The Musicians of Summer: Rowan University Offers Music Camps that Echo the College Curriculum

Mike Lawson • Features • August 29, 2019

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For any child, summer camp can be a formative experience: a chance to enjoy the great outdoors, meet new friends, and develop new skills and a sense of independence. But for musicians, camp is also an essential part of their education and training.

The summer music camps offered by Rowan University’s College of the Performing Arts offer high-quality programs for musicians aged 13-18. No audition is required, and campers benefit from award-winning instructors and counselors. Weeklong sessions focus on band, strings, jazz band, choir, composition/theory, and the program’s most recent addition, music business/technology.

“The summer camps mirror the mission and the work that we do at Rowan through the year,” says Richard Dammers, a music-education professor who serves as Rowan’s Dean of the College of Performing Arts. “The goals are to give students a chance to deepen their exploration of music, and at the same time, to have a great week of fun and friendships.”

Dammers gathered a group of the Rowan faculty and staff who double as camp directors—camp coordinators Joe Akinskas and Rachel Michel, band camp director Joe Higgins, string camp coordinator Tim Schwarz, and composition camp coordinator Denis DiBlasio—to offer an inside look at the efforts and inspiration that go into creating a positive music camp experience.

What is the history of the camp, and how has the programming evolved?

Dammers: Our university has had camps for a long time. The jazz camp and the string camp are the oldest, and then in the past six years we’ve added band and choir, composition and music technology.

How do Joe Akinskas and Rachel Michel share the duties of camp coordinators?

Akinskas: I coordinate logistics and operations, including a lot of the campus entities that we rely on for the week: food service, housing, legal department, transportation, maintenance. That part of the work starts about three weeks after we conclude a camp, once we submit a contract. Rachel is responsible for housing and supervision. Once we get our dormitory assigned and our enrollments begin, Rachel handles all of the online activity that’s involved in building the camp, including student registrations and social media. The two of us work with a staff of 10 head counselors.

How does social media support the camp?

Michel: We use Facebook, Instagram and Twitter throughout the week to post the great things our campers are working on and performing. We post videos and pictures, and it’s really an amazing tool to show parents what the campers are doing, along with university faculty and staff, and showcase what our camps are all about. We also use those platforms to promote the camp and recruit for the next year.

What are the milestones and goals you hope to achieve with students in a band camp session, for example?

Higgins: On the first day of camp, as quickly as possible, we get campers seated in an ensemble so they can begin making music as a band. The band camp includes with a wide variety of prior experiences: we have students rising into eighth grade, while others are going into their senior year of high school. So, our first goal is for everyone to be making music together within the first hour. This way, every student knows that they belong.

I also invite a few of our music faculty who aren’t otherwise involved in the camp to teach a session during the week. The campers get to meet a lot of current faculty and work closely with a talented group of teachers. They’ll get tips for sight reading, how to deal with performance anxiety, even instrument repair—a wide variety of topics. The counselors for the band camp session are current music education students here at Rowan, the young adults I work with throughout the year. It’s gratifying and fun to see them come into their own as teachers. Our culminating event is a concert at the end of the week, but the purpose of camp isn’t to perform a perfect show. The goal is to grow as musicians, to meet a lot of different people, and to be inspired in a lot of different ways.

When you break kids into bands that will function well together, how do you account for the instrumentation that might exist within a pool of campers at a given skill level? Could you end up with four clarinetists and two drummers in a band?

Yes, you definitely could. I usually start to lose sleep somewhere around a month before camp starts, because every year I think, “This is the year when we’ll have no tubas!” But it always works out. I take it as a personal challenge to select repertoire for whoever signs up. And as a failsafe, if we ever didn’t have any trombones, for example, then I can ask one of our college counselors to join us on a piece of music, which actually works really well for the campers. But yes, that is one of the bigger challenges that we face before camp starts: to select music that fits the instrumentation.

What is a session like in the composition camp?

