CULTURE CLUB: Back to Birch Creek

Students-turned-pro-musicians return as faculty

by LAURA SMITH, Marketing Manager, Birch Creek Music Performance Center

The Birch Creek campus, situated east of Egg Harbor in an idyllic setting, is where Katherine Kohler, attending the 2006 Symphony Session at age 13, fueled her passion for music. 

“I was always a nerdy kid who loved to practice, so I remember the schedule when I got there, and it’s still pretty much the same schedule now, where it’s very structured with sectionals and group rehearsals and technique and chamber music,” Kohler said. “And I loved that every minute of the day was filled with music in different facets.” 

Kohler’s sister had attended the academy, and Kohler begged her parents for the chance to participate, too. When the young clarinetist from Naperville, Illinois, arrived, she reveled in the side-by-side learning opportunities with professional musicians and educators. 

“The feedback you got was instant,” she said. “You’d be in a rehearsal, and they’d lean over and say, ‘Hey, maybe that could be a little bit louder,’ or ‘Try this fingering.’ The change you heard in yourself and your friends from the first week of concerts to the second week of concerts was crazy.” 

The abundance of personal attention, and the amount of growth Kohler saw in herself from one session week to the next, drew her back to Birch Creek in 2007 and 2008.

She had already cemented her desire to pursue music as a career, perhaps playing as a studio musician for Disney movies. However, exposure to orchestral music and learning about the lifestyle of an orchestral musician prompted her to deviate from her original plan.

“When you’re in school, you work on a program for months, and then you perform it,” Kohler said. “And this camp gives you more of an idea of, if you were a professional, you would rehearse these pieces one week, then you perform it, and then you move on to something else. That showed me what it might be like, and I really enjoyed it.”

A few years later, in 2010, Alan Snow, then age 15, arrived on campus for the Symphony Session from Mount Prospect, Illinois. He had decided to join his friend and fellow violinist James Hanford, whose father, Robert, was concertmaster at Birch Creek.

“It was a little serendipitous,” Snow said. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m not doing anything this summer, and James said, ‘You should come.’”

Snow quickly fell in love with chamber music, a type designed for small ensembles with one player to a part. He and Hanford played in the same ensemble and worked to perfect Dmitri Shostakovich’s eighth quartet. 

“That was one of my first really big experiences with playing chamber music and playing in a string quartet,” Snow said appreciatively of the formative environment that Birch Creek offers.

The new experiences, exposure to talented faculty and key moments on stage – including one with Robert Hanford – strengthened Snow’s commitment to music and made a lasting impression. 

“We were playing Copland’s Appalachian Spring,” Snow recalled. “There’s a solo in the first two minutes of the piece, and it’s a concertmaster solo. The way Robert played it, I was sitting just a foot away and watching him, and [it was] just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Since then, Snow has played that solo with a couple of orchestras, and “[I] will always, for the rest of my life, think of him.”  

The memories made and experience gained at Birch Creek propelled both Snow and Kohler to pursue careers in music. Snow is now the second associate concertmaster of the Omaha Symphony, and Kohler is the assistant in E-flat clarinet and acting principal clarinet in the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

Today, the students-turned-pros are also back on the Birch Creek campus in teaching and performing capacities for the 2022 Symphony Session. Prior to arriving on campus, they mused about their return to Birch Creek – the first time for Snow and Kohler’s third. 

“Having been a student there, and knowing what the relationship with the faculty was like for me and how much it influenced me,” Kohler said, “I feel it’s very important, now that I’m on the flip side, that I provide that same level of instruction and feedback and support for the students.”

“It’s a literal reminder of where I started,” Snow said, also noting that most of the faculty who taught him still teach at Birch Creek. “Just to be a part of it from the other side – I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that – will be really fun and cool.”

For Kohler and Snow, sharing their passion for music and the possibilities that passion brings with a new generation of student musicians – in the same place where they underwent dramatic transformation – is an opportunity to give back.

“All I want to do is try to be as good as some of the mentors that I had as a kid,” Snow said. “I think the reason I went into music is [that] I had enough people in my life present music [in] a certain way to me, to make me see it as an art form and a fun, collaborative thing, instead of ‘No, the notes are in the wrong place.’”

“At Birch Creek, you learn a lot of things – not just about music, but also just as a person,” Kohler said. “Like how to be a good colleague, how to be responsible, how to be competitive at times and know when it’s not appropriate, how to deal with nerves. Just being able to help them overcome things as a person, as well as musically, I think is really satisfying and important.”

You can hear Snow and Kohler during Birch Creek’s Symphony Session July 4, 7-9 and 14-16 inside the Dutton Concert Barn.

Birch Creek Music Performance Center in Egg Harbor is a residential summer music academy with a performance emphasis. Advanced young musicians are taught by nationally known performers and educators during the day, and they perform alongside them during concerts at night. Four sessions focus on Percussion & Steel Band, Symphony, and Big Band Jazz. Visit for 2022 concert and session information.

Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, which contributes Culture Club throughout the summer season, is a coalition of nonprofit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and advocate the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County.