MISSOULA – Practicing his cello on a balcony of a dormitory – in what normally houses the Aspen ski patrol – against an emerald green mountain as a new fawn toddles among the wildflowers below, isn’t too bad a gig for summer.
That’s especially true for University of Montana rising senior David Harmsworth, a Missoula native and cello performance major in the School of Music, housed in UM’s College of the Arts and Media. Harmsworth is spending 10 weeks at the Aspen Music Festival and School, having been awarded a full fellowship for tuition and board at the prestigious summer school, where he’ll undergo rigorous preparation playing alongside some of the world’s top players in classical music.
“It’s kind of crazy how international the festival is,” Harmsworth said. “It’s amazing getting to know the orchestra managers and other students from all over the country and the world. It’s challenging me in a lot of different ways, but I’m excited about it all.”
The Aspen Music School is regarded as the country’s premier musical training program for young musicians, having cut its competitive acceptance rate this year for musicians from more than 600 down to about 270 to limit size as a COVID-19 precaution. In order to apply, Harmsworth had to submit a digital recording of two solos and three orchestral and chamber pieces (all in one take) – in addition to a written portion, a performance resume and letters of recommendation.
“I knew they were selecting a smaller cohort this summer, so I wasn’t sure about my chances,” Harmsworth said, who comes from a family of professional musicians, including his older sister and both parents. “I feel great being here, representing UM and making connections for possibly grad school and other professional opportunities.”
During the summer, students are offered a combination of intensive one-on-one instruction and professional performance experience. The festival includes five orchestras, opera, chamber music studies, master classes, lectures and panels.
While in Aspen, Harmsworth will perform for seasoned orchestral musicians, including teachers and principal players from New York, Vienna, Los Angeles, St. Louis, San Francisco, Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia. The rigorous weekly schedule of playing and performing is so demanding, that only the most serious, dedicated young musicians from around the world are accepted – a perfect environment for Harmsworth, who is training at UM under Adam Collins, UM’s cello instructor.
Harmsworth credits Collins for “more dimensional musicianship,” having arrived at UM and learned to be a more nuanced player under Collins, who helped him learn to better manage the small muscles required for playing and prepare for a career as a professional cellist.
“David has been really productive during his time at UM, he’s a thrill to teach,” Collins said. “He’s a great student and cellist, and it’s terrific to see him at Aspen this year. For a student like David, being exposed to all that Aspen offers, it’s an incredible opportunity.”
At UM, Collins said students who declare a performance focus in a particular instrument generally are training for careers as professional players and composers. UM School of Music’s environment lends itself to a deep focus in a particular corner of music, Collins said, like training to an elite level for an orchestral career. The breadth of offerings and low student-to-faculty ratio allow students to flexibly find their niche with great mentorship and instruction from faculty, Collins said.
In addition to teaching the technique of playing the cello, Collins also teaches students how to read and write a contract, how to professionally correspond as a musician, the importance of learning your part, owning appropriate attire, sharing a music stand, following the instructions of a conductor or a principal – all of the soft skills of being an independent musician.
“So much of being a professional musician is responding to emails in a timely manner,” Collins said. “Otherwise, venues move on to the next person on their list and you’ve just lost an income and playing opportunity.”
Collins said upcoming renovations to the Music Building, funded by UM alumni and longtime supporters, will transform two of the building’s largest ensemble rehearsal and practice rooms, which serve hundreds of students each year and prepare them for a wide range of careers in the music industry – from traditional and contemporary performance, to commercial music, recording arts and arts administration.
The School of Music also serves the state of Montana as a hub for music education, with its Music Education Program boasting a 100% graduate job placement rate. Many of these alumni teach in rural Montana communities, providing K-12 vocal and instrumental music instruction statewide.
During the school year, Harmsworth plays with the UM Symphony Orchestra in addition to symphonies in Missoula, Helena and Billings and manages a full course schedule. He’ll return to UM in August for his senior year.
“When you’re in an environment like Aspen, both musically and physically, it makes life easier – you can work harder, ignore the pain and focus on the music,” Harmsworth said. “It will be great to be back at UM in the fall so that I can buckle down, share what I’ve learned and focus on what comes next.”
Contact: Adam Collins, visiting assistant professor of cello, UM School of Music, 406-243-6880, firstname.lastname@example.org. Dave Kuntz, UM strategic communications director, 406-243-5659, email@example.com.