How the West Dean Guitar Festival and Other Short Summer Guitar Programs Are Attracting Adults (and Young People)

Lifelong Learners West Dean Classical Guitar 2
From the Fall 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY DAVID LUSTERMAN

Teachers frequently tell young students that learning to make music prepares them for a lifetime of pleasure and exploration. All too often, though, the complexities and pressures of early adulthood intervene, music-making takes a back seat, and when the old guitar is finally retrieved and restrung decades later, the question of how best to proceed can prove perplexing. Even after finding a competent and encouraging local teacher and resuming practice, adult learners often find themselves on a solitary quest that can be difficult to sustain.

Summer camps and courses are a staple in the development of musicians as young as seven or eight, providing not merely technical training but also a sense of community and fellowship with other players and teachers. And while adult amateurs of orchestral instruments can find hundreds of such opportunities each year, there is a surprising dearth of summer courses where adult classical guitarists are welcome.

The West Dean International Classical Guitar Festival has earned an enviable reputation as both a pioneer and a leader in this small and slowly growing field. Since 1991, classical guitar aficionados have gathered each August in the pastoral setting of West Dean College in the south of England for a stellar concert series in Saint Andrew Church and the Sussex Barn Auditorium, hearing such artists as Benjamin Verdery, Berta Rojas, Irina Kulikova, Sean Shibe, and the Aquarelle Quartet.

But the deeper attraction of West Dean is its service to lifelong classical guitar learners. For many, the journey to this eccentric flint-stone manor, with its extensive gardens and forested walks, built to house an Anglicized American merchant prince of the Victorian Era, is something of a pilgrimage. Every August, anywhere from 40 to 60 devotees of the guitar, from teens to septuagenarians, immerse themselves in a four- or five-day course of lessons, classes, and master classes, as well as daily ensemble rehearsals culminating in final-day performances. Most, if not all, return home inspired, affirmed, and a step or two closer to that elusive goal of musical mastery.

Diana Zaat-Belfor, an acupuncturist from Leiderdorp in the Netherlands, began playing the guitar at age seven and has attended the West Dean course 15 summers. She credits a conversation there with teacher John Mills for helping her overcome her performance anxiety. “I had become more and more nervous about playing in front of people, even in my private lesson,” she says. “John Mills said I should play for other people. I said, ‘That’s easy for you, because you are a performer.’ And he said, ‘If you don’t have it, you must create it.’ So that’s what I did. I created a guitar circle and we play concerts for family and friends. It’s now about 12 or 15 people, all classical players. We’re all nervous and we all have the same problems. But the main thing in my guitar circle is sharing—tell something about the music and we’ll give you feedback. We have to learn from each other. So if you make mistakes, it’s no problem. Then you see people grow. It helped me a lot for playing for people. And we do that every six or eight weeks. So then I have a goal to practice in a certain way. You practice differently when you know you have to play in front of a group of people, especially when they are guitarists.”

Lifelong Learners West Dean Classical Guitar Irina Kulikova
Alex Roche in a master class with Irina Kulikova

For Alex Roche, who switched from bass and drums to the classical guitar at 17 and is completing a degree at the Birmingham Conservatoire in the English Midlands, West Dean holds a different attraction. “Being new to the guitar, I haven’t been going to festivals for ages, so I don’t know what they’re like. But this is such a great place. You’re all together; it’s such a cool vibe. You get to wake up and get together with a great teacher, have a master class, sign up for a rep class. There is always something. It’s so nice after leaving the Conservatoire, where as a whole it’s always a bit too competitive, and then going home to Newquay, in Cornwall, where no one plays classical guitar, to come here where everyone just loves it and is having fun. I don’t feel I need to prove anything.”

The West Dean Festival is unique in other ways as well. Unlike most festivals where world-class performers can be heard in concert, there is no parallel guitar competition to distract from the focus on community, sharing, and mutual support. West Dean is also self-contained, with nearly all of the participants living in the college residences, sharing meals, and imbibing post-concert drinks in the college bar. And its opening-day exhibition brings many fine guitar-makers and specialists to display their wares and engage with students and the artist faculty.

