SPEARFISH — The young musicians carefully listened to the recording to pick out the rhythm of each instrument’s part as they tried to march in time to each instrument. They then got their instruments out to practice skills. Later, they huddled over sheets of paper, crayons, and markers as they drew or wrote out a story to match the music they were hearing in Meier Hall at Black Hills State University.

The participants of the Rushmore Music Festival Performance Programs, students ages 7 and older, gathered this week to gain new skills on their instruments, learn effective methods of practicing, and meet new friends in a nurturing and fun environment, taught by young, professional faculty-artists from Stony Brook University in New York who have studied and performed throughout the world.  

Katie Smirnova and Brett Walfish are co-founders of the first-year festival, a project of the Black Hills Area Community Foundation. Though they often hear comments from people amazed by observing young musicians, they advocate that it’s never too early to start.

“People are always surprised by (students playing) violin at such a young age, or cello, or piano at such a young age, but we learn to speak before we’re 2 years old … Music is a language,” Walfish said, describing that because children naturally listen and imitate what they hear, the more they listen and participate in music, the more they’ll excel at it.

“The first stepping stone is kids, and kids love it,” he said.

“It’s been kind of our dream to start a festival because we’ve been inspired so much by the festivals we’ve attended,” Smirnova said.

She described that one of the most life-changing experiences happened at the Heifetz International Music Institute, when part of the festival focused on communications training. Participants were forced to practice techniques to make them more comfortable engaging with the audience, versus the more traditional role of a classical musician walking on stage, playing, and walking off stage, without ever interacting with the audience beyond their playing of the music.

“Because it’s made such a difference in our lives, we wanted to make sure to pass it along, as well,” Smirnova added.

In addition to the co-founders, Smirnova on violin and Walfish on viola, violist Patrick Yim, cellist Kumhee Lee, and cellist Wiliam Kass are also instructing the students and will perform in the festival concerts. They said they are enjoying the event so far.

“The kids are great fun,” Yim said. “Each one is unique.”

“I hope that they can enjoy chamber music more,” Lee said, describing that the students already know how to play together. “They just need more direction. This program is great for them.”

Next week, more advanced students will participate in the Chamber Music Immersion Program to learn how to come together as a group to communicate their musical ideas with an audience through chamber music, under the guidance of the faculty-artists at the Festival.

Mary Pochop, who teaches private music lessons in Spearfish and is an adjunct instructor at BHSU, described the opportunity for students to work with these clinicians as extraordinary.

“Not only are they receiving top-notch instruction, they are being exposed to a very high level of performing,” she said, adding that there are many lessons to be learned from music camps. “Learning under highly trained teachers gives students a new perspective on an area of music they have been working on or a new approach to the technique being taught. As with many music teachers, we teach our students correct posture, technique, theory, etc. Coming from a different perspective (new teacher) sometimes clicks better for students, thus making the recommended changes in their playing, technique, performing. It’s a win-win for us as teachers and for the students. … Summer camps also provide a great way to meet new friends, socialize with peers, and stay busy in the summer.”

Pochop is also a parent to one of the participants, and she said she was thrilled to hear her youngest daughter come the first day excited to practice her instrument!   

Dr. Christopher Hahn, assistant professor of music at BHSU and festival site coordinator, said that the program has been going great so far, and he’s happy to see the excitement and enthusiasm of the students and facilitators.

“We’re glad that they’re here, that’s for sure,” he said.

Organizers have discussed expanding the festival in the future to draw participants from farther away and provide programming for high school and college students, as well as recertification training for string teachers — there are many possibilities, Hahn said.

“It’s a great resource that I hope is going to continue and that people take advantage of it,” he added.

Hahn encouraged people to come and see the world-class musicians perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Meier Hall at BHSU. The concert includes works by Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Beethoven, and Shostakovich, and admission is free, with suggested donations accepted. There is an additional concert at 7:30 p.m. June 13 at the same location. There are also concerts in Rapid City each weekend.

“The performances this weekend and next will be a wonderful evening out for area residents,” Pochop added, describing that each program offers music from different composers for a wide variety of music. “There is no better stage for performance chamber music than at Meier Hall. Acoustically designed for small chamber groups, Meier Hall is a perfect venue for a string performance.”

To learn more about the festival, musicians, and program, visit rushmoremusicfestival.org.  

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