Delighted audiences gathered at each of the three concerts of the Vero Beach International Music Festival at First Presbyterian Church’s McAfee Hall. The concerts, which featured a mix of Americana, Celtic, Indian, bluegrass, jazz and folk music, showcased the talents of the first-rate faculty and participants of the 13th annual Mike Block String Camp.
Led by Grammy Award-winning cellist Mike Block, the faculty included Block’s wife, Hanneke Cassel, former US National Champion Scottish Violinist, as well as Western/Indian violinist Trina Basu, jazz violinist Zach Brock, multi-instrumentalist Colin Cotter, violinist Casey Driessen, cellist Natalie Haas, violinist Kimber Ludiker, violin/violinist Taylor Morris, Indian classical and crossover violinist Arun Ramamurthy, viola/violinist Lauren Rioux, classical and jazz violinist Curtis Stewart, multi-instrumentalist Joe Troop and mandolin player Joe Walsh.
During the second concert, the transfer of the Daniel Pearl Memorial violin resulted in Emra Stenn handing over the special instrument to Olivia Breen. The violin was gifted to MBSC a few years ago in memory of Pearl, a journalist and violinist who was killed by terrorists in Pakistan. The violin is given to a camp attendee for one year before being handed over to the next person.
Stenn began attending the camp in 2014 as a student at Vero Beach High School and has since graduated with a degree in Irish music and dance from the University of Limerick in Ireland. He is currently working on a degree in cybersecurity at Indian River State College.
Of the violin, Stenn said, “It was a lot of fun to play and it made me play a lot better.”
Breen, who is pursuing a dual degree in violin performance and aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and her twin sister Audrey, a cellist, have attended the camp for four years.
“It’s an honor to know that they believe in me to give me this. The first thing I thought when I played it was that I felt like butter. It’s magical,” Breen said.
“The friends I made in my first year at camp are still super good friends. They fill my heart every year I’m here. Faculty too. I know I can reach out to them throughout the year if I have any questions or if they come to town and play a show.”
Giggling with delight, she recalled how she and her friends went to listen to the American string band Mr. Sun, featuring Joe Walsh. When he greeted her, she said, “It was so cool, because all my friends were like, ‘How do you know Joe Walsh?’ This camp has honestly changed our lives.”
Other participants have since become music teachers themselves, including Evan Robinet, a cellist, who teaches students in the Gifford Youth Orchestra.
“Some of my favorite musical moments have happened at this camp, especially at night, when we all play together. Everything is very free flowing and everyone fits each other really well,” said Robinet.
“One of my favorite parts of the camp is definitely the collaboration. I feel like I’m surrounded by world-class talent all the time. It has a really cool environment. You feel really safe to try new things,” said bassist Jacob Heglud, now director of orchestra at Gaither High School in Tampa.
“It’s so great that our students are becoming the next generation of teachers,” Block said. Explaining that playing is learned by ear and not by notes, he said it was a new concept for many students.
“And so we were developing new skills, learning through improvisation, grooving, ensemble plan, all done in a collaborative environment,” Block said.
In a joint song, students learn multiple melodies from multiple faculty members and, after forming bands from their peers, add their own personal touch to the music. In the intern track, professional and college-age participants worked with “all-powerful, all-knowing” faculty leaders who “get them in shape from zero to performance” within days.
“We’re trying to answer a few questions with our participants,” Block said. “What is: How can we connect with the world through music? How can we learn more about ourselves through creativity? And how can we collaborate with other people to create something bigger than any one person?”