Training a New Generation of Choral Musicians

Berkshire Choral International's Apprentice Program provides early experience for young musicians seeking a choral career


The first thing that most people might know about Berkshire Choral International is the immersive week-long experiences that BCI offers for adult singers and lifelong choral enthusiasts. Perhaps not as widely known is this choral institution's longstanding commitment to developing future generations of choral professionals. For more than 30 years, the BCI Apprentice Program has provided opportunities for young aspiring choral conductors, singers, and accompanists to gain valuable experience early in their careers. Chorus America spoke with staff members and recent apprentices from BCI to learn about what the Apprentice Program looks like in today's choral field.

Who should apply to the BCI Apprentice Program?

“The program is designed for undergraduate and graduate level choral conducting, voice, and piano students,” says BCI president Steve Smith. Long-time BCI music director Frank Nemhauser adds, “Through the Apprentice Program, we focus on supporting young musicians who anticipate a career path teaching or performing in and around the choral field. Ideal candidates are accomplished in their artistic discipline, and enjoy making music with enthusiastic amateur singers." And of course, prospective apprentices should be excited about singing – all BCI Apprentices participate as choristers throughout the week for the rehearsals and culminating performance of each program.


What are some of the unique opportunities that apprentices experience at BCI?

“Apprentices observe world-class conductors up close as they put together a concert, in one week, with a group that the conductor has never seen before - in fact, with a group that’s never sung together before. The chorus, conductor and repertoire changes each week," says Nemhauser. "Apprentices work with the conductors and receive advice about music education and the music business.

Nemhauser notes that apprentices have access to opportunities that are specific to their specialty, as well as experiences that bring all of them together. "Conducting apprentices participate in a conducting masterclass, led by the week’s conductor. Vocal apprentices participate in a masterclass, led by one of our faculty or soloists. All apprentices support the faculty in coaching singers and helping to anchor their section. They also are showcased in a recital program, joined by our faculty.”

Sergey Tkachenko, a 2022 apprentice working on a master's degree in choral conducting at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, added his week at BCI “was unlike any other choral conducting workshop I've been to. Getting to study with a master conductor like Gary Thor Wedow and participating in a vocal masterclass with Sherezade Panthaki were the highlights of my week.”


Berkshire Choral International faculty and apprentices at a Faculty and Apprentice Recital, in the summer of 2022 at Skidmore College.


What are the outcomes you’ve seen from the program?

“I love watching BCI Apprentices who love what they do. I've seen many young artists have an 'a-ha' moment over the years while working in front of the chorus," Nemhauser recalls. 2022 apprentice Ryan Rogers, currently completing his master's degree in choral conducting at Yale Institute of Sacred Music, says, “The Apprentice Program helped me to discover the joy of working with community music programs. After my BCI experience, I felt called to help in providing a similar musical outlet for personal enjoyment in my own community, and I now serve as the assistant conductor for the Greater New Haven Community Chorus.”

"Many conductors and singers with busy careers got early experiences through BCI," says Nemhauser. “Any list would leave off too many talented colleagues, but a few that come to mind include Katherine FitzGibbon, professor of music at Lewis & Clark College and artistic director of Resonance Ensemble; Malcolm Merriweather, conductor of New York Philharmonic Chorus and The Dessoff Choirs; tenor Scott Ramsey; and conductor and composer Dominick DiOrio, professor of music at Indiana University and artistic director of The Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia. BCI alums have careers spread across the world.”


What kind of atmosphere can apprentices expect at BCI? 

“BCI is the most welcoming learning opportunity I have ever experienced,” says Ally Yablonski, a music major at Virginia Commonwealth University. Yablonski's 2022 apprenticeship brought her to BCI’s week in Sonoma, California. “As a young conductor, I was inspired by everyone's support and kindness. The feedback from the voice faculty and kind suggestions from the chorus were incredibly helpful.”

Sadie Cheslak, who recently graduated with a master's degree in vocal performance from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign notes, “I have a renewed love of community choral singing. It was such a gift to be surrounded by folks who were all here because of their love of making music and to connect with one another. It’s truly a unique experience for young music professionals!”


Is the program affordable? What are the costs?

“The Apprentice Program is free to participants, thanks to our generous donors,” says Smith. "Apprentices receive free tuition and room and board, along with a stipend to cover travel expenses to and from the week. BCI also covers the cost of lessons and sheet music. Part of what makes the Berkshire atmosphere unique is the fusion of amateurs, established pros, and early-career musicians all working together.”


Berkshire Choral International's 2023 Apprentice Program opportunities include: Seattle, Washington, June 18-25 with Rollo Dilworth; Blacksburg, Virginia, July 9-16 with Jenny Wong; and Florence, Italy, July 30-August 6 with Heinz Ferlesch. Applications are currently open through February 1, and applicants are notified by early March. To learn more about the program and application process, visit BCI's website.

This article is sponsored by Berkshire Choral International. Thank you for supporting the partners that make Chorus America’s work possible. If you are interested in learning more about sponsored articles, please contact us at [email protected].