DiBlasio: The composition camp is unique. I’m not sure how many other composition camps are even out there. The first part of the week is working on your own piece, the second part of the week is rehearsing your piece, fixing it, and then getting it performed. Before lunch on the first day they’re writing something, and by the end of the week they’re performing it.

We cap enrollment for this session at 15 because a third of composition camp is a one-on-one situation with a camper and a faculty member or counselor. That is essential because we have some campers who are applying to conservatories like Juilliard, and we have students who don’t really read music—it’s all over the map. Still, the students are over the moon at the end; it’s the greatest thing for them to hear their pieces played.

When you have students who are very new to composition and theory, what tools do you use to get them up to speed fast?

For someone who has not had any training, we use what we call riff charts, where you have a simple way to teach them a four-measure song. We work with pencil and paper, and everybody has to learn to write notation. If you do that on a computer, a program does it and you never learn or understand how anything works. We teach them what they need to know about notation and orchestration to take an idea from their head and put it on paper. You have to understand what each instrument can do, too. So, the first thing I do is, I get a list of what everyone plays, and I write it on the board and we talk about that. If you’ve never written music for a flute, you might not know that you can’t go below a low C, for example. This past summer we had violin, somebody had accordion. We also had a student come in with something like a Theremin, but it was some other electronic instrument that made spacey sounds. That composer got a standing ovation at the final concert, and nobody knew what the thing is called! The kids like that kind of challenge.

Higgins: One thing I would add about the composition camp is, it’s really inspiring for other campers to see those composition campers perform their pieces. This summer, my band campers just raved about how impressed they were. I think composition can seem very intimidating, even to orchestra students who play a lot of music, but Denis and the other faculty make them feel comfortable and empowered, and after my campers hear them, they all want to write music.

What types of evening performances take place?

Schwarz: The first night usually starts with the Atlantic Brass Band, which is always a lot of fun. Then for the next three nights we have an evening devoted to voice, one to strings, and one for woodwinds and brass. The performers can be well-known musicians who happen to be in the area, Rowan faculty or alumni, or even camp alumni. Then on the final evening, the campers play their pieces. Everybody showcases what they’ve been working on during the week. Like Joe Higgins mentioned, that last-night performance is what the whole camp is working toward, but we’re really working on a lot more than that. It’s a huge learning experience on many different levels.

What inspired you to develop the music business and technology programming, and what studio facilities are available to campers?

Dammers: Five years ago, Rowan launched our Bachelor of Science Music Industry, because we saw a large area of need that was not being met. Our program has two concentrations, focusing on how to be a recording engineer, and music business: promoting releases, artists, concerts, and music. The music business concentration is a pre-MBA degree here at Rowan. The music industry program has grown to be one of our largest, and it has allowed our college to provide another kind of music instruction to students we were not previously connecting with. So, we thought it would make sense to add a summer camp session that reflects our curriculum. The music industry program and technology camp is led by Mat Gendreau. We have several recording studios in the building, including a large live room with a large control room, plus two dedicated Mac labs, all working in [Avid] Pro Tools and [Apple] Logic, so we teach campers what’s possible in the software, and they work on individual projects through the week. Their culminating project is more informal [than the musician camps’]: We create a video montage of all their projects, and then the parents come in and watch the video check out the gear the students have been using.

Another aspect that I think is really valuable in all of the music camps is that students get to come here and be on a college campus. Some of our students are commuters, but many of them stay overnight, and that gives students the experience of living in a dorm and seeing that college is for them. Our students come from a wide variety of backgrounds. For example, the music technology camp is supported by a grant from the Les Paul Foundation, and the band and strings camps are supported by Coles Music, a local music store. Their support provides tuition for some students who maybe didn’t know that college was for them, but they leave at the end of the week with that firmly planted in their minds.

Barbara Schultz is a freelance journalist and editor based in Oakland, California. She served on the staff of Mix magazine for 25 years. Her current projects include articles and books in the fields of music, travel, and literature.

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