By: Pam Munter
It’s easy to lose track of what matters in a life that’s busy and complicated. The process of reconnecting with the self and one’s passions sometimes can come from unexpected places. Like summer camp, for instance.
Though it’s referred to in the brochure as “a musical vacation,” SummerKeys in Lubec, Maine is a music camp for adults. The word “camp” merely serves as economical shorthand for other descriptive words such as workshops, seminars, practices and lessons. There is nothing campy about it.
I stayed in an historic old bed and breakfast built in 1860, in a suite that used to welcome pioneering Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith to its walls in her prime. It was, what can I say, charming. There were seven rooms, the five on the second floor populated by SummerKeys students. We were all of a certain age, no one under 50. And all were serious musicians, except me. They’d all been coming every year for years.
The innkeeper at Peacock House was new to the job, a tall, gray-haired woman in the same age group as its boarders. She was polite, friendly and warm, as you might expect. Everything is very clean, restored to what was likely its original state when the house was built, but up to date in all the important ways. The population of Lubec is around 1500, swelling a hundred or so more with the SummerKeys students and maybe a couple hundred more by vacationers, anxious to hang out near the Bay of Fundy and enjoy the temperate summer Maine climate. The inn and the little town felt welcoming and safe.
I had been to SummerKeys once before, nearly seven years earlier, when I played the trumpet. So much has happened in my life since then, though, that it has colored my recollections of the little Maine town and of the unique educational process happening here.
In all likelihood, I came back here for all the wrong reasons. Seven years ago, I fell in love with the town, its retro nineteenth century architecture, its transcendental roots, its readily-available lobster. There was something so Jessica Fletcher about it all, and yet a trip back in time – but with indoor plumbing and a hot breakfast ready at 730 each morning.
SummerKeys sends me its brochure every year; I longingly read it over and then throw it out. I’m not sure why I was more receptive last year when it arrived close to Christmas. Six years ago, I had given up music – playing instruments and singing, activities I have done most of my life. They were discarded for good reasons, I thought. Life has its cycles and musical activities were in the past, having exhausted their usefulness. Now I was, ahem, a writer.
And that’s what undid me. I have been writing a deconstructed memoir, where each chapter or essay can stand alone, and surprised at the presence, if not dominance, of music in every era of my life—from lessons to performance. These days, I don’t listen much, preferring the hum of the air conditioning, the drone of competition reality shows or the news.
Maybe I was ripe to the possibility of returning to Lubec and SummerKeys because of this existential vacuum. According to the brochure, SK now offers instructional weeks in singing and in writing but those didn’t tempt me at all. Why not just jump in and learn a new musical instrument? Could this be done at 73? Why not? And who cares if I can’t? I would never see these people again, would I?
So I emailed Bruce Potterton, the distinguished founder and director, and asked if the program welcomes beginners. Of course, he replied, they are delighted to mentor people new to their instrument. I asked for suggestions about a music book from which to work, bought it, made my reservations for travel and practiced every day. Well, most days. I had six months until July before my week at SK.
I had played the piano before, in spurts. As a kid, I was forced into lessons at the age of six by my well-meaning mother until I begged out at twelve, eagerly grabbing the clarinet that sat in the corner of the teacher’s studio. I returned briefly to the keyboard for a class in harmony (i.e., music theory) in high school, which I nearly flunked because I would tear into improvised jazz riffs when we were all supposed to be writing four-part harmonies. Once more I leaped into the piano in my 50s, this time studying with the clever and talented woman who often led my jazz trio when I sang in clubs. Working on jazz piano skills proved challenging. Mastery requires functioning on three or four levels at the same time and lots of sequencing. These are not my strong suits, as I was reminded every time I sat down to practice. Back then I memorized everything, cutting short the multi-level functioning to a simplified mechanical process. Now, 20 years later, the memorization that had saved me from myself was no longer easily accomplished. I had to confront my organic limitations. It was a case of use-it-or-lose-it and I had clearly lost it.
This time at SK, I would challenge myself with a classical repertoire but I had no idea how difficult that would be. Other than those historical flirtations with piano, all the instruments I had played before were written in treble clef. Now, not only did I have an additional clef to learn (all the notes on the bass clef are a whole tone lower than treble), but I had to put both hands together at the same time. It was akin to speaking two different foreign languages simultaneously while negotiating a balance beam.
