What I Learned in Summer Camp | Jay Albert

“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” — Charlie Parker

Last winter a conversation with some friends gave me an idea to create a summer music camp. We discussed some local camps and other activities and before you know it I was going “yeah, I’ll just create one myself.” A ton of planning and work later and June found me running a camp for elementary students, based on the science of sound and music. I drew up a weeks’ worth of lesson plans (three hours a day for five days) using scientific inquiry into the physics of sound, building on each topic until it translated into how sound becomes music and how we manipulate our materials to construct and perform music. It was awesome.

The camp was held in a friend’s art studio, in an antique one-room schoolhouse on a now-busy street with a good back yard, and lots of art supplies and resident drums to liven it up.

The group was small enough that I was able to run the whole thing myself, snacks, teaching, recreation and all. Among the things I learned at this camp were several lessons in how to make a place and time where learning can occur organically. We began each day with some movement, trading improvised musical ideas and generally getting ears, bodies and brains going. Next I would introduce or expand on a previous topic and we experimented as a group, exploring acoustics and recording findings in our science notebooks. The last section of the day was manipulating the elements of sound and music we’d learned as individuals or groups, yielding new compositions. Breaks came at various places, often these included a snack or I’d give them a game based on listening or group communication.

The kids had a great time, they were eager to go each day. But I think I may have taken away more lessons myself. Here are a few.

Structure is good, letting your structure slide when appropriate is better.

I had everything planned out. I saw the kids make the connections I had intended and many I hadn’t planned. On the first day I was helping with them make “oboes” out of straws and thinking ahead to the next activity and it occurred to me to just let them derail my plan and continue with what they were doing. We had learned how reeds vibrate to make sound in woodwind instruments, at this point we were figuring out how to make our own and how the resonant body (the tube/straw) affected the sound. We also worked on the technique of blowing through the instrument; I gave little instruction on this but it ended up being the part they experimented with the most. They had so much fun! If I had “kept to my plan” I would have ushered them along to the next thing. However I use the quotations above intentionally; my plan after all was to get them interested and playing with our topic; creating a wind instrument and discovering its sounds. Score.

Cookies help.

Another moment etched in my memory is sitting on our front step munching on Oreos and Nilla Wafers with some students. That’s it, just hanging. We chatted about cookies, other kids, traffic, birds, noises, and whatever. Down time is beyond price; my musical analogy would be the value of rests: if music never has a silence it becomes manic and this is not always desirable. Down time helps in the digestion of ideas (and cookies!); if we must use a more technical term it would be assimilation.

Additionally, this kind of activity just allowed us to become friends. There were also several times when I just let the kids hang together, staying out of the way discreetly, and they did what kids do. They shared media, fashion, dance moves, emails, idle chat; again, basically becoming friends. In adult-speak they were team building in the most organic way possible.

However much I holler about giving kids space to do their own thing, I can always use reminding.

I suppose the lesson I’m attempting to share here is that like all good teaching artists I plan the bejeezers out of my programs…this is completely essential, yes…however, during implementation the art of teaching requires the same kind of adaptation, letting go, trust in process, self and others as our arts disciplines themselves. Kids are the best reminders; they are brilliant and beautiful, and my job is merely to give them a path and let them dance down it.

At one point during the week I realized I was making these kinds of adaptations and several hundred pounds came off my shoulders. I really started to feel like like I was a kid at camp. I remember one moment standing at the back door looking across the room at three girls sitting together busily sharing their many thoughts and planning out what they would do tomorrow, and I thought yeah, this is how it ought to be.

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