Each year, I begin Next Level by asking two questions:
What do you want to know at the end of this week?
What do you want to be able to do at the end of this week?
We all remember those marble composition notebooks from grade school. You'd walk into the first week of school, full of excitement and a backpack of new notebooks that would soon be filled with assignments, musings and, in my case, color-coded notes (yup, I was that kid).
Walking into Next Level has a similar feeling - a hope, and excitement for the week to come, a backpack with a laptop and arrangements, and, when you get here, one of those very same notebooks waiting for you to fill. Our goal is to have you fill these with the musings and dreams you are filled with, and that you can save that notebook and use it far beyond the realm of your week with us. Maybe you'll even bring it back for the following summer, or the following two summers - either way, my hope and goal for all of our Next Level students is that this book will become a valuable resource as you continue on your musical journey, as well as a time-capsule of the best week of your summer.
In my day job as a Choral Director at Marlborough High School, there is nothing more rewarding than watching the students have what I call “A Ha!” moments: moments where something finally clicks and a new part of your musical awareness is unlocked. In an ensemble setting, with 40+ singers, it’s challenging to find the time to mark these special moments and to record them for future reference.
At Next Level, those moments are a way of life. Next Level is intimate. This small group environment is purposeful - it fosters close relationships and conversations between members and ensures that everyone gets the attention and instruction that they deserve. It’s tailored to your individual wants and needs, your individual “know” and “do".
Take Pearce Illmer, for example. By the end of his third Next Level in 2016, Pearce was examining the possibility of a career shift. He wanted to know “Am I on the right path? What's the best plan for me going forward?” As an emerging arranger and producer, Pearce committed himself to being open with those around him over the course of the week in an effort to understand if this is where he saw himself. The result? Nowadays Pearce does so much more than his day job - he arranges for groups performing at BOSS, tracks award-winning groups in Texas, helps to expand the Southwest ICHSA, and is an ever-growing force in the aca-world. Pearce believes that
“My time at Next Level gave me an enhanced understanding of all of the tools to [elevate] my production. (The) ability to understand why YOU are doing something and make creative decisions with other people's work doesn't necessarily come easily. Next Level hammered home that philosophy, but it’s up to me to then go work my ass off and refine, which takes time. So I'm still in the process of becoming a great mixer, and that will likely still be my goal should I come back this year.”
Sometimes, what you think you want to know and do by the end of the week wind up being usurped by something even more exciting, something beyond your control. I immediately think of Jacob Miller, a member of Mixed Company from Yale, who attended his first Next Level last summer. Before the week even started, we gathered to preview the Jacob Collier album before it was released. He and I had differing views about a particular song, “In The Real Early Morning”. Jacob didn’t like it because he felt that it lacked energy. I argued that it demonstrated vulnerability which made me like it. Fast forward to the drive back to Boston.
After a week of more listening to, performing, analyzing and discussing music, Jacob listened to the same album on his ride back. You can imagine my surprise when at a rest stop on I-90, Jacob came running up to me all riled up. “You aren’t going to believe what just happened!” he shouted as he approached. My mind immediately thought, “Oh no! He must have been in an accident!” but as he got closer I realized that his eyes were positively shining with excitement. “I had it! My screen door moment! Just now, in the car! I was bawling my eyes out while I was driving!” Jacob later said, in a group text to the entire Next Level crew,
“There was no way on Sunday (at the listening session) I knew what she (Shannon) meant by that. But when the song came on during my drive home, I sang along until I found myself tearing up, escalating to the point where I was flat out sobbing, audibly. I have never had such a visceral reaction to music in my entire life - I completely lost control… every one of you gave me something this week that revolutionized my relationship to music, and I can’t thank you enough for that.”
And that’s the beauty of Next Level. If you come with your skill set, an open mind, and a desire to improve, the possibilities are endless. You will watch yourself accomplish things that you may not have thought were possible, all while basking in the supportive and nurturing glow of the staff and your peers. It doesn’t matter what your level is now: there is always a next level.
So, what do you want you know? What do you want to be able to do?
Come find your Next Level.