Ready to rock?

Specialty camps can help kids get the band together


Thomas Wilmes

Spotlight Michael spent a week under the tutelage of music industry professionals. He learned how to play with a band, to develop original material, to set-up and tear-down equipment and, at the culminating concert, to perform live for an audience.

Michael, now 15, has since moved his equipment to the basement, where he jams with the band he’s put together. He’s also started to think seriously about a career in music.

"It really helped to build my confidence," says Michael of Park Ridge. "I learned about the whole business of rock, about all the different kinds of jobs you can get as a musician."

Michael’s mom, Heidi Schmalz, saw an ad about the summer camp and contacted Wunder Studios’ director, Michael Barrette, to learn more.

"He was incredibly helpful in explaining what the whole theory is behind the workshop," Schmalz says. "It’s not about being famous. It’s about exploring music and doing what you love to do, which I thought was really good for a teenager."

Michael is part of a growing number of young people who are choosing to attend specialty camps such as rock camp—no lanyard making here—in lieu of traditional summer camps.

At rock camp—and there are several options this summer in the Chicago area—participants get a feel for the music business from behind the curtain, while they learn to perform in front of it. Students, some as young as 9, range from absolute beginners to budding Eddie Van Halens.

Students are grouped according to ability, musical interests and instruments. They spend the day honing their chops on their individual instruments (guitar, bass, vocals, keyboards or drums), as well as learning to play with a band.

Depending on the camp, extra sessions might include lessons on the history of rock ’n’ roll, workshops on setting up equipment, even an art class where students design their own logos, CD covers and posters.

Learning to rock

"I was in a band since I was 13," says Jeff Carlisi, former guitarist for the band .38 Special and founder of Camp Jam, which this year will host a camp in Des Plaines. "If I had something like this back then ... it would have saved me at least two years of learning the hard way."

Carlisi likens the rock camp experience, and the confidence and teamwork learned there, to sports camps, but says that learning to function as a cohesive team is especially critical in rock ’n’ roll.

"In baseball, for example, not everyone is in on all the plays," Carlisi says. "But if you’re in a band, you count to four and the game begins. And if any one of those players drops the ball during those four and a half minutes—nine minutes if it’s ‘Free Bird’—you lose."

Gordie Kaplan, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the American Camp Association, says specialty camps are becoming more popular as young people seek to hone specific skills, but he cautions parents to make sure the curriculum is geared towards overall youth development.

"If a parent calls me and says ‘Is this OK?’ the only disclaimer I have for any specialty camp is ‘Is this the only thing they’re going to be doing all day long?’ and ‘Is that healthy for the individual child?’" Kaplan says. The main question is: "Will this fit the needs of their child?"

But for fledgling musicians who want to learn to rock over their summer break, or are interested in pursuing a career in the music business, rock ‘n’ roll camp might be just the ticket.

So you think you’re ready to rock? Or sign-up for some other summer camp? Here are some tips for parents and kids to get ready for camp, from the American Camp Association Web site,

•  Ask around. There are a staggering number of camp options, including day camps, overnight camps, specialty camps and special needs camps and most people learn about camps the old-fashioned way, by asking around. A referral from a friend who’s been there will tell you a lot more about camp than any glossy brochure.

•  Do your homework. Once you’ve decided on a camp, check it out. Scour the Web site and read the materials, but also call the camp director to find out more. Be specific. What does the tuition include? Are there extra fees for transportation, meals or T-shirts? Is there an open house where parents can meet the staff?

• Apply. Some of the more popular camps fill up months in advance, so apply early. Some camps offer discounts for applying before a certain date.

• Get ready. In the weeks leading up to camp, make sure that all medical requirements are met and begin to pack, paying attention to the camp’s list of do-brings and don’t-brings. Also begin to prepare your child for camp by talking about what to expect and how to meet new people. The better prepared they are, the better their camp experience will be.

Michael Schmalz was a bedroom rocker—until last summer. Then, the guitarist got his first taste of the limelight at Wunder Studios’ Rock Workshop at Concordia University in River Forest.


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