My Experience Mentoring Rock Bands This Summer (or How I Taught Kids To Rock Out)

For nine weeks this summer I worked at a sleep-away camp (which is why I was not updating very regularly). This camp is an arts and music camp, and it is called Appel Farm. This was the fifth summer I worked at the camp, but was my ninth summer overall, since I was a camper when I was a teenager. My role at the camp was to be one of the head bunk counselors and also a music instructor. Specifically I taught percussion, a few rock bands, and the jazz-funk band. Overall, I had a good time, and though it wasn’t the best summer I’ve had at camp, it was definitely one of the most fulfilling.

Over the course of the summers I have worked at the camp, the campers I have taught/mentored/played with have had an extremely wide range of musical skills and knowledge. I’m talking about kids who have never held drumsticks before and lack rhythm, as well as kids who have went on to be professional musicians. Though there were many instances of frustration, I’ve always felt that I’ve made a positive impact on the campers. This summer, however, things really came into focus for me, particularly in working with the rock bands.

Throughout my tenure at Appel Farm, I have honed my approach to working with ensembles, specifically rock bands. During my first few summers my focus was just getting the kids to play the songs well enough to perform and hopefully helping them learn how to diagram out a song. Then I started to discuss and stress the importance of stage presence, and eventually working with the campers on non-verbal communication and listening to each other on stage. Last summer, my approach changed slightly, and while I still taught everything I discussed prior, I was much more focused on how the bands practiced and what their work ethic was. This had a profound impact on the attitudes and performances of the bands I worked with. I heard, through a friend, that one of the campers I was working with stated how hard we (my co-instructor and I) pushed the band during practice, but was so happy that we did because the band sounded so great. When I heard this, I was obviously elated, but I also realized how important it was to have some semblance of focus throughout rehearsals.

During that summer I also started to realize how important it was to reflect on my own experiences in rock bands and impart the knowledge and information I gained over the course of my playing career. I mean, I was working with kids who were born several years after I started playing in bands. And what I noticed was that when the approach to teaching/mentoring the campers was more like a master imparting wisdom rather than an instructor telling them what to do, the experience was much more positive for everyone involved. Of course, how much wisdom was imparted was based on the skill level of the band, but the impact was still the same, and that was how I approached both of my bands this summer.

The camp is broken into two four-week sessions, and for the most part the campers in each session are totally different, making each session a completely different experience. Usually, the rock band counselors try to make things fair so that if you have a band of not-great players first session, you have a much more talented bunch the second, and vice-versa. This summer, however, I lucked out and had (arguably) the best overall talent both sessions. When we made the bands the first session, I pushed for the highest group, mainly because they were eclectic and I had worked with most of the campers previously. The second session was a total fluke and the group I got literally fell into my lap. Needless to say I was elated both sessions, though they were (as I alluded to earlier) two totally different bands.

During the first session I (along with a co-instructor) worked with an 8-piece band: 3 vocalists, guitar, bass, sax, keyboards, and drums. During the first practice, we decided to set the expectations for the band very high. We didn’t want the band to just play the songs well, we wanted them to nail them and sound like a “real” band. All of the band members agreed, and we began choosing and rehearsing songs. It was decided that the band would learn a pretty straightforward song first, just to get used to playing and working with each other, with the goal to perform the song before the rock concert in another camp-wide performance. The song that was chosen was “I Got You (At the End of the Century)” by Wilco. They had it pretty much down by the end of the first week. They learned the second song, “The Real Me” by The Who, almost as quickly, but the focus in the band began to wane. Several of the campers were prone to getting off task and being, well, kids. It’s not that they weren’t having fun, it was that they were seeing the ensemble as just being fun. There is nothing wrong with this, but it was definitely frustrating to see a group of extremely talented individuals mess around, instead of focusing on cleaning up the songs. This wasn’t the case for everyone involved, as some of the campers were almost always trying to keep the group on task, but when you have a bunch of funny, outgoing teens in a room, it’s hard to keep focus all the time.

The last song they worked on was “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” by The Decemberists, and they knew it was going to be a lot harder in comparison to the other tunes. As a group they were a lot more focused, making sure each person was playing the correct part, and helping each other figure things out, while allowing myself and my co to help them through the little things.  We even managed to have an acoustic rehearsal, allowing each band member to really hear each other’s part which helped the group tremendously in both performance and overall group dynamics. Still, the overall focus of the band was not 100% there, and though they nailed the song, the time it took getting everyone to stay focused over the course of the session was starting to add up during rehearsals. Right before the end of session rock show, they decided they wanted to make sure they ended the show, and took up my suggestion to learn part of “Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker, Jr. Though they learned the song well enough to perform, time finally got the better of us, and we couldn’t rehearse enough for them to know the song inside and out.

