For the aspiring musician and the music lover, Birch Creek Performance Center in Door County embodies a fantasy turned into reality. Young musicians rehearse and attend workshops in the summer sunshine. Performances fill crisp evenings with powerful symphonies. It’s enough to make a person want to frolic through a field of daisies.
This year, Birch Creek celebrates its 35th anniversary. Each year, 200 musically gifted students arrive to study and perform in one of the center’s four summer sessions. The two-week long workshops range from an emphasis in jazz to percussion or symphony.
Students are required to live on campus and adhere to a very arduous performance schedule. With intensive mentoring and a two-to-one student to faculty ratio, the kids make an enormous amount of progress during the course of their stay. “I think coming to Birch Creek alone gives students a phenomenal opportunity to work with faculty,” says Executive Director Kaye Wagner.
Charlie Eckhardt, music teacher at Gibraltar Schools, commented on the importance of music opportunities like the Birch Creek Performance Center and their ability to motivate students to want to do it themselves – to want to practice their instrument or perform. “To have kids be able to work with and be inspired by professionals –people that do this for a living – whether as music educators or performers is incredibly valuable,” Eckhardt says.
These students, who range in age between 13 and 19, come from far and wide to study music at Birch Creek. Some are returning students, others are recruited by faculty from Midwest music festivals, and still more are just interested in finding out what it takes to be a musician.
Kate Rericha, Director of Marketing, Public Relations and Grants at Birch Creek, says, “The students will learn a lot of things, and one of them is whether or not music is something they want to do professionally.”
Entering the field of music proves no easy task. A musician’s expenses loom large. There are music lessons, a good quality instrument and its maintenance. Many established musicians teach in order to make ends meet.
The cost of a two-week program at Birch Creek is $4,500. Of that amount, students pay $1,785 and the rest is underwritten by donors who make it possible for Birch Creek to maintain low costs and provide aid in the form of grants and scholarships.
Birch Creek’s scholarship and aid program speaks directly to an understanding of a musician’s financial hardships. For students who wish to apply for aid, there are three qualifying criteria: the family’s financial need, the student’s merit, and the need for that particular instrument in any given session, according to Wagner. “The scholarship program in itself gives students who would not have otherwise been able to attend the chance to attend,” Wagner says.
Of the 200 students who attend Birch Creek’s summer programs, approximately 33 percent of them – or 64 students – receive aid. Wagner says, “It’s pretty much our policy to award each student who applies some help.”
New student applicants receive the majority of the money budgeted for financial aid, but there are other categories as well. The “Birch Creek Student Award” provides outstanding students from the previous year the opportunity to return and qualify for aid. There are also scholarships given to students recruited from the Midwest percussion and jazz festivals, and children of faculty members receive a reduction in fees. Many of these smaller scholarships and recruiting efforts serve to boost the caliber and talent of students who attend and guarantee the quality of music performed at the Birch Creek facility.
Economic challenges reveal the growing importance of Birch Creek’s mission to provide opportunities for aspiring young musicians. Last year, in response to the economic hardship sweeping the nation, Birch Creek embarked on a special mission to raise more money for student aid, according to Rericha. Their efforts resulted in much generosity from donors and $14,000 in additional funds were provided for families who felt the pinch.
“Philanthropically, it’s the position of the Birch Creek Board of Directors to provide assistance to those who cannot come up with the funds themselves,” Rericha said.
That’s just one example of how dedicated they are to ensuring that students who are accepted have the opportunity to attend. “Sometimes we get thank you letters and the students will tell us what doors have been opened for them because of Birch Creek,” Wagner says. “They go back to school and train students who are younger than they are – teach them the tips they learned. Many students learn as much in two weeks here as they learn all year at school.”
The performance aspect of these summer workshops blesses the community and its visitors with sweet music on warm evenings. Eckhardt says, “The audience is receptive and warm. They’re on vacation up here in Door County, so they’re going to listen to what you’re doing.”
For the students, performing can certainly be one of the more nerve-wracking aspects of the program. “It’s frightening – performing – you feel like you’re never ready. Your greatest fear is that you’re just going to get squashed,” Eckhardt says. “But they’re supportive at Birch Creek and performing means they get to see where you’re at in your development.”
Through their rehearsals, performances, and mutual love of music, students develop a sense of camaraderie. Particularly gifted students become role models for others, inspiring them to work harder on the material and with their instruments. “Kids can evaluate talent and it helps them to evaluate themselves. It helps them to grow,” Eckhardt says.
The Door County school community also reaps the benefits of having such a wonderful music arts center. The performance center’s outreach efforts have brought nationally-recognized musicians to surrounding middle and high schools for hands-on workshops at no additional cost. “It’s a resource to the schools that are around it and to northern Door County. They bring business here,” Eckhardt says. “Birch Creek prides itself on being demanding and top notch, and it has a good reputation.”
The Birch Creek Performance Center brings music to Door County’s summer air. It provides young, aspiring musicians with mentors, rehearsals and the chance to perform – giving them all the skills with which to become better musicians. By recruiting students with striking musical talent to participate in their summer programs, Birch Creek draws summer residents, vacationers, and locals to share in the wondrous experience of a concert in the 100-year-old Dutton Concert Barn. Birch Creek gives the gift of music – and it’s a gift that keeps on giving.
Brittany Jordt graduated from UW-Madison in May 2009 with a BA in English and Theater. She feels excited and honored to be able to share her passion for the arts by contributing to Door County Living. Door County is a wonderful community with a variety of art forms and very talented artists, which makes it a delightfully compelling place to live and to write.