The Southeastern Piano Festival is a week of non-stop piano fun and friendship.
The festival mixes training for 20 outstanding pre-college students who take part in the Arthur Fraser International Piano Competition with a concert series by internationally-known pianists. The 11th annual festival takes place June 9 – 16 at the University of South Carolina School of Music in Columbia, SC.
“We start early and keep going non-stop until the evening concert,” said Allison Freeman, a student at Oberlin Conservatory who attended the festival three times. “Although we’ve been immersed in music all day, the majority of participants still are begging for more practice time at the end of the day. But it is not at all overwhelming because you’re having too much fun to notice how much you’re getting done.”
Students’ days are filled with classes, lectures, workshops, practice and preparations for the Fraser Competition. Competition winners receive cash awards and an opportunity to perform with the South Carolina Philharmonic and give the Festival’s closing concert. Being accepted into the Festival is a competitive and rigorous process. The festival attracts students from all parts of the U.S. and is expanding its range internationally. Many of the students have already been accepted to prestigious conservatories and music schools.
“They are long, intensive days, but also very fun and very productive,” said Vanessa Haynes, who has attended twice. “You have a tight schedule and you can’t goof which is a good thing because it’s important to work and learn all we can while we are there. But don’t get me wrong, we have a blast.”
The intensity is tempered by a caring atmosphere, said Kevin Ahfat, who attended twice.
“Never does a student feel too overwhelmed, and surrounded by friends, teachers, and patrons who are truly devoted to the festival, one always feels at home when going through the day.” said Ahfat of Colorado.
Those who attend rave about the quality of instruction and the facilities. Every student has his or her own grand piano on which to practice and there are lessons every day. The Festival prepares the students as musicians in many ways.
“Every event, concert and lesson has given me new ways to look at things, working with different approaches which I found very helpful,” said Haynes of Massachusetts. “It has given me a clearer way of learning and better goals.”
Attending the Festival in 2012 prepared Michael Lenahan for his arrival at Juilliard last fall.
“The environment at SEPF is competitive, intense and at times relentless – just like Juilliard.” the Ohio native said. “It gave me a preview of what Juilliard would be like and made coming to school here much less scary.”
Interacting with other serious young musicians and professionals at the Festival is excellent grounding for conservatory study, said Ahfat, who is also at Juilliard.
“I got to meet other driven young musicians who are constantly striving to improve and make great music, and that’s essentially what Juilliard is, so it was helpful to already be in that environment at the festival,” he said. “Meeting and learning from the guest artists and faculty was also helpful, as they have already been where we are now and can teach from experience.
Along with instruction from Festival staff, some students take master classes with guest artists who give concerts each night.
“The nightly concerts are definitely one of my favorite parts of the festival,” said Freeman. “After hearing such incredible artists, it seems like all of us are even more revved up for the next day of our own work.”
Those concerts provide a break for the students and an inspiration.
“We get to relax from making the music ourselves, but instead of fooling around, we get to hear incredible music played by world renowned musicians,” Haynes said. “It’s amazing to actually hear them in front of you live and you learn so much by observing them live.”
“The nightly concerts have been some of the best piano concerts that I have been to,” Ahfat said. “Artists that I have seen perform at SEPF have all given amazing concerts that I definitely learned much from.”
Those who attend the festival are say they’re treated very well and give the lodging and food good marks.
“From special participant seating at concerts to gift boxes to limitless goodies in the snack room, being a participant at SEPF really does feel like you’re an honored guest,” Freeman said. “The festival also does a great job of presenting the participants as the next generation of potential guest artists though its concert featuring students from past festivals.”
The many people behind the festival make the participants feel special.
“All of the patrons and volunteers are fiercely devoted to taking care of the extraneous details so students can solely focus on studying music,” Ahfat said. “The appreciation we felt was uplifting and inspiring. No festival can be successful without the support of the community and SEPF definitely has that support in spades.”
Lenahan said “The local patrons truly treated us like ‘rising stars.’ It was powerful and inspiring to see the intense support for the arts that the community has.”
Even when the week winds up and the participants head home it isn’t really over. Students stay in touch with one another and form long-term friendships.
“Every time I go to other summer festivals or meet other musicians, we all end up realizing that we have mutual friends through SEPF,” Freeman said. When she wasn’t able to go home to North Carolina for Thanksgiving break, she spent it with a SEPF participant’s family near Oberlin and recently went to Kentucky to visit a fellow participant from the 2010 Festival.
“I have made some wonderful, precious, life-long friendships,” Lenahan said. “They’ve have inspired me and made being a pianist all that much better.”