In July 2023, the inaugural Mendocino International Summer Music Academy (MISMA) was launched at the Dharma Realm Buddhist University’s downtown campus, Sudhana Center. The two-week program provided extraordinary educational and performance opportunities to talented student musicians. It drew inspiration from the world’s leading music institutions and festivals while emphasizing the importance of mindfulness practices. The festival hosted an array of performers, artist faculty, concerts, lectures, and student recitals. It offered workshops on “Mindfulness for Musicians” by Buddhist teacher and musician Rev. Heng Sure, four artist faculty concerts, two faculty lectures, and a series of mini-concerts. The influence of the festival was evident in its ability to attract over 350 audience members, many of whom experienced the spectacular Buddha Hall (Recital Hall) at the Sudhana Center for the first time and the festival’s concert grand center stage. The program blends music performance with a core curriculum of daily morning and evening meditation, tai chi, and yoga led by experienced wellness instructors, and shared inquiry on mindfulness and music performance to create a holistic experience in a supportive and wholesome community. Through this approach, MISMA aimed to cultivate musicians’ artistic expression, inner strength, and focus, offering a transformative experience for all participants and providing them with powerful tools, externally and internally, for the next steps of their music careers.
MISMA’s visionaries and artist faculty came together to create this international festival in a uniquely collaborative effort that is first and foremost centered around mindfulness and wellness practice for the developing artist-musician. While each faculty member had their own areas to cultivate within the festival, it was the direction of artistic director Sophie Wu who built an environment that sustains this mission and encourages the faculty to realize their vision of providing an exceptionally high level of education, artistry, and musical growth. The artist faculty (classical and jazz saxophonist, Wenbo Yin, guitarist, Alex de Grassi, and pianists, Yaoyue Huang, and Scott Lowell Sherman) were involved in all the formative stages of this festival, because of their dedication to this mission and vision for the future. In addition, the staff team of MISMA worked tirelessly to arrange the many concerts, lectures, schedules, and advertisements, and facilitate all the elements that created a successful and smooth experience. It is no understatement of how beautiful it was that all these elements worked together so seamlessly. The staff and faculty nurtured this community and environment together as one.
The MISMA Festival offered various programs in the performing arts that encompass a range of different styles. Included were classical saxophone, classical piano, fingerstyle guitar, jazz improvisation, and jazz saxophone. This environment of intersecting styles offered cross-pollination between musicians that are often separated in various international festivals, and even in the education of music conservatories. Students had the ability to observe and participate in other classes or workshops in or outside their area, and many students found themselves with the ability to join more than one performance area. he students and faculty formed a diverse group of musicians, community members, and administration; the artist faculty encouraged students to share their musical growth with one another and to connect with faculty outside of their performance area. This mindful blending gave the students the ability to form their musical growth from the special community that MISMA created.
The many concerts and lectures of any international festival provide an impressionable experience, not only for the participants but also for the wider community. Artist faculty Scott Lowell Sherman began the concert series with an hour and a half of music by composers Schubert, Brahms, and Kurtág and premiered several of his own works. Artist faculty Wenbo Yin continued the series in collaboration with artist faculty Yaoyue Huang and Alex de Grassi whose versatile programming featured classical, jazz, and contemporary works for solo saxophone, saxophone and piano, and saxophone and guitar. Artist faculty Yaoyue Huang’s solo concert featured a unique mix of Preludes and Fugues of J.S. Bach, with 20th-century composers André Jolivet, Olga Neuwirth, and Oliver Messiaen, to which she spoke about in-depth to the audience. Two public lectures were given, titled “The Great Piano Works,” which covered a large range of music and offered a “listener’s guide” to the audience, drawing from important historical events, visual art, poetry, and literature. The two parts consisted of: “Part I: From the Baroque to the Impressionists” and “Part II: From the 20th Century to the Present.” A final celebratory joint artist faculty concert was given to the public, featuring all artist faculty at the concert. Performed works included compositions by Mussorgsky, Biedenbender, Boucourechliev, Couperin, Alex de Grassi, Jimi Hendrix, and more. Months after the concert series, the public is still talking about how impressive the events were.
The festival also featured its cumulative student musician recital, showcasing the student musicians’ artistic talent and growth. Several mini-concerts were given by faculty for the younger musicians in the preparatory division, which included musical storytelling at the piano and how to use our imagination while listening to classical music. The student musicians, some of whom will continue onto music programs at the college level, were able to use this public performance as a way to test the mindfulness aspects of the program in a performance setting. “It was powerful to have experts in music and Buddhist-inspired wellness show us the connection between the two and help us make the most out of our experience. A lot of the wellness practices are connected to playing music; they intrinsically helped me to play music better,” said Noah, a student from MISMA’s inaugural program, who is both a classical and jazz pianist and is off to start his college career at Columbia University in New York.
The elements of mindfulness and wellness practice were centered around an approach that addresses the many complex layers that performing musicians deal with both internally (in their daily practice, in the way they manage stress, performance anxiety, artistry, memory, and the physical demands of a performer) and externally (such as when performing for a live audience, with many elements being undetermined and unexpected). Daily morning yoga or tai-chi was offered by MISMA’s wellness instructors, Brandon Lannan and Loc Huynh. This investigation and positive treatment of the body allowed participants to develop a practice of mindful awareness, body health, and presence. These targeted exercises aimed to cultivate a sense of focus and activate stillness—vital tools that can help performers manage their energy, increase their self-awareness, and enhance their practice and performances. A purely plant-based diet was served at the program by Chef Squire Davidson.
Daily morning and evening meditation was offered by Zenshin Dillon Balmaceda. In the mornings, participants sat outside in the courtyard for silent meditation before the flurry of the day’s activities. In the evenings, students sat in the Buddha Hall, with Zenshin Balmaceda investigating the process of music and performance which he describes:
“The process of listening or playing music, to the elements of energy bouncing off external and internal environments, a new discovery and connection can occur. That is, when one listens from the heart, the external and internal become inter-fused.”
Looking ahead to next year, the MISMA festival will expand its programming to feature invited guest artists for the festival’s concert series, centered around expanding the international community hosted by MISMA. It will ensure that the community will be exposed to high-quality programming and guest artists, precisely tailored to help aspiring musicians thrive.