Summer Music Camp...It isn't just for high school anymore

With what appears to finally be a spring thaw arriving here in the Chicago area, there is a realization that eventually summer will happen. And with that realization comes thoughts of summer plans...in particular, the consideration of summer music camps for young musicians who want to both further develop their skills and spend a week with peers who share their interests.

We recently had a guest commentary in both Choral Director and School Band & Orchestra Director magazines about the importance of summer music camps, and how it can be a life changing experience for the participants. The thing is, the vast majority of summer music camps...band camps in particular...have been oriented towards high school level students, leaving highly motivated middle school age music students with few or no options.

Until now.

This summer, the inaugural Middle School Concert Band Camp will debut as a part of the long time Music For All Summer Symposium at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. The camp coordinators, two successful middle school band directors in the Chicago area, have designed the event based not only on where they see needs as music educators...but on the life-changing music camp experiences they had themselves while in high school. An experience that, like many of us, set them on a rewarding career path that continues today.

Keith Ozsvath and Greg Scapillato first attended the Bands of America (which became Music For All) Summer Symposium at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the late 1980's. The experience made such a difference that they attended for multiple summers, and eventually both participated in the drum major and leadership training programs led by George N. Parks and Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser. They were friends in high school, and continued their participation at the camp in college when they returned as members of the SWAG Team--the high-energy counselor staff that helps operate the camp.

Most of the SWAG Team consists of music education majors, and in fact it was within this experience that my path would converge with Greg and Keith's...having myself made a similar journey through the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy. All three of us agree that we're living proof of the power of that summer camp opportunity and how it reflects the mission statement of Music For All: "positively life-changing experiences."

The SWAG years were very formative as future music educators. "I feel that it was almost an extension of college," said Keith, "because you got to see the best teachers and the best musicians. I just remember soaking it all in. I remember I'd take notes as a SWAG at concert band--I'd be writing down rehearsal tips and strategies that I would see. And being able to then teach--by teaching sectionals (at camp)--was huge. When I went to student teach, I already had a ton of experience from being a SWAG."

Also key to this experience was the leadership content. "The formative part for me was definitely taking that example of servant leadership," said Greg. "There was something resonating with me, and then I went to this place where it is fostered and encouraged. I internalized it and it made this mark on me and shaped how I look at experiences, and how I shape or try to design experiences for my students now. You're taking that servant leadership and saying 'this is what has to be done to make the experience great for the students and directors.' It's just something that has stuck with me since then."

Flash forward several years into their teaching careers. An annual SWAG reunion had been created by former SWAG and Music For All board member Anmol Mehra, and at the final meeting MFA President Eric Martin was discussing how the focus was on making the organization a reflection of those people who are a part of the organization--and asking what they would want to see happen. Advocating for his constituency, Greg raised his hand and asked, "What about middle school kids?"

The seed had been planted, and over the course of the next two years the idea began to gain traction as it was discussed among the MFA community. With Eric's encouragement, Greg and Keith took the initiative to put together a proposal and brought it before the MFA Educational Team. Keith recalled, "We were selling it to the Educational Team, and when we were done there weren't a lot of questions or comments. I think we sort of knocked their socks off and hit a home run right away."

Said Greg, "The basic premise we came to them with is: Keith and I had these amazing experiences, these positively life-changing experiences. It shaped who we are as educators. But there is no MFA summer camp that we can offer to our students as middle school directors. We didn't think that needed to be the case anymore. There's a need and MFA has the organizational competency to do it."

"Having the background as SWAGs," Keith continued, "we knew how the camp worked. We knew the philosophy, we knew the impact the camp could have on kids. That knowledge helped drive the design of that presentation and delivery."

"Coupled with our experience as middle school directors," Greg added. "We're taking those two parts of our life experience and saying they should exist together. And you have that rewarding experience in life where it all comes together."

With this now on their radar, the Educational Team approved and fast-tracked the program for a 2016 launch. This year's participants will experience the types of components that the Music For All Summer Symposium is known for, within the context of the concert band aspect of the camp. Along with rehearsals under the direction of guest conductor Cheryl Floyd from Hill Country Middle School in Austin, Texas, students will experience sectionals, masterclasses with Yamaha artists, interaction with composer-in-residence Frank Ticheli, and the incredible evening entertainment for which the camp is known--all under the watchful and caring guidance of the SWAG Team, just as Keith and Greg had experienced as campers.

"The overarching thing is it's a camp within a camp. It's going to leverage all those great things the camp has had for years, and it's going to be a camp that is specially attuned to what the middle school needs," said Greg. "We're not just plopping them into a carbon copy of the high school camp."

Keith indicated that would extend into the leadership areas as well. "There's going to be a team-building component to their daily schedule. It's going to be addressing social-emotional things...making good choices...and get the kids to interact with each other. They're not going to know each other at the beginning of the week, but by the end of the week, with the activities, they are. They're going to build wonderful friendships."

"Our goal," said Greg, "is to have--much like in your middle school with social-emotional learning components--a session that talks about a topic, and we'll also have SWAGs reinforce that in floor meetings and in sectionals. The SWAGs will be moving with the kids throughout the day, so they're not going to be 'free-range kids'. There's so many ways we're going to take one portion of their experience and reinforce it in other places."

The kids will also get a sneak peek at what could lie ahead of them in high school. They will attend and interact in sessions in the high school areas of color guard, marching band, jazz band and concert band. The end goal being an increased retention in that critical transition from middle school to high school, by showing students the excitement of the high school experience both in terms of the camp and their home music programs. "The kids are going to have an emotional response to this camp," Keith said. "And they're going to bring it home with them and hopefully tell their friends about it. It'll be contagious."

Reflecting on their own experiences that led to the creation of this camp, they hope for similar outcomes for the participants of the camp.

For Keith, "Personally I just want them to be excited about band. Have a positive experience--because that helps their motivation, it helps drive their passion. It will keep you engaged with your instrument for hopefully a longer period of time. My wish is that these kids have an amazing experience musically and socially, that they'll want to come back or keep playing their instrument. Or maybe they'll go to a different camp. It's all about continuing to play music."

Greg hopes that this opens doors for students beyond their own programs. "Whenever my students go away to a different experience--it could be a festival, or an honor band, or in this case the Symposium--it's too easy to get into their heads that it's just the 20 or 30 or 40 kids around them at school. But this is really an amazing activity that kids from all over can do. We're really hoping that we'll have students from a lot of small, rural schools. What a wonderful way for them to expand what their view of band is beyond their experience in their particular school."

Greg recently published a tremendous article about what to consider when choosing the right summer camp experience for your student, regardless of age. It makes excellent points, and I highly recommend reading as you consider summer plans for your young musicians.

The Middle School Concert Band Camp at the Music For All Summer Symposium will run June 27-July 2, 2016.

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