By Bailey Basham
Samuel Olmos from Austin, Texas, began playing the violin at age 6. This summer, the 18-year-old’s love of classical music brought him nearly 1,000 miles from home to Sewanee, Tenn., and the campus of the University of the South, home of the Sewanee Summer Music Festival.
Held about an hour-and-a-half from Nashville, the Sewanee Summer Music Festival is one of the country’s premier orchestra and chamber-music training festivals. Since 1957, the festival has provided a space at the University of the South for young musicians to spend time fully immersed in the musical experience by attending daily orchestra rehearsals and chamber-music coaching, as well as weekly lessons and master classes. There are also concerts, which are open to the public throughout the monthlong program, which concludes this Sunday.
“This was something I found on my own,” Olmos says. “No one in our family played an instrument, and now they’re seeing me playing and growing and leaving to go follow this dream. Bringing classical music to the family worked things up a bit, but after graduation, I’m trying to transition into music performance on violin at Sacramento State. It’s a hard learning curve at Sewanee, and with this program — it’s really intense, and it feels like a two-year experience in just a week. But to be around other musicians who are taking this seriously is a big deal for me.”
Classical music has received sharp criticism in recent years, with some saying the genre is inherently racist and that its institutions uphold the power of whiteness by choosing which communities of color are worthy of access. John Kilkenny, artistic director of the Sewanee Summer Music Festival, says that’s the kind of institutional bias the festival is hoping to move past. One part of that process is developing new partnerships with organizations like the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program, the Nashville Symphony’s Accelerando initiative, Austin Soundwaves (a program of the nonprofit The Hispanic Alliance) and Play On, Philly! Through these partnerships, Sewanee is providing scholarship-matching funds for students from racial and ethnic minority groups, who are traditionally underrepresented and underserved in classical music.
“Classical music has always been a reflection of what’s happening in our broader culture, and in order for institutions of classical music to remain, we have to be reflective of all of our population and reflective of what is in the ether,” Kilkenny says. “Having more representation isn’t taking opportunities away from others — it’s creating more for everyone, thus creating a richer experience in general.”
As a longtime student participant in Austin Soundwaves, Olmos has had access to teachers and resources that have helped him build his skills. But attending the SSMF is a key opportunity for him to reach a new level.
“Sam has had wonderful opportunities to be with very serious students and teachers, but the daily experience in Sewanee is different,” says Patrick Slevin, executive and artistic director of Austin Soundwaves, which was founded in 2011. “He’s never been to a festival outside of Texas, and with other advanced and highly motivated students. … He’s a serious player and getting better every day, and his rate of improvement is really incredible. It’s a place like Sewanee that is going to bring even more out in him.”
If students with hopes to pursue classical music as a career are going to succeed, they’ll need much more than just one opportunity for intensive study. Huge commitments of time and financial resources are required, and experts suggest that family support plays a key role. Sewanee’s efforts to provide avenues of learning in classical music for black and brown students can provide a much-needed push.
“It’s all about allowing students — all students — to be able to realize the potential that is within them,” says Adrienne Thompson, manager of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program. “It’s so important for students to get into larger environments where they can be exposed to other music, other students, other teachers. It’s just part of the process. Music is something that is passed from person to person, and the only way we can help people is by working through whatever our strengths are. Sewanee has their strengths, and we have ours, and in the end, it’s just a matter of wanting children to be able to and have the opportunity to find out what it is they’re capable of doing. I think young people have different expectations — there are no limits.”