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The Summer Music Conservatory provides a musical training ground for students across Houston.

AFA, a music education organization in Houston, received a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts—the first in its 21-year history—to support its Summer Music Conservatory.

The Summer Music Conservatory, which provides a thorough musical training ground for students from all over Houston, has come a long way since Houston composer J. Todd Frazier founded AFA in 1993.

“Todd got some seed money and spent two years in a van running around Texas doing one-week residencies,” said Michael K. Remson, AFA’s current executive and artistic director. Two years later, Frazier launched the Summer Music Conservatory.

In its first year, there were 43 high school students enrolled. Since then, the program has flourished, and that’s putting it mildly. Today, the Summer Music Conservatory educates more than 450 students ranging from 3rd up through 12th grade and runs through June and July. 

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SMC educates more than 450 students ranging from 3rd up through 12th grade.

An average day for a student means about eight hours of large and small ensemble practice, sectionals and individual coaching, as well as ear training, theory, and music history—in total, thousands of hours experiencing music in one way or another. And that doesn’t include all the concerts; there are about 40 of those. This NEA grant will support continuing expansion of the Summer Music Conservatory. 

“The goal was to broaden our programming in a variety of ways,” Remson said. “We were starting to see younger and younger students come through, and we just didn’t have anything to offer, if you were an oboist we didn’t want to see you until 8th grade.”

In addition to its string orchestras, symphony orchestras, school choirs, piano divisions, and composition division, this year the Summer Music Conservatory offers wind and brass chamber music for 5th to 9th graders. It's also extending from its base, Pershing Middle School, to a second location at Klein High School, and pioneering a unique cabaret workshop that focuses on solo voice repertory.

“This allows us to target different skills…that you don’t learn in choir,” Remson explained. “Most of these kids are used to being a character up on the stage, and here they learn to be themselves, to tell a story about themselves and relate the songs they’re singing to stories about themselves. It’s a pretty powerful vehicle for expression.” 

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SMC concerts include such demanding pieces as Berlioz’s intricate Symphonie Fantastique and Tchaikovsky’s bombastic 1812 Overture.

Remson attributes a large part of AFA’s success to a critical, symbiotic relationship between AFA and music programs in Houston-area schools. “I’m a big believer in the unique experience, so I believe in helping kids find exciting new experiences that they might not get a chance to do in school,” Remson said. “Those kids go back and help raise the bar at their school program…and raising the bar allows us to dream big.” 

Remson is referring to the demanding repertoire Summer Music Conservatory students perform, works like Berlioz’s intricate Symphonie Fantastique and Tchaikovsky’s bombastic 1812 Overture that are major undertakings even for professional organizations. “Conductors look at me like I’m crazy,” Remson said. “The 1812 Overture is really hard for the kids, especially for the strings—it’s amazing we did this.”

Summer Music Conservatory is the kind of summer experience that sticks with you. As a meeting ground for so many Houston schools, it creates a melting pot of musical talent and lasting friendship. Remson estimates there are between 30 and 40 SMC alumni teaching music in schools right now.

“We are so proud of those kids who got something and are passing it along,” Remson said. “Houston is such a great music town—that we have wonderful performers and teachers who are here sharing (with each other) in Houston. Teachers want to be there, and kids want to be there.”

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