In partnership with The Colburn School: Located in Downtown Los Angeles, the institute provides the highest quality performing arts education at all levels of development in an optimal learning environment.
On the first day of Summer Encounter, the kids are visibly nervous.
“They’re tentative, yes,” said Abigail Caro, community engagement coordinator at the Colburn School. She’s talking about the moment the fifth and sixth grade students participating in the summer program, all 60 of them, meet at the start of their two-week performance camp on the Colburn campus. Most of them have never met each other before they arrive, but over the next 10 days, they’ll spend 70 hours participating in the performing arts, some of them for the first time. The opportunity forges quick, close bonds among the kids. “By the second week, they’re just joyous,” said instructor Elizabeth Nicastro. “Best friends. Having fun.”
Now in its 15th year, Summer Encounter is an intensive camp for arts-hungry kids from Title I schools in Los Angeles. The program is a collaborative effort between Colburn School staff, teachers at partner schools, and volunteers. “This is a chance for kids to have really meaningful engagement with the performing arts at an age when it can make a tremendous difference in their lives,” said Dr. Nathaniel Zeisler, director of community engagement for the Colburn School, who oversees Summer Encounter each year. “Some students have more arts instruction in those two weeks than they can get in a whole year in their elementary school,” he added.
Esteban Lindo, one of last year’s participants, is glad the experience was so broad. “I thought it was only going to be music,” he said. “But you got to really explore different types and varieties of art and then choose the ones you liked.”
Teachers nominate students from their classrooms for the program. Zeisler says they look for kids already showing an interest in the arts -- singing in class, asking about musical instruments -- or kids whose extra energy could be channeled in a positive direction through the performing arts. “Choosing our school’s nominees for Summer Encounter was one of my most important responsibilities,” said Denise Quan, music director at partner school Hillcrest Music Magnet. Quan kept a running list of students she thought might benefit from the opportunity, sometimes years in advance. “Talented fourth graders with supportive parents were ideal participants because they returned to our school as fifth graders with new skills and new perspectives on the arts and their roles as artists,” she said.
For Miriam Garcia, taking part in the summer program exposed her to instrumental music for the first time. “When I actually learned how to play clarinet, it was a new perspective for me.” Garcia studied clarinet weekly for the next year with Conservatory of Music student Signe Sõmer, who has since gone on to become principal clarinet of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra.
Volunteers from surrounding colleges and high schools, most of them previous participants themselves, serve as counselors for the program. Counselor Miranda Landfield, a former camp attendee who is now a student at the University of California, Berkeley, has volunteered with the program each summer for nearly 10 years. “It has illustrated to me the power of art and music to transform lives and human beings,” she said. “The backs of their T-shirts say, ‘I am an artist.’ I think by the end of the two weeks, they really are artists. They can channel everything they’ve experienced into art.”
Colburn School drama instructor Debbie Devine, whom Zeisler calls “the lifeblood of Summer Encounter,” makes sure participating kids get to try everything that interests them while preparing them for the culminating performance they’ll give to parents and families. “The most resonant part of the program is the beautiful and deep relationship the campers build with the counselors,” Devine said. “Experiencing how these disciplined young Colburn School artists need and practice art in their daily lives inspires the kids to find the courage to perform at a very high level.”
As part of the week, Summer Encounter participants have two field trips. They pay a visit to 24th Street Theatre, where Devine serves as artistic director, and participate in an art project, such as a visual arts lesson at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. “It’s really eye opening for them to be in those creative spaces,” Zeisler said. “They start to understand the arts are a tangible thing, a thing they can make part of their future.”
Being on campus at the Colburn School is a key part of the experience as well. “Everything they need is here,” says Sel Kardan, president and chief executive officer of the Colburn School. “Instruments, practice spaces, and best of all, some of the most inspiring teachers and mentors working in the United States.” Everything they experience during their two week camp gets them ready to shine on stage at the end of Summer Encounter.
But the happenings of Summer Encounter can stay alive for many of the students even after they leave the campus. “I think the most important part of Summer Encounter is that their experience doesn’t have to end when the summer ends,” Zeisler said. He explained how every participant has the option to continue to study at the Colburn School at no cost. About 35 students can enter the Jumpstart Young Musicians band program, which gives them three years of access to a rigorous curriculum, while 15 Summer Encounter students receive legacy scholarships, funding their study of dance, drama, choir, or guitar until they reach age 18.
“Every fall, we could easily identify the students who had attended Summer Encounter,” Quan said. “They [are] more mature, more confident, academically stronger, and even happier than their peers.”
Top image: Courtesy of The Colburn School.