When I booked everything seven months earlier, I opted for that Margaret Chase Smith suite on the second floor, the place she stayed on vacations. There were two biographies of the trend-setting first woman Senator arranged neatly on the dresser. While sitting in the rocking chair reading, I could easily imagine the room to be infused with her aromatic pipe smoke, Senate bills demanding her attention resting on the pull-down desk near the windows.
After being escorted to my suite. Mary Beth, the innkeeper, smiled and said, “Just come down when you’re done.” There was a command-performance quality to that gentle invitation that was impossible to refuse. I pushed my introverted self out the door and made my way down the narrow stairs. Turns out we were from all over. My upstairs clan had arrived from Florida, Kansas, Colorado and Aruba.
At first, I was struck by the cultural differences. Many of the students were people who taught music for a living. More to the point, they seemed as bucolic as the environment. Jerry, the retired physician from Wichita, discussed quilt-making with Clarice from Florida, after the two had shared stories of attending this year’s state fairs. Helen, who has been here three weeks already, was working on mastering still another stringed instrument to take knowledge back to her elementary school music students in the Aruba public school system. Sharon, a piano teacher from Denver, seemed the most quick-witted one of the bunch, which put me at ease until she told us at breakfast that she and her husband decided to never watch the news as it was too depressing.
The teaching and practice sites were located within a short distance of the B&B. Walking around allowed a close-up view of the charming houses, with their well-tended gardens and manicured lawns.. Every journey required scaling a 45-degree hill – either up or down. It’s not a town for the impaired or the elderly unless they are on something with wheels. I used those aerobic treks to give myself permission to eat chocolate and to enjoy the daily cookies made by the innkeeper.
I had forgotten the immediate emotional impact of hearing music played live in one’s living space. At any waking hour during the day or evening, someone would be playing the grand piano downstairs—something by Chopin, Bach, Schubert or to my delight, Cole Porter. To my surprise, there was an increase in my pulse, an alertness that compelled me to drop whatever I was doing to listen. It all wafted gently upstairs and even with my door closed, it made its voyage to my inner reaches. And even my tentative playing brought the pleasure of minor mastery, the harmonies echoing in my brain as I walked around Lubec. It felt good to have music coursing through me again.
There was little connection to the outside world and no discussion of it. Newspapers were not in the house. There was a TV in my room but I was fully aware most sounds carried easily throughout the house. For an information junkie like me, being cut off was unfamiliar.
Already by Day Two there was a sameness, a familiarity. Surprisingly, I felt no stress either about practicing or the learning process. Perhaps this was because the educational demands were so few. Years ago, when I attended Dixieland camps (on the cornet, not the piano), the days were filled with band practice, lessons, concerts. There was hardly a moment to spare. Here, not so much. There were long periods in which nothing happened.
While the curriculum is minimal, the bonhomie was not. Most everyone seemed delighted to be here and were universally supportive. There was no snark and no complaining, even though most of our ill-conceived schedules required us to go without lunch.
And the setting was beautiful. It was possible to see the deep blue-green Bay of Fundy from almost anywhere, even from my own suite. There was a gentle breeze most days keeping mosquitos at bay and the air freshened. Sadly, the little town, itself, seemed to be in decline. Many of the storefronts were boarded up and some of the restaurants had closed. In fact, there were only two places in town to have lunch, whenever I got the time to have it. There was one small market and a bank. Though FDR’s stately summer home, Campobello, was just across the bridge, there was no way to get there without a car. There was no public transit, no cabs, not even a place to rent a bike. It was a burg of microscopic proportions, reminding me of a movie backlot.
By Friday night it was all over, culminating in a student performance. I was not on the bill. I made it clear from the get-go that I was out of the performance business. My goal this week was to increase my piano-playing knowledge which didn’t include showing off my inadequacies in public. The performances provided a symmetry to the week, a congruence with the relatively stress-free atmosphere in which I had immersed myself. I sat with my eyes closed, allowing myself to be transported.
But now the week was over. It was time to pack up and begin the disjointed two-day trip home via Bangor and New York City. It had been a unique and rarefied week, spent in musical isolation. I appreciated the warm and unconditional affirmations by the faculty, their acceptance of where I was, even respectful of my musical abilities outside the realm of the piano. Most surprising had been the camaraderie I found at Peacock House among people with whom I likely had nothing in common but being there. It was more than enough.
SummerKeys offered a fertile learning environment, one requiring discipline, motivation and an openness to the beauty of Lubec. In a way, it unexpectedly brought me back to life, reminding me that a life without passion is not much of a life at all.