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This school in tiny Adamant has been a haven for international pianists for 80 years

A teacher and student sitting at a piano in a large room.
Erica Heilman
/
Vermont Public
Veteran piano instructor Elaine Greenfield teaches a student at the Adamant Music School this summer.

The Adamant Music School is a community of pianists from all over the world who meet each summer in Adamant — an unincorporated community in Calais — to study and perform. The school has several sessions and runs from early June to late August. Reporter Erica Heilman recently spent a day there.

Deirdre O’Donahue: "The expression!"

This is Deirdre O'Donahue with her student Zion Fan, playing Bach’s C Minor Partita.

Deirdre O’Donahue: "That distance is probably one of the most vocally dramatic, right? If you're a singer... that's hard. Reach for it."

In the early '40s, a pianist called Edwine Behre of New York City had a vision for a summer place of piano study, a kind of piano retreat, where pianists could study together in a vibrant, non-competitive environment. In 1942, she found that place down a dirt road in a tiny unincorporated village in Calais, Vermont, called Adamant.

Adamant is comprised of a few houses and a small co-op. And all summer long, for the last 80 years, the village of Adamant has been filled with the sound of piano.

"We are living in sort of three time realms, the present, the past, and the future. When you play a note, you're thinking of, where is it coming from? Where is it going? And how is it right now?"
Deirdre O'Donahue

Here's teacher and pianist Elaine Greenfield.

Elaine Greenfield: "I came to the school in 1968. So I'm the old-timer here. And as I walked in, and Edwine saw me walking up the hill, she came to me and said, ‘Oh, Elaine Greenfield! I thought you'd be bigger.’ Because I'm a small person. But it was just a life-changing experience. For those two weeks that I was here, I saw the kind of teaching I wanted to do. I saw the kind of life I wanted to live in music, because of the way she lived. And ever since have followed that path. She called it a school for living, as well as the school for pianists."

Deirdre O’Donahue: "Piano… You have B flat… feel how it’s expanding."

This is Matthew Manwarren, the artistic director of the Adamant School.

Matthew Manwarren: "We audition students every year, we select approximately 25 to 30 students in this particular program, the three-week program. And then we have four other masterclass sessions that go on for about five days. So we do have standards to get into school, but we consider ourselves really a non-competitive kind of environment.

"We have 42 pianos, and they're all scattered out in the woods, and they stay there year round. They literally freeze during the wintertime, then during the spring, there's a slow thaw and the pianos just adapt naturally. They're well maintained each year, and we've got an enormous amount of space. It's like a haven for pianists."

Deirdre O’Donahue: "It feels like you know what you want to do, you're doing more dynamic shading, the entrances of the fugue voice when the theme comes in, is always, has very good focus, I think, the andante probably needs more color, more singing tone. So let's start on that."

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So much of this is like is looking at a blind spot or being aware of the fact that there's a rearview mirror but that there's so much you can't see. And then suddenly, you look, you see it and a teacher has helped you, can't show it to you, but is sort of pointing in different directions.

Deirdre O’Donahue: "I think most people I know do have certain fears, because they either want to please you or they have their own inner anxieties to overcome. I mean, you heard me say, ‘No!’ but at this point they know 'No,' it’s not a criticism of them. It’s that that one note or two notes or whatever they’re doing is not the best they can do, and maybe it’s not appropriate in the context, but they want to learn.

"It takes time to absorb a new technique or a new idea, you know, dynamics or rhythm or just the kind of quality of sound or what kind of character does the piece, all of those things you have to hold into your head at the same time. It's very Gestalt, you have to think of all of these things.

"One thing I often think of is, that we are living in sort of three time realms, the present, the past, and the future. When you play a note, you're thinking of, where is it coming from? Where is it going? And how is it right now. I mean, that's pretty intense concentration."

"Music speaks to the human condition, in every way, in all aspects."
Elaine Greenfield

Erica: "Why does this matter?"

Elaine Greenfield: "It's the human condition. Music speaks to the human condition, in every way, in all aspects."

Matthew Manwarren: "We do it because we can't do anything else. When I asked my teacher about going into music in high school, she said, ‘Do it if you can't do anything else.’ Not because we can't do anything else, it's just that it's a calling. You know, we can't live without music."

Deirdre O’Donahue: "You know, Beethoven said that he felt that the artist is the highest form of the human being, the artist has the power to transform the lives of others as well as himself. In that sense, that's something beautiful or sublime — maybe not always beautiful — has an incredible power to make, you know, maybe life worth living for some people.

"Anytime you've performed, from that first note, there's no way back. You know, there's a point of no return as soon as you begin. And from that moment, at that moment, it is alive. You're creating a life."

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontpublic.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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