SummerKeys music program huge success at Lubec

Posted Sept. 02, 2011, at 7:52 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 03, 2011, at 10:45 a.m.
Bruce Potterton, founder of SummerKeys, the 20 year old music program at Lubec.
Sharon Kiley Mack
Bruce Potterton, founder of SummerKeys, the 20 year old music program at Lubec.

LUBEC, Maine — Relaxing Thursday on the porch of his Lubec home, which overlooks Johnson Bay and frolicking seals, Bruce Potterton sipped tea and reflected on the success of the summer.

This was the 20th anniversary year of SummerKeys, an immersion music program that serves people from all over the world — mostly adults — and is a miniboon to the local economy.

“The restaurants, the inns, they all tell me they are full when SummerKeys is in session,” Potterton said. The Eastport to Lubec ferry even had to add a special trip on Wednesday nights to accommodate area residents and visitors who flocked to the weekly SummerKeys concert series.

Lubec Town Manager John Southerland said SummerKeys brings a diverse population to Lubec that all in the community can benefit from. The inn and the rental property owners benefit and the local restaurants and shops are filled when concerts are scheduled. “It has all been very, very positive.”

“For the last several years, I have enjoyed being part of the SummerKeys community in Lubec, teaching violin and conducting orchestra projects,” Trond Saeverud of Robbinston said. “I am extremely impressed with what Bruce Potterton has built here. With more than 300 students each summer — many staying for several weeks — the financial impact on Lubec is significant.”

More than 350 students participated in Potterton’s “summer camp for grownups” this year, taking lessons for hours at a time, sometimes stumbling out of practice rooms after hours of immersion. “Soaking” in the music, Potterton calls it. From the first 50 students in 1991, the music school has grown to provide one of the most significant summer music programs in Maine and possibly the most important one for mature adults who play for pleasure.

“New England has plenty of programs for ambitious kids, but very few that feel welcoming and comfortable for someone who has not played for 30-some years and would like to start again in a safe environment,” Saeverud said. “Bruce treats everyone with dignity and respect, regardless of ability and function within the program.”

Potterton, who teaches piano in Manhattan for the rest of the year, first came to Lubec with some friends. “They were going fishing and I was going to read,” he said. “I was very stressed about world events and found such peace here in Lubec.” For months after the trip, Potterton dreamed of the coastal community. He returned in March and bought the house on Bayview Street that is now SummerKeys’ headquarters and studio. “My friends thought I was out of my mind. Who will come to Lubec for piano lessons, they asked.”

But after sending out hundreds of press releases, the Washington Post placed Potterton’s story on its travel page and he got 400 phone calls from interested musicians. Still, he did not know how he was going to fund the project until fate stepped in.

“I had bought a small painting at a thrift shop in New Jersey for $3.75,” Potterton said. “I discovered it was a famous artist and sold it to Sotheby’s for $5,500. That bought me three used pianos and repairs to the house.”

The first instructors — and many of them have returned each summer — were music colleagues from New York. At least 30 faculty members, mostly from the mid-Atlantic states and metropolitan New York, attend each summer. “They are fabulous performers and teachers,” Potterton said. “Students come from everywhere now — Europe, Asia, Australia. The age group tends to be 25 to 85,” he said. “SummerKeys really does affect them. They can find a fulfillment in the music that they never imagined.”

Throughout this time, Potterton said, the relationship between Lubec and the school flourished. “We’ve evolved together,” he said. “We give local scholarships and there is now a symbiotic relationship between us. SummerKeys has become a major force here.”

The popularity of the summer concerts has extended far beyond Lubec and next year Potterton said he will increase to 13 concerts from the usual 11.

“It is safe to say there isn’t another program like this at all,” Potterton said. “It is totally unique. There are no requirements, no admission process, the excellence of the faculty, the total immersion. We now have a waiting list each year of prospective students.”

For more information about SummerKeys, contact Potterton at summerkeys.com, sksmail@summerkeys.com or, in the winter months, call Potterton at 973-316-6220.

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