Although summer music camps reminiscent of the 2003 Jack Black movie School of Rock abound throughout the country, it takes a careful combination to create the right program. Students are there to rock, but also to learn. They must be comfortable enough to take risks, but not too comfortable to abuse the many privileges they’re given. And teachers are more like friends, but still require respect.
All rock camps bring different variations to a central idea: by offering an alternative to traditional music lessons and camps, kids can learn about performance, theory, song-writing, working as part of a band and more, all in a fun, relaxed, rock musicbased environment within a concentrated time period. It’s a win-win for parents and their kids.
Finding that balance of fun and accomplishment can be tricky. But the Redhouse Arts Center, 219 S. West St., combined just the right concoction with the staff they amassed and the curriculum they created for this summer’s three inaugural rock camps. The results went far beyond the rock that came rumbling out of the venue’s speakers.
The program ran morning and afternoon groups from July 11 to 29, with concerts on the final day of those camps. A morning group currently running this month will conclude on Friday, Aug. 19. Students ages 10 to 18 were eligible to sign up, with 34 budding rockers participating in the camps. Nine scholarships of varying amounts of money were given to students in need thanks to a generous donation from The Dorothy and Marshall M. Reisman Foundation.
The idea for a rock camp came more than a year ago from Redhouse board chair Bill Hider, a folk musician for 50 years, who investigated other programs in an effort to build a better model. Then, last January, Hider, who is also a retired attorney, obtained a grant from the Reisman Foun dation.
He quickly contacted local musician Emmett Van Slyke—who is the sound engineer, producer and owner of Black Lagoon Productions, housed in the basement of SubCat Music Studios, which is now part of the Redhouse complex—to develop a curriculum. Another rock camp component, Marguerite Mitchell-Sundberg, an English teacher at Marcellus middle and high school, came aboard in May as educational coordinator for the Redhouse.
When Van Slyke first presented the curriculum to Sundberg (often called Peggy by friends and students), it seemed to be lacking in structure, although there was always a method to the madness. “She looked at my curriculum and was like, ‘Wow, this is really vague,” and I’m like, ‘Yeah, well, we’re working with kids,’” Van Slyke says. “The program looks really lax, but we’re all constantly focused on what the kids are doing. With a program like this, you don’t know what you’re gonna get: kids of all different abilities, different backgrounds, different everything, and we have to try to make them work together without frustration.”
The magic of the program lies in its flexibility and responsiveness to the students. Although Van Slyke developed the four-hour days to follow an hourly map of activities, he often alters it depending on “the vibe of the day” and the needs of the children.
The day begins with small focus groups: Students are split according to their primary instruments and study techniques specific to that instrument, as well as history and theory. During the second hour they move to larger groups, handling such duties as lyric-writing icebreakers and rhythm classes depending on their needs. The third hour is a “freefor-all,” where students are encouraged to try other instruments aside from their primary instrument so they can experience different combinations, understand what other members in the band are doing and take risks, thus opening themselves up to learning, both from teachers and each other. In the final hour, Van Slyke requires a jam every day so the kids can try new
combos and learn how to play with other musicians of various styles and skill levels. IDLE Students CHATTER also learn practical lessons in self-promotion, such as writing musician biographies and creating posters and logos; they even received a personal songwriting SALT lesson from Nevada-based band The SHAKES Novelists when they visited the camp. Both Sundberg and Van Slyke anticipate a delayed reaction to some of these lessons. “It’s things like that, real-world things that they’ll be able to look back on and be like, ‘I learned that at rock camp,” Van Slyke says. “I know we’re gonna get a call from a kid someday, I’ll be like 900 years old and he’ll be like, ‘I thought writing a bio was stupid, but I do it all the time now.’” At the beginning of the camps, Van Slyke also worked in a performance from the teachers of the program, including himself, Brand New Sin drummer Kevin Dean and former Vertical Horizon bassist Seth Horan. The idea was to help build respect for the instructors from the getgo. “I don’t want these kids to ever walk in and meet their teachers without ever seeing them play,” Van Slyke says. “Because I had a guitar teacher in college and I never saw him play. I didn’t trust anything the guy said. I want to know what I’m dealing with. What can I get from this person?” The students found out quickly.
Although the structure of events fluctuated, consistent teacher input from Van Slyke, Dean and Horan, as well as vocal coach and community-theater veteran Rita Worlock, plus a handful of Redhouse interns and volunteers, helped shape what the students were doing throughout the day. Whether in a session or a jam, teachers would interject suggestions, or hop on instruments and teach techniques, giving the students all the tools they needed, without forcing, demanding or grading. This also gave students the opportunity to create their own music.
Sundberg noticed the positive response. “The kids were like, ‘Well, most of the music camps I go to are very strict and we’re learning music that’s handed at us, that someone else wrote, and this is so different and it’s great,’” she says.
Van Slyke, a huge proponent of original music and composer himself, pushed that aspect of the camp and was happily justified by the students’ reactions. “People said, ‘Oh, they won’t do original music,’” Van Slyke says. “They love it! They want to write music. I had 10-year-olds doing techno drum and bass with guitar and vocal and it was great. They have ideas.”
Another happy aspect of the Redhouse rock camps was a surprising lack of behavioral problems among the students. According to Sundberg, “Usually in public schools, behavior issues equal either, ‘This is over my head and I’m frustrated’ or ‘I’m bored.’ One of those two. And nobody in the program was either feeling left out or like it was too much for them, so there were no behavior issues.”
Instead, there was tremendous growth. By allowing the young rockers to explore their own creativity, learn at their own pace and experiment freely, knowing their teachers were sharing and taking risks right alongside them, the camps went smoothly and left the students “dynamically different” by the end according to Van Slyke.
“We had one kid who wouldn’t have his picture taken at the beginning of the camp,” Van Slyke recalls. “By the final performance, he was hamming it up on stage.”
Hider seems more than satisfied with this summer’s results and hopes to double in size next year. Other Redhouse programs, including hip-hop, classical and adult rock camps, are also being considered. “Music is something to keep for life,” Hider says. “It’s something you want to do to the best of your ability. I think this program brings that idea to the students.”
The final performance of this month’s Redhouse Rock Camp will be Friday at 6 p.m. Admission is $5. For more information, call 425-0405.