As she labors to tune her guitar, Brooke Smith’s fingers stretch with the elegance of a slow-moving spider. “It’s hard to do just one string and not press down on the others,” she says.
“You’re doing fine,” says Israeli composer and musician Noam Faingold reassuringly. “Now just do the same thing with the next string.”
Smith, 15, is one of 20 Upward Bound students getting private music lessons taught by outstanding student-musicians participating in the Bowdoin International Music Festival (BIMF).
“I’ve wanted to play guitar since I was little,” says Smith, a student at Calais High School, “but there aren’t any guitar teachers in my area. When I found out we could take lessons here, I signed up right away.”
Smith and Faingold are part of a music partnership that began a few years ago when Upward Bound and BIMF staff decided to cross-pollinate between programs, which are housed in close proximity on campus.
The volunteer program has grown in popularity and is supported by the Bowdoin Music Department, which supplies practice instruments for all the Upward Bound students.
The summer campus neighbors couldn’t be more different. At least on paper.
The music festival draws 273 student-participants from 24 countries and across five continents. Upward Bound brings to campus 60 high-school students from low-income Maine families for six weeks of summer college-preparatory courses and extracurricular activities aimed at increasing their college aspirations and preparedness.
But music, as they say, is the universal language and it’s speaking loud and clear to the newcomers.
“I just love the cello,” gushes Emma Wilson, 17, from Lisbon High School. She is studying the instrument with BIMF participant Peter Levine, who is himself a student at Boston University.
“From the minute I heard it I thought it was beautiful,” she says, “the sound of it, everything about it was beautiful.”
With just two lessons under her belt, she says she can already play scales and is hoping she can continue her studies after she returns home on Aug. 3rd.
Teachers Levine and Faingold say they are happy to take time out from their hectic rehearsal and performance schedules to volunteer with the young musicians.
“I think anyone who’s ever been successful in music has had somebody investing in them,” observes Faingold, who lives in London and is finishing up a doctoral degree. “Every single person. I think that has stayed with me; you have to keep that going.”
Upward Bound Director Judy Ebert says the program gives the young students safe space to try something they may never have done before.
“It’s enormous,” she says. “Many of these kids don’t have music programs in their schools anymore. The word has gotten out that they don’t have to afraid to try to play an instrument here. You don’t have to be a virtuoso to sing. And they get to learn from top musicians who study and perform around the world.”
In addition to extra-curricular offerings such as music lessons, Upward Bound students take courses in math, science, writing and foreign languages, while living in dorms and experiencing campus life.
Wilson said the program has opened her eyes to many new possibilities: “I love Upward Bound,” she says. “Being on your own and living in dorms, it gives you an idea of what’s out there.”
Other Upward Bound students studying with BIMF student-musicians include Cheyenne Ruane, from Princeton, Maine. (“I want to major in music,” she notes), David Townsend, from Calais High School, and Upward Bound staff member and alumna Asia Parks, from Baileyville.