The group ended up closing the rock show. They were easily the best band the entire night, though their performance was not as clean as it should have been. Still, they made it through the set and played through all of the mistakes and miscues that happened without anyone outside of the band really knowing there were mistakes made. And their performance of the Wilco song from the previous night was pretty fantastic, so I really had every reason to be proud of them, and I was (and still am), especially since they really nailed The Decemberists song. During our debriefing session the morning after the show, all of them said that they really felt like they were a band, which was something that I always hoped they would feel, and that fact alone made me feel like I had done my job. Yet, it kept gnawing at me that they could have been better and that I could have done something different to elevate them to an even higher plateau.

As I stated previously, I was anticipating having a less talented/experienced group for second session, so I was still a little down thinking about how I might have missed my chance to really push a group to their ultimate potential. So, when it came to be that I was going to be working with a group of extremely talented campers again, I was elated. Not only were the kids great players, they were also all campers I had worked directly with in bands before. And on top of it all, I was going to be drumming for them (there was only one drummer who was staying for four weeks second session, so three bands had counselors drum for them).

This was not the first time I had performed in camper bands before. I had done so every summer I worked at camp (3 times drumming, and once playing bass), and understood what it took to teach and play with campers at the same time. However, I wanted to make sure that I was not making the group about me (which is something I had done one summer, and it was almost a disaster), instead making sure that the campers knew that while I was their instructor and a “member” of the band, it was going to be their band. They would decide on the songs, and it would be up to them about how well things turned out. My co-instructor for the session had to split time between the band and working in the recording studio, so most of the instructing/mentoring fell on my shoulders, and I was on a personal mission to make sure I pushed this group to their absolute potential.

From the first meeting we had, I knew this was going to be a different group than the previous session. They not only listened attentively to me, but they also listened with interest to each other. and had little interest in fooling around. They, like the other band, wanted to be the best band at camp, and ultimately close the rock show, but I could see that they had a different collective attitude from the get go. We talked about what it meant to be in a group, and how rehearsals needed to have a focus on the task at hand, while still having fun, as well how important it is to communicate with each other. They listened to every word that was spoken, and seemed to take my personal experiences to heart; it showed as the session went on.

The band comprised of 3 guitarists (one who signed up to play acoustic), a bassist (who was in my band the previous session), and a singer, so the make up was less diverse than the last band, but it allowed for a wider range of songs to choose from, which would make the process easier. Yet things were better than expected, because while choosing the songs, most of them said, “I’ll play it if everyone else wants to,” which is a rarity to hear during this process. Usually you have one or two kids who are totally against a song that everyone else loves, or vice versa, and you start the session off with a very tense situation. This was a totally different experience, with all of the group members being open to almost everything played, with only the singer requesting that we learn one Paramore song, since it was her absolute favorite band. In the end, the band decided to learn “One Big Holiday” by My Morning Jacket, “Super Stupid” by Funkadelic, “I Won’t Go Hollywood” by Bleu, and “Careful” by Paramore. An eclectic and not-so easy group of songs to tackle, but I had no doubt that this group would learn them all.

The next day was the first rehearsal the group had, but it was my day off, and thus was absent for it. I came back the following day to find the band had already, for all intents and purposes, learned “One Big Holiday.” By the end of the rehearsal, we were at a point that we could’ve performed it (though our singer lost her voice, which did not come back for over a week). We then tackled “Super Stupid.” The song is fairly chaotic, not following a traditional song format, as well as having some very interesting organ parts, so as a group we listened and diagrammed the song. Almost immediately the campers were figuring out their parts. The biggest issue was figuring how to cover the organ parts, and then figuring out what notes were being played (which was not easy). One of our three guitarists also played clarinet, and since there was no real need for three guitarists in the song (there is only one on the recording), I asked her if she would be willing to play it to cover the organ part. She was more than happy to do so, even knowing that her parts were not very long and kind of spread out over the song. This was a huge moment for the group, whether anyone really knew it or not, because it showed that these kids were willing to sacrifice their playing time for the better of the group, and, in my mind, set the tone for how the group would continue to work during the rest of the session.

