Irion Hall, home to Elmhurst College's renowned music department, is rarely a quiet place. During the school year, a walk down any hallway is punctuated with the sound of drumbeats or a wailing sax. This summer was no exception, as the College hosted faculty-led music camps for young players of jazz, chamber music and acoustic guitar.
Although music camp might not sound like the hippest way for middle and high school kids to spend the dog days, its cool factor surprised even the most skeptical students.
“I did not expect to have this much fun at a band camp,” admitted Elise Tran, a clarinet player and junior at York High School in Elmhurst who attended the College’s first Chamber Music Academy, in July. About 24 students attended the camp, which grouped students into small string, wind, brass and percussion ensembles. “The instructors are really fun, engaging people who definitely know their instruments.”
Highly trained teachers and experienced performers, the faculty members at each camp provided hands-on master class instruction, seminars on a variety of music theory concepts, and the opportunity for students to work and learn together in small groups.
Jennie Brown, director of the Chamber Music Academy, considered these small groups integral not only to the students’ musical growth during the camp, but also to building their sense of community.
“People often talk about the social impact of being in sports and belonging to an athletic team. That's what's great about chamber music; it provides the same team spirit but in a musical setting,” said Brown, who teaches flute at Elmhurst College.
Such camaraderie among musicians was apparent in each of the three camps, and helped many of the students to build the confidence needed for their final performance on the last day of camp.
“It's great how everyone, including the faculty, is supportive and interested in us doing our best,” said Lauren Gaynor, a flute player who attended the Chamber Music Academy and who is a junior at York High School. “It feels good to know that no one wants to see me fail.”
For the Jazz Combo Camp, attended in June by 49 students who played instruments ranging from trumpet to piano, that supportive environment was crucial as students developed their skills in improvisation, an intimidating yet essential component of the jazz genre.
“It's challenging because you have to really know what's going on with theory and harmony and apply it to your instrument,” said Doug Beach, director of jazz studies, jazz band and arranging at Elmhurst, as well as the organizer of the camp. “The students learn about it in a small ensemble, which gives them more of a chance, and you really see them grow a lot in those three days.”
Some of the lessons applied not only to music but to life.
“Just breathe,” said instructor Wesley Hixson while helping a nervous player during a master class in the Acoustic Guitar Boot Camp, held earlier this month, which focused on classical guitar technique. “Take slow, deep breaths and remember that you're in charge.”
It's a message that the camp's director, instructor Steve Suvada, called "spreading the gospel of guitar," which he emphasized is more about instilling a value for practice, community and self-worth than evangelizing a specific instrument.
"Kids who get involved in music are generally better students and members of society," he said. "We're just looking for a way to reach out to them, whether they just like to play music or want to study it at the college level."
Students agreed that the big takeaway from the guitar camp was the importance of developing and honing technical skills.
"I learned that technique is not fun, but it's necessary," said Blake Bonner, a junior at Lincoln-Way East in Frankfort, who likened it to doing situps or any other unpleasant but fundamental activity.
The students also learned about the relevance, and prevalence, of the classics. During one session, Suvada played the wedding staple Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and then played a song by the punk rock band Green Day that follows the same chord progression.
“When they realized that the chords were the same, their minds exploded,” he said.
That kind of connection played out across the College's summer music camps, where the idea of teenagers going old school turned out to be pretty cool.