Music in the Mountains

by Joyce Morton, August 2006

Rocky Ridge Music Center Lodge, August, 2006

Rocky Ridge Music Center Lodge, Estes Park, Colorado, August, 2006

In May, AMSF received this email:
"Rocky Ridge Music Center, a summer camp high in the mountains of Colorado, is offering adult sessions for classical guitar, piano, and piano pedagogy. Please check the website at These will be wonderful sessions!"

Since I'm always on the lookout for good links for the AMSF site, I did, indeed, check out the Rocky Ridge site. I initially determined Rocky Ridge had nothing to offer our members, since the age range cited on the home page was 10-22 (now updated). Oh, another one of those, I thought; so many opportunities for young people, so few for adults. However, before deleting the email, I took a second, more thorough look and clicked on the "Programs" tab, where I spotted the newly added adult piano seminar, as well as piano pedagogy and guitar seminars.

After placing the link on the AMSF site and forwarding the email to AMSF_Events listserve subscribers, I kept thinking about what I had read about Rocky Ridge. It sounded appealing. The Center is located in a resort community (Estes Park) in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains; the bios of instructors were impressive; the time commitment was not great, just five days; the cool weather and beauty of the Rockies would be welcome in August. The personal warmth and enthusiasm of my contact person, Jeanne Nelson, was all I needed to tip the balance in favor of signing up.

Jeanne described Rocky Ridge as a very special place and it was clear from her emails that the sentiment was strong. I found out for myself that it is, indeed, a special place. The aptly named Rocky Ridge Music Center was founded in 1942 by pianist Beth Miller Harrod. It is, thus, one of the oldest music centers of its kind in the U.S. It was established to provide summer music education programs to young people, some of whom have gone on to professional careers in music. The adult seminars are a recent addition. One of the adult seminar instructors--Catherine Herbener--and one of the participants--Madison Casey--attended summer sessions as young people years ago.

Jeanne Nelson and Catherine Herbener

Organizer Jeanne Nelson and adult piano seminar instructor Catherine Herbener in the Rocky Ridge Dining/Performance Hall

The Center consists of a lovely 100-year-old log lodge and dining hall, which doubles as performance space, and rustic log and clapboard cabins on 17 acres on a rocky ridge about 10 miles south of Estes Park, Colorado. Tiny practice cabins are located among the trees and somewhat larger lodge cabins. One of the practice cabins to which I was assigned, the Nightingale, had a window that looked out onto a trickling mountain stream. I was lodged in a small clapboard cabin called Starling. There were many other cabins-the Jays, the Cardinals, Nutcracker, Ptarmigan, Owls, Raven, Charlie Parker, etc. Elevation is about 9,000 feet, so temperatures are cool and can vary widely-from lows of around 40 at night to perhaps as high as 80 during the day. The end of August, when the adult seminars are held, weather is unpredictable. It may be sunny and warm, but it may also be rainy and cold.

However beautiful the Rocky Mountain setting, it is the people who bring Rocky Ridge to life. Fifteen adults from around the country attended this summer's adult piano seminar. In addition, there were 4 guitar students, 3 faculty members, 6 staff members, and several other persons including family members, presenters and guests. Once the piano pedagogy program began, additional persons arrived, so the Center was an active place. Faculty, staff and other participants were friendly, welcoming, unassuming, non-competitive, yet accomplished and well-trained musicians. We ate all meals together, had a "happy hour" prior to each evening meal, and had a joint session every evening, as well as two 2 1/2 - hour master classes, so there was ample time to get to know one another. There was lots of practice time too. One woman commented that she practiced seven hours one day, more than she had ever practiced in a single day.

In evening sessions we were introduced to a bit of the history of the Center and learned something of pianist Josef Lehvinne, and we engaged in a discussion of performance anxiety and ways to deal with it. One of the evening sessions was led by an incredible 76-year-old jazz pianist and improvisor, Doris Merritt, who dazzled us all with her improvisations. This classically trained musician explained the basis of improvisation--a solid foundation in music theory and absolute adherence to counting.

After one of the evening sessions, participants gathered around the lodge fireplace to socialize and toast s'mores. The last evening the student guitarists entertained us with a recital following a presentation by Susan Cable on the life and music of Clara Schumann. The seminar culminated with a staff recital on the last day, which was attended by many people from Estes Park.

Gloria Chuang

Adult piano seminar instructor Gloria Chuang (left) with two concert attendees in the Rocky Ridge Dining/Performance Hall

Is Rocky Ridge the place for you? Here's what you can expect:

  • Gorgeous setting and mountain scenery; nearby hiking trails.
  • Rustic lodging, likely bunk bed. Don't expect Holiday Inn luxury. Do expect to tote your own bedding, including pillow and blanket or sleeping bag. Your bathroom may be in an adjacent building. Cabins have electricity and space heaters.
  • Cold night temperatures of around 40oF (Make sure your space heater works before that first cold night or you may find yourself seeking out those wool socks you brought for hiking!)
  • Lots of private, uninterrupted practice time (up to six hours or more a day).
  • For the most part, pianos that are simply adequate. Don't expect the quality or condition you have at home.
  • Accomplished and professional faculty with plenty to offer.
  • Friendly, welcoming faculty and staff and participants with non-competitive attitudes.
  • Very good plentiful meals with imaginative variety and both vegetarian and non-vegetarian selections; snacks always available.
  • Wonderful cold spring water filtered and treated on-site. Drink lots of it (four liters a day) to help avoid altitude sickness.
  • Contagious sense of history, community, mission, and respect for nature.
Adult Piano Participants

Adult piano seminar participants Madison Casey, author Joyce Morton, and Eleanor Lu-Maples.