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Sounds of music: Luzerne camp trains future musicians
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Sounds of music: Luzerne camp trains future musicians

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LAKE LUZERNE | With towering trees and rustic cabins, Luzerne Music Center looks the part of a typical Adirondack summer camp.

But echoing from around the idyllic campus are sounds of violins, pianos and horns. Campers walk from cabin to cabin with instrument cases in tow.

And, alongside middle school students in the dining hall sit world-class musicians.

"Our philosophy is to nurture students," said famed violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn, camp president, CEO and artistic director. 

Pitcairn was a camper in the 1980s and loved the experience. "It's great to come back on the other side," she said.

Luzerne Music Center was founded in 1980 by pianist Toby Blumenthal and Burt Phillips, a longtime member of the Philadelphia Orchestra who died in 2008. The couple was enjoying a morning on the porch of their Lake Luzerne home, when a neighbor stopped by, mentioned Camp Tekakwitha, a Catholic boys camp on the lake, was being sold and casually suggested the couple buy it and turn it into a music school.

"The rest is history," said Josh deVries, camp director and tuba instructor.

It's a history that includes an endless stream of famed musicians, many colleagues of Phillips' who continue to return to camp to teach master lessons years after the founder's death.

"He’d be backstage and say, 'Can you come up to camp to do a class?'," recalled Blair Bollinger, a Philadelphia Orchestra trombonist who has taught at Luzerne Music Center for more than 20 seasons.

Working with the fledgling musicians gives the professionals an opportunity to give back.

Many won't accept the honorarium they're offered, deVries said, and most hang out after lessons, just to spend time with students. 

"It's not uncommon for top faculty to play a basketball game with the kids," he said. "They care about the kids, and that's really important."

Camp life

The 20-acre camp retains the look of its past life as an Adirondack boys camp. 

"We wanted to keep the charm," deVries said.

Luzerne Music Center students are housed five to a cabin, each named after a famed composer: Brahm's Base, Debussy's Den and Copeland's Cabin, among others. Counselors — most of whom are studying music or music education; many of whom are past campers — stay in a row of cabins that faces student housing.

The camp receives more than 200 applications each year, but selects only about 150 students. The summer is broken into two sessions, the first for juniors, ages 9 to 14; the second for seniors, ages 15 to 18. There are two-, four-, six- and eight-week program options.

This year's 145 students come from eight countries and 23 states.

Campers play from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, taking lessons and master classes, performing in chamber and orchestra. 

But despite the intensity of the performance schedule, the focus of camp is on developing a well-rounded person — regardless of whether that camper grows up to be a professional musician.

"Some music camps are real pressure cookers; they're so intense, students aren't happy," Pitcairn said. "Our atmosphere is encouraging and nurturing."

"Our students develop socially and that's as important," she said.

Part of that development dictates an important camp rule: No electronic devices, beyond e-readers.

"It’s nice to be away from that because it does help to connect with the music more," said Phillip Claassen, a second-year student from Buffalo who plays the French horn. "It’s just one less distraction.”

Students have Mondays free and recreation time after 4 p.m. each day. They take trips to the beach, white-water rafting and to see other area attractions.

They also attend concerts at Saratoga Performing Arts Center to see the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York City Ballet Orchestra. There are faculty concerts Friday, student concerts Saturday and Sunday and a guest artist each Monday.

"While here, kids hear a lot of concerts," deVries said.

Strong and growing

The camp has always boasted a strong reputation in the music world, but since Pitcairn took the helm, its esteem has heightened.

"The level of students is going up every year," deVries said.

The cost of camp is considerable, ranging from about $2,500 to $8,200, but 65 percent of students have scholarships, deVries said.

"When we're making decisions (on who to accept), being able to pay is not an issue," he said.

More than 20 percent of the camp's budget goes to scholarships, Pitcairn said.

"We're active in helping those who need help in pursuing their dream of music," she said.

The camp relies to some degree on donations. It also offers the opportunity to sponsor a musician's stay. The sponsor can follow the student's progress throughout camp.

DeVries and Pitcairn told the story of a student from Philadelphia who started a site to raise the money for a two-week camp stay. The student thrived at Luzerne Music Center and wanted to stay another two weeks. The staff secured a donor to make it possible.

Pitcairn's international acclaim as a violinist who plays the legendary 1720 Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius has fueled the camp's prestige.

"Burt started it (the camp) and delivered a wonderful thing for about 20 years," said Bollinger, the trombonist. "Liz has been in charge the past couple of years and brought a wonderful vitality to it, she has done some wonderful fundraising and has grand plans for the future.”

Among those plans is Luzerne Music Center's 2020 capital campaign, in which it hopes to build a new building each year through 2020.

The first phase — a large outdoor stage — is already complete, after a donation from Stewart's Shop and the Dake family.

"It's really amazing," deVries said of the space. "It was 19-below zero with four feet of snow when they started building it and they got done right before camp started."

The next phase in the plan is to build a practice building. The space now used was once the counselors' bunkhouse.

"It has thin walls and when two or more people are practicing," deVries said, "it just doesn't work."

It's a problem that has worsened. 

"As the quality here goes up, more kids want to practice all day, and the more the space is a need," deVries said.

That commitment to the music doesn't go unnoticed by the students. 

"It’s great talking to people from around the country and from other countries who have the same interest and want to be in that environment," said Claassen, the French horn player.

"It's just amazing to work with such high-class musicians," he said.

Rhonda Triller is features editor at The Post-Star. She can be reached via email at


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Students practice during two-hour orchestra rehearsal Thursday at Luzerne Music Center under the direction of conductor Charles Peltz.

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