Standing on the Mountain Top: Why I Love the Summer Institute

by Aimee Mell, Multicultural R & R Chair

Every July I look forward to the Washington ACDA summer institute at University of Puget Sound. Some years I feel ready to consider the year ahead, while others I feel as though I’m still recovering from the school year I’ve just completed.

After coming to the SI for about 10 years, I find that walking up the steps to Kilworth Chapel and heading into the first session has become a touchstone in my life: a way to check in with my choral peers, and reflect upon my own changes and progress towards my continual goal to improve as a choral director and teacher.

This year, however, I had a new and slightly different experience which brought to mind for me the Roman God Janus. Janus represents beginnings, endings, transitions and portals to the new. The depiction of Janus is a double-sided head looking both back and forward at the same time.


This year, more than any other, I looked around and saw the spectrum of players in the regional choral community. I realized that for the first time, I feel squarely in the middle of this continuum. From my vantage point, I saw the college student attending their first SI and taking it all in with excitement, the soon-to-be college graduate heading into student teaching, and the first-year teacher full of anticipation and some trepidation. I remember all of this myself, and I’m so grateful for the camaraderie and support that these young musicians can find at SI. When I attended the mentor session, I still felt like I could sit in the mentee spot, but I realized that with twelve plus years of secondary teaching experience, I probably have a few things to offer to the newer teacher.

On the other end, I enjoyed lunches and chats with people who are ‘mid-career’ such as myself with whom I could share ideas and repertoire, and I sought out advice from those whom I consider to be more experienced and expert in our field than myself. As the only choir director in my school, I am always hungry to connect with new friends and ask those questions that roll around in my head all year. I am grateful to the generosity of my colleagues, and the college-level directors and retirees that attend. We all have so much to share with each other!

Lastly, I’m always inspired by our headliners who, as I see it, truly live on that mountain-top. They seem to exist in a place of high artistry as they research, innovate, and present their concepts in a concise and highly professional manner. For two days headliners such as Rollo Dillworth, Elena Sharkova, Lynn Gackle, Angela Broeker, Rod Eichenberger make it look easy and prompt me to think: “I want to live on that mountain top every day too! I can do it, I think! I’ll try!!” The regional/national conventions are also favorite ways to reboot this sentiment every spring.

I always walk away from SI humbled in many ways. Humbled by the open and kind exchange of ideas and music, humbled by the mastery of the headliners, and humbled by how much more there is for me to learn. The discipline of choral music is diverse, challenging, and always in flux. I know I will never stop trying to improve myself and my ensembles, and I now appreciate even more the view along the way.


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