Alums Return to PCM’s Chamber Music Intensive as Apprentice Coaches

String musicians rehearsing

PCM alum, Ben Penzner, coaches Chamber Music Intensive students.

For the past four years, the Chamber Music Intensive (CMI) has marked the symbolic start of summer at the Conservatory. For one week in mid-June, CMI floods the campus with enthusiastic chamber students and fills the halls with the sound of young quartets and piano trios. The camp’s founder and director, Aimée Kreston, describes the program as “a place to provide the most dedicated and promising young musicians a taste of what they’ll be doing in college and beyond.” This summer, she and PCM Chamber Music Department Chair, Andrew Cook, invited a handful of highly-accomplished, recent PCM graduates—Katelyn Vahala, Annie Jacobs-Perkins, Geneva Lewis, Ben Penzner, and Aimée McAnulty—to return to the Chamber Music Intensive as apprentice coaches.

potrait of woman and man

Aimée Kreston and Andrew Cook

Young musicians

Ben Penzner, Geneva Lewis, Katelyn Vahala, Annie Jacobs-Perkins, and Aimée McAnulty

We asked the alums what it was like shifting from their normal roles as performers and music majors to apprentice coaches for the week. Annie Jacobs-Perkins, who majors in cello performance at USC, shared that the experience has given her a deeper appreciation for how much “energy and giving of oneself goes into coaching.” She added that the process “is totally exhausting in a wonderful way.”

Young musicians

Chamber Music Intensive students practice in a studio at PCM.

Katelyn Vahala, who studies piano performance at USC, and who began her own musical journey in PCM’s Young Musicians program at the age of three, has developed the ability to compartmentalize her way of thinking based on whether she’s rehearsing, performing, or teaching—all of which were duties that she (and some of the other apprentice coaches) had to juggle on a daily basis at CMI. According to Katelyn, navigating those different mindsets “forces you to become really quick on your feet.”

Children playing violins

Chamber Music Intensive students rehearse in the Keck building.

When asked what they bring to the table as younger coaches, Geneva Lewis, who studies violin at the New England Conservatory, said that she believes that “part of the goal in bringing [the apprentice coaches] on board was to provide the students with an opportunity to see people close to their own age pursuing chamber music at a high level. It makes the whole thing feel more relatable and attainable to them.”

Young musicians

PCM alum, Aimée McAnulty, coaches Chamber Music Intensive students.

In addition to an abundance of hands-on coaching (this summer there were 11 coaches for 10 ensembles), daily performances, master classes, and yoga classes, one of the hallmarks of the Chamber Music Intensive is that each group is expected to learn an entire piece. For apprentice coach Ben Penzner, this is one of his favorite aspects of the program. “Learning a whole piece in a week is something that a professional string quartet or piano trio will do regularly, but most student groups aren’t accustomed to being challenged like that. It’s more common to see younger groups learn a nice, easy Mozart quartet [slowly, over the span of a school year]. But that can get boring… The pieces they learn at the Chamber Music Intensive are actually above their technical level. Here, they’re expected to raise their technique, and we almost always end up seeing that the piece they learn is well within their range of ability. It’s really rewarding to see them learning, improving, and rising to the challenge.” Aimée McAnulty, who is pursuing a dual major in viola performance and music education at the University of Michigan, added that “of course, you can spend a huge amount of time on a piece, and sometimes you should, but it shows them how much progress is possible in even a small amount of time if they work hard.”

Young musicians

Chamber Music Intensive students practice in the Keck Building.

McAnulty also shared that it’s been a little “strange to be able to call Aimée Kreston, Andrew Cook, and Andrew Picken colleagues this week… and it’s been an absolute privilege to work at the Chamber Music Intensive.”

People working out

Chamber Music Intensive yoga class in room 400.