If someone peeked into the studios of McKnight Hall this week, one could have found Pat Wheelhouse encouraging a group of fifth-graders to play a D major scale on mountain dulcimers in front of them. On the other side of the building, 78-year-old Linda Hubert could be heard shouting over rows of autoharp-playing students who strummed up a dull roar. And if someone just happened to be walking by the School of Music campus, the syncopated ruckus of a jazz band was hard to miss.
“Rehearsals are noisy spaces here,” said Terry Bacon, band conductor for Chautauqua Music Camps.
For the duration of Week Eight, Chautauqua Music Camps sprawled across the facilities recently vacated by School of Music and dance students. The week culminates in a series of performances starting at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall.
What started as a Chautauqua County bus camp has grown into a collection of musical experiences that draws more than 140 students from as far away as Illinois, Texas and even Sweden. The middle school band camp started 17 years ago in the Turner Community Center and later migrated onto the grounds to include an additional jazz camp, orchestra camp and chamber music camp.
What that amounts to is throngs of children of various ages blowing, bowing, strumming and humming from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for five straight days. Their schedules are divided into warm-ups, rehearsals, coaching and musicianship classes. Those segments can mean something as familiar as playing their chosen instrument, or as foreign as being given an autoharp and being expected to play something.
“It really embodies the Chautauqua spirit,” camp director Peter Lindblom said. “A lot of these kids, their attitude walking into the door [of the autoharp studio] will be, ‘What is this stupid thing?’ Then they walk out the door and go, ‘That was the best thing we did all week at camp.’ ”
That approach is what both Lindblom and Bacon said sets Chautauqua Music Camps apart from its counterparts. Students, they said, are not expected to just perfect a folder of music, but rather try something new and gain a deeper understanding of music.
“Instead of teaching to the test, we’re trying to educate whole musicians and embody the aspects of being here in Chautauqua to go beyond the notes on the page and get into it,” Bacon said.
To that end, all ensembles — jazz or otherwise — place a heavy emphasis on singing, listening and improvisation. Young musicians are often introduced to their instruments through sheet music and not the fundamental concepts that those little black notes represent, Bacon said.
In other words, they may be literate, but their reading comprehension is often abysmal.
“They’re just performing gibberish,” Bacon said.
One of the goals for the week is to show students there is more to music than what’s on the page, Bacon said.
“Notation is a lousy system,” he said. “But it’s the best we’ve got for the language of music. We’re going to go and get rid of the notation and work on the musician — educating, thinking in music.”
Comparing it to learning a conventional language, Bacon argues music education is often taught backwards. In his view, dumping a book of etudes in the hands of a middle-schooler is like asking a toddler to write an essay; newcomers need to learn the vocabulary and grammar before they start to write sentences, and that learning occurs through experimentation, listening and improvisation. Those are the same principles Bacon said Chautauqua Music Camps practice.
With the mountain dulcimer class, it means students meeting the instrument for the first time and playing a song by ear after 25 minutes. In the other studio, children hug the newly discovered autoharp and strum chords to “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” The middle school band even has a composer-in-residence, Richard Victor, whose jazz composition “Chasin’ My Blues Away” will premiere at Saturday’s concert. In all of these groups, students learn by ear and are encouraged to improvise — skills that Bacon said he hopes they take away from this week-long experience.
“Through some of these experiences, we’re hoping to do a reset,” Bacon said.
The velocity of the week was intense, and the expectations were consistently high, but Bacon believes that students rose to the occasion. Besides, he said, perfection was never part of the equation.
“There is something to be said about how you’re going to make mistakes,” he said. “But you learn how to fix them and you learn how to make music. The concert’s not going to be perfect — there’s going to be tons of mistakes, really. But we’re making music together and that’s why we’re here.”
String chamber groups perform starting at 10:30 a.m. Saturday on the porch of Lenna Hall. An orchestra and chamber music concert begins at 11 a.m. inside Lenna with the middle school band and a jazz concert following immediately after at 12:30 p.m.