BLUE HILL, Maine -- It was an unusual first encounter. With eyes closed and heads tossed back, my new comrades -- two violinists, a violist, and a cellist -- swayed with their instruments, and the melancholy opening strains of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet wafted out of our cabin and into the Maine air. I was momentarily transported -- until the short, bespectacled man in the corner leaped to his feet and cut us short.
"You're playing notes. Now try playing music!" snapped Abe Loft, a former violinist with the storied Fine Arts Quartet, with an impish grin. We chuckled at his outburst and started over. Fifteen minutes later, we were still trying to make music out of the opening phrase.
Our session of tough love was exactly what we had hoped for when we signed up for the Adult Chamber Music Institute at the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival in Blue Hill. The mix of cajoling, humor, and scolding brought me back to my musical studies 25 years ago when, as a high school musician, I had harbored a fantasy of one day becoming a principal clarinetist with a leading orchestra. But fantasies have a way of morphing: After playing briefly in college, I abandoned music for two decades and became a writer instead. When my daughter took up the clarinet a few years ago, my musical passions were rekindled.
Last summer at Kneisel Hall, I played with quartets and quintets of people like me. The scene is replicated at a number of other adult chamber music programs held each summer throughout the region. Fantasy camps for musicians? Perhaps. But there's no armchair quarterbacking here: Everyone plays, and occasionally we make good, even really good music.
"Play it together. Sing!" Loft barked as we tried to line up a tricky entrance. Loft, who headed the string program at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York concluded our two hours of playing with some encouragement. "Now you're sellin' tickets! Now that's music!"
Ruth Jeka, 79, a violinist from Cambridge, wasn't so sure. "When I saw this piece, I just wanted to ask for my money back," she confided during break. "It's really hard. I don't get it."
Our budding ensemble amicably disbanded by dinner.
How this seafaring village came to be home to the oldest chamber music festival in North America requires some explanation. In 1885, Fritz Kneisel, 20, an Austrian violin wunderkind, arrived in the United States to become concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Kneisel wore many hats: He led the acclaimed Kneisel Quartet and ran the string department of what later became the Juilliard School of Music in New York. In 1902, he began bringing his best students to Blue Hill, where he spent summers. Other members of his quartet followed with their students, and a chamber music tradition was born.
For seven weeks each summer, the music festival hosts 50 of the top pre-professional musicians in the country, who are coached by some of the world's leading classical musicians. They take over a woody 20-acre campus that includes two dorms, five practice cabins, a concert hall, chamber music center and library, recreation hall, and dining hall. The compact downtown, located on Blue Hill Bay, is a five-minute walk away. The weekly concerts here are a summer highlight and are typically sold out.
Since 1996, Kneisel Hall has concluded its summer with a chamber music week for mortals like me. Thirty to 40 adult amateur musicians stay in the spartan but comfortable dorms, share meals, coffee breaks, and a cocktail hour, and most of all, play music: in pickup groups, sight-reading, and coached rehearsals that run from morning until evening when we break to listen to concerts and lectures.
"People come here with their passions and to get their fires stoked," said Scott Woolweaver, 48, an easygoing violist from Boston who directs and helps coach the adult chamber music week. He is assisted by three other professional coaches and a dozen conservatory musicians, who stay on to play with the groups. "We stress a noncompetitive environment. But you have to be willing to work." Woolweaver said his goal "is to get people to sound better than they think they can."
"I feel like a cross between George Plimpton and Lucy Ricardo," moaned Kate Fisher, 47, a special education teacher from Portland, Maine. She had taken up cello less than a year before. A friend told her that Kneisel had a shortage of cellists, so she signed up. "That was a mistake," she admitted, "but my quartet is very supportive."
David Herzig, 53, a cattle rancher and violinist from North Dakota, first came here in the 1970s as an aspiring professional violinist. He now makes his living from ranching, but he has been returning for the adult music week since it started in 1996. "I try to learn something new and be with great people," he said. "If you're into classical music, you're into quality of life."
One afternoon we gathered for a master class with Loft and Woolweaver. The routine is for an ensemble to play for other attendees and the coaches, then be critiqued. I listened to an enthusiastic rendition of the Schubert Cello Quintet played by a group that consisted of two music teachers, one from North Dakota and the other from Connecticut, two retired orchestral violinists, and an electrical engineer from Boston.
Then it was my turn. I had corralled violist Pei-Ling Lin and pianist Irene Wong from among the conservatory students, and we quickly (as in, two rehearsals) prepared Mozart's Clarinet Trio. We played a pretty rendition of the first movement that was greeted by merciless criticism.
"It has to be conversational! Coquettish! Flirtatious!" said Loft. "I bought my ticket, but I haven't gotten my money's worth!" he complained. "You just played the same lick three times, but it was the same each time. Do something with it!"
We caucused around our music stands. "Make these notes shorter," I proposed to Pei-Ling, as we huddled over the music, "and let's throw in a big crescendo here."
We summoned up our courage and played it again, with feeling.
"Bravo!" said Loft. "One hundred percent better."
The next night was our last -- it was show time. Each group mounted the stage of Kneisel Hall to offer what they had been preparing all week. I played a movement of the Brahms Clarinet Trio with cellist Noah Rogoff, a talented conservatory student, and pianist Lora Tchekoratova, one of the coaches. It was a thrill to play this gorgeous, romantic classic with such fine players, and in this hallowed hall.
We got all the notes. And I'd like to think we even made music.
David Goodman, a journalist and author in Vermont, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.