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What I did on my Summer Vacation

Mike Lawson • August 2008 • August 7, 2008

Well, it is not really what I did; it is more what I learned. And it wasn’t really my summer vacation, but that of my daughter, Natalie. And what I learned through her experience may provide some insights that can help your program.

Natalie is 12 (going on 28… I mean 13) years of age. She just finished seventh grade and is heading into her last year of middle school. There are many things Natalie likes and one thing she loves: music. She sings all the time and she plays the violin, which she has been doing for 4 years now.

This spring, with school nearing an end and the summer break staring us in the face, we were struggling to find the proper summer activities for Natalie. As parents of a middle-schooler, my wife and I were seeking out summer music opportunities. There are lots of programs for high school students. Finding something for the middle school age was a much bigger challenge.

Last summer she attended the New Jersey Youth Symphony’s (NJYS) Summer Orchestra Camp. This camp really transformed Natalie. She went from a somewhat blasé attitude about playing the violin to having her eyes opened to the musical possibilities. In our middle school, the string ensemble is good and the director does a nice job. However, it is impossible to overstate the power that sitting in the middle an 85-member full orchestra playing great music for several hours each day can have to truly expand a child’s horizon on the potential music provides.

So this summer, Natalie decided she wanted to attend this camp again. And, like last year, the NJYS camp exceeded all of our expectations. Natalie had the chance to perform with a chamber group, as part of a smaller chamber orchestra, as well as with the full camp orchestra. Lot’s of playing lot’s of music to learn!

After the first night of camp she came home… and practiced! Yes, that’s right: after eight hours in camp playing in three ensembles and singing in a choir she came home and practiced. The next morning after breakfast… she practiced.

“Who is this strange child that is inhabiting my daughters body,” I wondered. Practice has never been something Natalie has embraced. She has done it. And we have had to remind her to do it don’t most parents? But this was totally different. She was playing at a different level with very high expectations and she now realized to perform at a high level she would need to raise her game. This experience has, dare I say, changed her outlook on her instrument. It has changed her outlook on her own ability and it has changed the way she will be able to contribute as a member of her school ensembles.

The final concert was in this beautiful old church in Plainfield, N.J. The campers were all dressed in white. Conductor Marc Gunderson waved his baton, creating a sound that was beautiful. I closed my eyes and could hardly believe I was listening to middle school children performing at such a high level.

After the fantastic concert, my wife Nora (who, as I have mentioned before, is an elementary school instrumental music teacher, which in my opinion is the equivalent of a saint!) and I had already agreed to send Natalie to her first sleep-away camp. But where? Natalie has always loved singing but never really had any formal training. My wife had learned of a two-week choir camp after she had brought the American Boychoir (the nation’s premiere boychoir) to our local school to perform for the students. They host a wonderful summer session called Camp Albemarle based in Princeton, New Jersey for students ages 7-14. Knowing that our daughter loved to sing and that she longed for some vocal training we thought this might be a great way to find out if she really loved vocal music.

If the NJYS programmed changed Natalie’s outlook on instrumental music, Camp Albemarle changed her outlook on vocal music and everything else.

First, it was an overnight camp, so for two weeks she was on her own. Away from us her loving and overprotective parents and her brother, who is working on his masters degree in sibling torment. Natalie would need to be responsible for herself and her belongings, get along with three other roommates, make new friends, and keep to a fairly strict schedule. For the first week she could not call home, which was probably harder on us than it was on her. (Being that Natalie is our oldest child, my only daughter, and the apple of my eye you can appreciate the trauma this was to send her away to a camp for two weeks.)

Camp Albemarle is held on the Albemarle estate, which is the campus of the American Boychoir. This beautiful old estate built by pharmaceuticals magnate Gerard B. Lambert. There are dormitories and grand practice facilities, a great lawn and pool. The camp schedule was filled with a mix of music (both small group and full choir), swimming, outdoor games, and a little bit of free time. But mostly there was music.

We dropped Natalie off at camp on a Sunday and toured the beautiful grounds. We met the camp directors Derek Kanarek and Carl Nelson and moved Natalie into her room. Then we said good-bye. We received our first letter from Natalie on Wednesday. We had our first call with Natalie on Friday. She seemed excited to speak to us, but we were not sure she was having a good time. Which led us to the obvious question: had we done the right thing by sending her to this camp?

A few more calls during the second week and before we knew it the two weeks had gone by and we were arriving at the final concert held at the old Miller Chapel of the Princeton Theological Seminary. We got to our seats, waved to our daughter, and then the first notes from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass came wafting through the air. We were stunned. Under the masterful direction of Marianna Parnas-Simpson, in just two short weeks this group of strangers many from New Jersey, but also from around the country had joined together to create some of the most moving angelic music my wife and I have ever heard.

And Natalie… she loved it. She couldn’t stop talking about it. And she can’t wait to go back next year.

I have rambled on about Natalie’s experiences this summer because I have seen first-hand the transformative nature of these camps to ignite the musical passion in these children. I know that Natalie will carry with her this newfound passion and the lessons learned during camp back to her school program. I know that the school program will be better because of this experience. And I think as music educators we should encourage these kinds of summer activities for our younger (read: Middle School) students. If a student has the slightest interest in music, a camp experience could be the event that transforms a spark into a raging bonfire.

In other words, you should establish a relationship with instrumental and vocal camps in your area, camps that will provide an experience at a higher level than you may have in your program. Provide a list of these camps to your all your parents like I wish our teacher had done for us. These experiences could help you build your program. And maybe, you as a teacher, could learn a thing or two as well. I know as a parent and someone who has made my career in music… I have.

Nora and I have no expectation for Natalie to become a musician or music teacher. That is not the point. We just want her to be happy and successful at whatever she decides to do. We both know that whatever career path in life our daughter takes, it will be a much more meaningful journey if music is always a part of her life.

At the end of the day, isn’t this very point we want any of our students to walk away with?

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