Q: Your students say you inspire them, that you “know how to light that fire.” What inspired you to become a horn player?
Carolyn Wahl: My dad was a music teacher in elementary, middle, and high school. So I grew up with it. I began on piano at age 6. My dad would say, “What instrument do you want to try this summer?” So between sixth and seventh grades I decided to try the French horn, and that stuck. I suppose sometimes the instruments pick us. I realized that when I was still playing piano and went to a concert. Afterward, someone asked me if the pianist had inspired me. I said, “Sure,” but the truth was I was more inspired by the horn section in the back.
Q: Did you like practicing? How much did you practice?
Carolyn: Practicing! Well, I was always getting ready for things, so out of necessity I was practicing, and it wasn’t boring. But I wasn’t like some of my students who practiced too much, some of them six or seven hours a day! The thing about practicing is that it’s solitary. You have to be comfortable being alone in a room. But if you don’t like it, better find something else you’re passionate about.
Q: If you’d known about Kinhaven as a young person, would you have attended? Why?
Carolyn: I would have loved Kinhaven. The constant changing of chamber groups, playing in a woodwind quintet one week, then with the brass the next, would have appealed to me. I would have enjoyed playing in the orchestra, learning the music quickly, and a different repertoire each week. I would also have spent time in the art house learning pottery. And I would have loved the traditions, the regatta, Wally Wampus, etc. You don’t see that in other music camps.
Q: This will be your thirty-fourth year at Kinhaven. How do you get ready for another summer?
Carolyn: I think about what my class will look like. I’m curious to see who will come back. It’s easy to ignite kids there, especially after their first summer. One year I had this student – I knew he had something special but he just wasn’t interested. I had to get him to Kinhaven! So I introduced him to someone I thought he would think was cool – and he recruited him for me. Now he’s plays with a major orchestra. He just caught on fire at Kinhaven. It’s fun to figure kids out, to get into their heads. But sometimes you have to outsmart them a little bit!
Q: Do your students ever surprise you with an insight or inspire you?
Carolyn: Quite often, my conversations with students make me aware of what other teachers are telling them. I’ll try anything to get a point across. So the students will tell me something, and I’ll process it and determine whether I can use it. I also like to watch others work with my students – it gives me ideas to try. Of course I always use myself as a guinea pig! I like talking to them and hearing what they have to say – it helps me understand how they think and what’s important to them.
Q: What is it about Kinhaven that keeps you coming back for more than thirty years?
Carolyn: What I like are the people and the enormous respect they have for one another. Since the students are rotated in groups, competition is downplayed, which was the intent of Kinhaven’s founders. Everyone gets along and cares about one another. I like an environment where teachers are interacting in a personal way and giving all they’ve got. Since there are under 100 students, it is an intimate experience for students and staff. It is possible to really spend time helping your students and other students in the groups we coach. I’ve been going back so long that some my friendships with other faculty are very deep. And it’s a beautiful place. It’s a little like Brigadoon, a magical place that appears briefly just once a year.
Q: What’s your favorite composition that features the French horn?
Carolyn: I should probably say whatever I’m playing at the moment! But I love orchestral playing. Every week it’s another masterpiece. The orchestra has all the components of smaller groups, it’s all present. Sometimes, while waiting to play my part, I lose myself, surrounded by the beauty of the sound.
Q: What’s your favorite Jerry Bidlack story?
Carolyn: I especially enjoyed watching him with the students. I especially remember the camp meetings, where Jerry would moderate discussions of issues of concern to them. All students with something to say were listened to. It was fun to watch him guide them to come to a compromise and see each other’s points of view. Sometimes the outcome was different than even Jerry thought it would be, but he was great at finding common ground. He was also a clever poker player. We all loved playing with him on Monday and Thursday nights! I will miss Jerry at Kinhaven but his spirit will remain with us all.
Barbara Sherman and Susan Nisbett met at a chamber music workshop, but didn’t start to become close friends until they met again at a birthday party. When Susan saw an announcement for the Kinhaven Adult Piano Workshop, she asked Barbara if she thought she might like to attend. Susan’s sister, whose daughter Laura Barbieri attended Kinhaven’s junior session, hadn’t heard of it, “but she did tell me how good the food was!”
This summer will mark Barbara and Susan’s twentieth year of playing piano four hands together at Kinhaven.
Each began playing piano at an early age – Barbara at 8 and Susan at 9. Barbara became a lawyer, and “piano saved me, and my soul, from that,” she says. Susan studied piano very seriously, but stopped during high school to try dancing, something she kept up until her sixties, and she has always sung in a choir. She earned two degrees in French literature and became a journalist. But when her daughter began piano lessons, Susan thought she should go back. “And that’s how, at age 38, I became obsessed, practicing maybe three to four hours a day.”
During their first year at Kinhaven, Barbara and Susan played Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. They played it again in 2013, switching parts. “It’s exalting music,” says Susan, “you want to cry at the end of your own performance.” One of their most vivid memories from that first year was the copious rain, which, as they remember, was of biblical proportions. “The ground began to swell and heave, and springs began to sprout up,” Susan recalls. Cold and soaked to the bone, almost all the faculty and students trekked to the Vermont Country Store to buy identical yellow raincoats and shoes.
The two friends describe piano four hands as an “intimate choreography.” “We have to share that space, feel each other breathe, touch arms – we become a four-handed pianist,” says Susan. Barbara adds, “We’re together so much. We eat together, sleep in the same cabin, and then we’re at the piano for six hours a day. So when I leave Kinhaven and return to my own piano I feel Susan’s presence – or absence – like a phantom appendage.”
Asked what has made their piano partnership so durable, Barbara says, “Whatever chemistry makes people good friends, it’s the same thing when you play together.” This level of closeness isn’t for everyone. Susan says, “You have to love the other person in a partnership like this. And when we first sit down to practice together, it’s ‘Yeah, this is what it’s supposed to be!’ What a joyous thing!”
They both have high praise for Director Leander Bien’s leadership: “Leander makes sure everybody is happy and thriving, and he occupies his time to make the experience extraordinary.” The students and the non-competitive atmosphere are also important, they say. “Kinhaven is devoted to the refinement of what you bring and shapes it for a concert.”
The coaching staff are the main reason Barbara and Susan return to Kinhaven year after year. “The coaches know they won’t change our approach in four days, but they’re very good at finding things we can improve right away,” Barbara says. “They suggest ideas or provide insights that quickly result in a much more refined, convincing, and expressive performance.”
They also look forward to the intensity of the one-week workshop. They recall working on the slow movement of a Schubert sonata one year. “We did come prepared, but then we started digging in to the music, and one evening we worked and worked and worked, talking through the most minute issues,” says Susan. “It was miraculous,” Barbara agrees.
Equally important are the friendships Barbara and Susan have made at Kinhaven. After the week is over, they find it difficult to leave. “It’s just too painful a rupture, too painful to leave the ‘Brigadoon thing.’” Susan says, “Sometimes we even see our fellow students in between Kinhaven sessions. We care about them deeply. We all share something special.”