Vero International Music Fest features dream-team faculty


Excitement is again building for the Vero Beach International Music Festival at the First Presbyterian Church of Vero Beach. Audiences will be treated to toe-tapping tunes showcasing a mix of multicultural genres performed by the renowned recording artists who make up the faculty of the Mike Block String Camp, which runs concurrently.

The July 10 and July 12 concerts feature faculty members collaborating cross-stylistically, and the July 13 culminating concert will showcase some 20 student ensembles.

The camp and festival were founded by Mike Block, a Julliard-trained, Grammy-winning cellist, composer and educator, who is also celebrated by his many fans for his innovative Block Strap creation, which enables cellists to stand and move about the stage.

“We’re excited because this is our 15th year, with a really strong enrollment and a special combination of faculty,” says Block.

“Enrollment is as strong as ever. It’s not potentially breaking records, but we’re definitely over 100 participants this year, which is very exciting.”

The workshops cater to a variety of ages and abilities, luring participants and faculty from all over the world. There are separate classes for professionals, beginner and intermediate adults, college students, advanced and intermediate high schoolers, and elementary/middle schoolers ages 10 and older.

Unlike traditional music education, the emphasis here is on learning by ear, creativity, improvisation, collaboration and performance using bowed and picked strings, such as guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, violin, viola and cello.

“We have one brand-new faculty member who’s never been to Vero, Kathleen Parks. She’s a bluegrass fiddler and singer who co-leads the really great band Twisted Pine.”

A virtuosic fiddler, singer and songwriter, Parks’ bio says her music is grounded in Celtic and American roots, blending a “love for pop songwriting, funk rhythms, soulful vocals and groove-based improvisation.”

“And then we’ve got a couple of people who taught at the camp years ago, but haven’t been back in a long time,” says Block, referencing Clay Ross and Zach Brock.

“Both Zach and Clay are Grammy Award winners since the last time they were with us. So, we’re very excited to have them back.”

An acclaimed jazz, Americana and improvisational violinist, Brock has released numerous recordings, and for 16 years has been with the “genre-bending supergroup” Snarky Puppy.

They won ‘Best Contemporary Instrumental Album’ Grammy Awards in 2016, 2021 and 2023.

A guitarist and vocalist, Ross founded the quintet Ranky Tanky, which showcases the Gullah music culture of the South Carolina Sea Islands. The group won ‘Best Regional Roots Music Album’ Grammy Awards in 2020 and 2023. A teaching artist, he has facilitated experiences at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, co-founded an online course on creating sustainable performing arts careers, and serves as a U.S. State Department Cultural Ambassador.

In recent years, Block has recruited former camp participants, several from Vero, as assistant faculty.

“This has been a way for us to really support and feature some of our all-star participants as they turn into professional musicians,” says Block.

“These are people who have been coming to camp for many years, and we wanted to find a way to keep them in the community.”

They include cellist Evan Robinet, a science teacher at Storm Grove Middle School, who is on the faculty of the Gifford Youth Orchestra. He also plays with the First Presbyterian Church String Ensemble and Vero Beach Chamber Orchestra.

Other former Vero participants are Jacob Hedlund, Emily McCain O’Keefe and Emri Stenn.

Although the camp is string-centric, the multi-talented pianist, organist and bagpiper Jacob Craig, director of music and arts at First Presbyterian, returns to teach some of the vocal classes. Craig also directs the Vero Beach Choral Society, ACTS Choristers, Sea Oaks Chorus, John’s Island Singers and the SRA Silver Tones.

Other returning faculty include Block’s wife Hanneke Cassel, an energetically engaging Scottish fiddler, whose music blends contemporary with traditional; Casey Driessen, a progressive bluegrass fiddle player and violinist; jazz cellist Zachary Brown, who is equally adept in classical and contemporary repertoires; American violinist and Scottish fiddler Jeremy Kittel, who is fluent in multiple musical genres; Taylor Morris, a fiddle/violinist who actively pursues musical projects in different genres; and Lauren Rioux, renowned for her expertise in teaching viola and violin.

Block says this year’s faculty has a stronger jazz presence than in the past.

“Sometimes it kind of leans Celtic or it leans bluegrass, but this year we’ve got multiple faculty members who draw to the jazz side,” says Block. “So, I think that’ll help the concerts feel different, more spontaneous, maybe even a little more improvisational than before.”

When choosing the faculty, he looks to find a balance of musicians who can complement and collaborate.

“Who do I not only want to hang out with and play with for a week, but think would bring something special to our camp community. And of course, over the years, there’s a handful of people that have come so regularly that it would be hard to imagine camp without them.

So, there’s a balance of continuity and freshness that I’m always looking for,” he adds.

“The community last year felt so strong and vibrant, and I think the level of musicians of our participants keeps rising. We’ve got this incredible scene of young college students, young professionals, and adults that keep coming back to camp and getting better and better,” says Block.

“That really starts to make it feel like this family reunion each year where we get to see everybody again. What makes it really special is that at all levels they are making music a meaningful part of their lives.”

While Block and Cassel call Boston home, where he teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music, they are now part-time Vero residents and are also frequently on the road. Cassel will teach in Wisconsin before this camp, and in Germany afterward.

And in August, Block heads to China as the director of the Global Musician Workshop.

“This is a program for musicians all around the world that Silkroad Ensemble presents. It’s been taking place in Boston for a while and we’re starting a second program this year in Hangzhou, China,” he explains.

While the faculty will be more globally minded – he is the only string player – he says the underlying teaching principles were molded through this camp.

“And so, this was fun for me. The development of the Global Musician Workshop is directly tied to what we’ve developed in Vero Beach, Florida. So, this idea that essentially the kinds of programming that we do in Vero is now expanding not just to Boston, but to China, is pretty amazing.”

The July 10 and July 12 Faculty Concerts are ticketed at $25. The July 13 Culminating Concert is free, but a suggested $20 donation goes directly to the MBSC Diversity Scholarship Fund to support such camp participants as Gifford Youth Orchestra students. All concerts begin at 7:30 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church, 520 Royal Palm Blvd., Vero Beach. For more information, visit

Comments are closed.