The band continued to work together and with each other, giving each other feedback, while allowing me to really nitpick on smaller things, which they were extremely attentive to. They soon totally nailed “Super Stupid” and began to figure out “I Won’t Go Hollywood” by ear, since no tabs of the song exist. It took a few days to nail the song (mainly because half of the song is in 7/4) but they did, and they moved on to the Paramore song which was the hardest of the bunch. Though it took longer than the other songs to complete, they had that one down with a few days to go before the rock show.

During those last few days before the final show, I worked the group like they were a group of professionals. We talked about what songs we wanted to play (we ended up playing “Super Stupid” the night before the rock show during another concert), and in what order, being understanding when songs had to be shortened or sped up to fit within the ten minute time-frame they were given. We practiced the eventual set over and over, which included changing guitars after the second song (much faster than retuning). Even though I thought I was pushing them too hard, they were all for it and no one complained. They knew what their goal was, and they trusted me with helping them achieve it. During this time we also talked about stage presence, and how it was important to show the audience that they were having fun, but still concentrating on their playing. On top of it all, we learned “The Time Warp” (from The Rock Horror Picture Show) in two days because the band wanted to close the show, though, unlike the previous session, there was no guarantee it would happen, since there were A LOT of good bands that session, and that there was a chance we’d never play it, which they understood.

As mentioned above, we performed “Super Stupid” the night before the rock show, which allowed the band to get a chance to perform in front of a crowd before the big show and see how they did on stage together. The performance was amazing. Possibly one of the best I’ve been a part of during my entire time at camp. It truly felt like I was playing with my own band. The campers just nailed all of their parts and performed like champs, and they knew it. They were amped after the performance, and rightfully so, eager to play the next night.

The next day they found out they would close the show, and that they would be forming the entire set, “Time Warp” and all. The kids were ecstatic, and were anxious to play, as was I. I told them before we went on how proud I was of them and how that if they were older, I would totally want to be in a band with them outside of camp. The set kicked ass (part 1, part 2), though it was not 100% perfect (but when is a show ever?); I pushed the tempo for every song and “Time Warp” was not the best version we ever played. Still, it was amazing, and was possibly the best rock show performance I had been a part of at camp (though the set my band did in 2008 was pretty sweet). Needless to say the kids were elated.

The next day, we talked about the session, and like the previous session, the group felt that had truly become a band. They also said that they learned a lot about stage presence and how fun it was to dress up on stage. However, I made sure to bring up the point of how well they practiced and how well they worked together, enabling them to perform as well as they did. I also agreed with them that the group did feel, and act like, a real band, because they were not focused on their own personal goals, but on the goals of the overall group. I again stated how proud I was of them, and how honored I was to have worked with them.

It’s been almost two weeks since the second session rock show, and the feelings I had during that final meeting have not left me. I am extremely proud of those kids, as well as the campers I worked with during the first session, but I am also proud of myself. I did what I set out to do, which was to push a group of musicians to their collective potential, as well providing them with knowledge and guidance to truly understand what it means to be in a band. Seeing how excited and happy both of my bands were after their performances tells me that I did my job, and the quality of performance, even with the high talent level of the groups, tells me that I did it well.

So what is the ultimate point of this (lengthy) blog entry? It is that I have a deep passion for talking to and teaching people about things that I love (hence this blog), and working at Appel Farm has allowed me to do that in so many ways. But working with the rock bands is where I’ve felt I’ve made the most impact (whether it’s true or not). Through my mentoring, I’ve helped kids learn how to work in a group in order to achieve a common goal, exposed them to (and been exposed to) new music, and what it’s like to be in a band (minus the songwriting part). These are skills that most of them will carry in their regular lives, and hopefully implement them in their own bands. So even if I have impacted a few of them, I really have done my job.

Yet the most important thing is that I feel like I’ve been able to go back to a place that shaped me as a musician and give back through teaching others. Though I didn’t state it earlier, the camp was a big part of my life as a teen, and is even more so as an adult. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I learned several of the skills I taught my campers while I was a camper myself, so being able to come back to camp and impart knowledge and skills that impacted me to present-day campers is really something special. I only hope the campers I worked with feel just as positive about the experience as I did, and maybe one day, will come back as counselors and continue the cycle. Now that would be something special.


One thought on “My Experience Mentoring Rock Bands This Summer (or How I Taught Kids To Rock Out)

  1. Pingback: The Real Difference Between Sharing and Pirating Music | The All New Cheap Music Blog

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