Kianush Robeson, who recently earned a degree in classical guitar at the Royal Welsh Academy of Music and Drama under the direction of John Mills, found this self-contained community very much to his liking: “I came here for the first time. In many respects it’s even more intense than I expected. It’s very focused and driven, and the tuition is quite serious. I’d pictured a guitar festival in the countryside, something very relaxing and holiday-esque. Nevertheless, I came prepared to do my best and I found it’s a very intense, full-on experience. It’s a good environment to consider aspects of my performing which I sometimes overlook—the way I convey pieces, the way I act on stage. The artist-teachers are so finely tuned, and they can pick up such minute details.”


West Dean also welcomes guitarists whose devotion to the instrument, while perhaps less intense, is no less heartfelt. Wayne Lines, a retired project manager who took up the guitar in his mid-30s and lives not far from the college, has attended the West Dean course 18 times. “When I was still working, life was stressful. And then I’d drive 30 miles along the coast and come through the driveway [at West Dean] and think, ‘I’ve just entered another world.’

“On my first course, I was attending just during the day and going home every night. I’d come to the concert and stay for just one drink and then drive home buzzing. My wife had just gone to bed, and I’d wake her up and say, ‘I’ve just got to tell you about this!’ And we’d stay up until one in the morning. Then, I’d have to get up early and shower and dress and drive back over here. So she said, ‘If you’re going to do this again, why don’t you stay there?’

“For older people, West Dean is a learning experience, an inspirational experience, and it also is a bit of social activity that you look forward to every year that’s different from anything else you might do.” 


Here are a few established programs that welcome adult learners. Prices, dates, and faculty are for 2017 only. These listings will give you an idea of what the programs offer and for how much, so you can begin planning for 2018.

Location: West Dean College, Sussex, Chichester, England; director: Andrew Gough; year founded: 1991
2017 Dates: August 19–24; tuition: £525; faculty: Amanda Cook, Trond Davidsen, Andrew Gough, Liz Larner, Vincent Lindsey-Clark, Craig Ogden, Pavel Steidl.

Location: Cathedral of the Isles, Isle of Cumbrae, Scotland; director: Matthew McAllister; year founded: 2008
2017 Dates: July 5–10; tuition: £420; faculty: Aisling Agnew, Uros Baric, Sharron Griffiths, Dale Kavanagh, Thomas Kirchhoff, Lukasz Kuropaczewski, Jamie MacDougall, Matthew McAllister, Allan Neave, Raphaella Smits, Peter Stewart

Location: Keawala‘i Church, Makena, Maui, Hawaii; director: Ben Verdery; year founded: 1998
2017 Dates: July 3–12; tuition: $500; faculty: Martha Masters, Ian O’Sullivan, Ben Verdery

Location: East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina; director: Elliot Frank; year founded: 1995
2017 dates: July 15–18; tuition: $400; faculty: Mary Akerman, Cindy Spell, Francois Fowler, Elliot Frank, Joseph Ikner, Rene Izquierdo Adam Kossler, John Kossler, Patrick Lui, Stephen Mattingly, Matteo Mela, Lorenzo Micheli, William Hart Wells, Andrew Zohn

Location: College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio; director: Clare Callahan; year founded: 1983
This workshop was not offered Summer 2017 due to CCM performance space availability during campus renovations, but stay in touch with the website for future plans.

Location: Brevard Music Institute, Brevard, North Carolina;  director: Adam Holzman; year founded: 2017
For guitarists 30 and up!
2017 Dates: June 5–10; price: $1,200 (includes tuition, housing, meals, concert tickets); faculty: Adam Holzman; the Texas Guitar Quartet: Isaac Bustos, Jonathan Dotson, Alejandro Montiel, Joseph Williams II

Location: Hartt School of Music, University of Hartford, Connecticut; director: Richard Provost
2017 Dates: June 26–30; tuition: $550; faculty: Christopher Ladd, Richard Provost, Andrew York