellness partners. Student Services also hosts several fellow forums before and throughout the summer, which allow the fellows to provide feedback along the way. DeVries believes that “honoring the fellow voice is one of our greatest priorities, as the fellows are the core of our mission and we always welcome their feedback on how well we are delivering on that mission.”

Whether it’s responding to applicants’ audition repertoire questions, ensuring the greeting of a friendly face upon arrival at Westmont, providing reliable access to transportation, facilitating the development of social connections in Santa Barbara, or encouraging the caterers to learn the fellows’ names, it’s clear that the Student Services team takes nothing for granted. No detail is too small. Yet through these many details, something larger comes into focus – the Big Picture. All this work – every email, every meeting – ties back to that Student Services mantra, the guiding principle that helps make the Music Academy Summer School and Festival such a transformative experience: live well, perform well.

– Henry Michaels
Resonance editor, Director of Audience Experience and Engagement, Music Academy of the West