Sweet Sounds of Summer

For seventy-six years, young musicians have entertained audiences while honing their craft at the New England Music Camp.

By Meadow Rue Merrill
Photographed by Alan Lavallee

On a fine summer evening, the strains of violin and French horn mix with the hooting calls of loons and carry over glistening nine-mile-long Messalonskee Lake in Sidney, just north of Augusta. The music emanates from the dozens of small brown cabins that dot a lush field rimmed by swaying pines. Too tiny to hold even a bed, these are the practice rooms for the more than three hundred young musicians enrolled at the New England Music Camp.

For seventy-six years, middle- and high-school students from around the world have descended on Messalonskee Lake each summer to cultivate their classical music skills, give free weekend concerts, and have fun. Soon, with the addition of a $12 million, world-class arts and education center, the nonprofit music camp will become a year-round destination for artists and musicians of all ages — including nationally known performers. “We’re trying to preserve the campground without losing our roots,” says director John Wiggin, a grandson of Dr. Paul Wiggin, the Maine high-school music teacher who started the camp in 1937.

Those roots include a traditional Maine summer camp experience, with sailing, athletic games, and social activities, and five hours of daily music classes taught by college professors and Broadway performers. Students receive private lessons and participate in at least one performance ensemble — orchestra, band, vocal, or jazz. After just five rehearsals, they play in concerts, attracting crowds that swell to more than one thousand. Performances take place at one of the largest outdoor amphitheaters in the country, the 110-foot-long, log-sided Bowl in the Pines.
Many campers return each year, and when they grow up, they send their children. Boston physician Paul Wood, who plays violin and trumpet and still performs, attended camp as a teen. For the past five years, his twin seventeen-year-old boys, Daniel and Evan, have been campers.

“The greatest thing is the faculty-student relationships,” Daniel says. “I came to camp to focus on violin, but the head of their music department was a saxophonist. He was an incredible player and such a great influence. I had played for only two years, and it totally changed how I played.”

Evan, who plays cello and trombone, enjoys the balance between rehearsals and performances and hanging out and having fun. “Music is only half the day,” he said. “Recreation is the rest.”
The camp is set on forty acres of former farmland, with multiple playing fields, tennis courts, a fleet of sailboats, canoes, and kayaks, plus a half mile of shore. The mix of activities, Wiggin says, gives campers confidence and ensures that “they are happy at whatever they want to do.”

The musical abilities of campers range from moderate to advanced. “The growth we are trying to get is not just musical growth,” Wiggin explains. “We are not a conservatory that is going to have the kids in a practice room or on a stage all day. They also get a sense of confidence, a sense of purpose. Those things, at the end of the day, become more important than the music itself.”

The camp’s three-hundred-seat indoor concert hall will eventually become part of the new, 45,000-square-foot Snow Pond Center for the Arts, scheduled for completion in 2016. The design includes an eight-hundred-seat, indoor performance hall, recording and dance studios, visual arts, a year-round community arts school, and additional practice studios.
What would Wiggin’s grandfather, who taught at Augusta’s Cony High School, and father, who also served as camp director, have thought? “They built an organization that is known around the world,” Wiggin says. “The next logical phase is to move to a year-round operation so we can reach more folks, particularly here in Maine.”

Meadow Rue Merrill is an award-winning Maine journalist and frequent contributor to Down East.

If you go:
The Bowl in the Pines Summer Concert Music Series offers outdoor concerts on Saturdays and Sundays from June 29 to August 11, beginning at 3 p.m., with the exception of the August 3 Pops concert, which begins at 7 p.m. Limited bench seating is available, or you can bring your own chair. Admission is free. New England Music Camp, 8 Goldenrod Lane, Sidney. 207-465-3025. nemusiccamp.com