Established in 2014, the Sitka International Cello Seminar is a relatively new branch of the Sitka Music Festival. In a normal summer, the seminar is an immersive 3-week residency program for pre-professional cellists. Capacity is limited to 10 students, partially because that’s the maximum that can be accommodated in Stevenson Hall, but also to ensure an intimate, personalized experience for each student. Co-directors Dr. Melissa Kraut and Zuill Bailey designed the seminar experience to be a safe, non-competitive environment. Students are encouraged to ask deep questions and experiment with new ideas. The setting of Sitka is critically important, both because of the rejuvenating natural surroundings, but also because of the welcoming, supportive community.

During this unusual year of navigating the coronavirus, the residential component was obviously not possible, but the SMF restructured the seminar experience to maintain as many of those elements as possible. The session was shortened to one week, and enough students enrolled to fill two sessions. Over the course of seven days, each student had four individual lessons (two with Dr. Kraut and two with Mr. Bailey), and group classes were held every day, including master classes and seminars to discuss pedagogy, building a career, and the field of classical music. To maintain the unique Sitka flavor of this experience, local board members of the SMF sent care packages of Sitka-specific items to the students, and staff sent daily emails filled with information about Sitka and how the Festival and Seminar typically interact with the community.

“It is kind of amazing that we’re all in difference parts of the country, yet still so connected. We were still able to share our music and ideas every day with each other,” said Ivana Biliskov, who was a participant in the 2019 in-person seminar, and also in the 2020 virtual seminar. “I think we all really needed this during the coronavirus, when we’re all locked down inside — it was so inspiring and motivational to have a taste of Sitka again.”

Chris Beroes-Haigis, a three-time alumni of the residential seminar, also participated in the virtual seminar this year. “Given the circumstances, you have to do what you can. We always say that Sitka itself is what makes the seminar so special, but the people involved are also so special. We were still able to maintain that from a distance. Their teaching is what makes this seminar so unique. Even without being in our perfect, ideal environment, we were still able to learn from teachers who make it really, really special.”

Click below to listen to an interview with Ivana, Chris, and Festival Executive Director Kayla Boettcher to learn more about this year’s virtual seminar experience.