Update: Photos from the showcase below.
The Tennessee Teens Rock & Roll Camp has been happening this week, and I've been both teaching the music photography workshop and managing a band. Having to opt out of the 2009 Southern Girls Rock & Roll Camp this year, after volunteering for them in 2007 and 2008, was a bit saddening for me, but having a “real” job and the fact that SGRRC is in Murfreesboro made it all but impossible for me to work with them this time. But earlier this year, the news that their umbrella non-profit Youth Empowerment through Arts & Humanities (YEAH) was starting a new, co-ed camp in Nashville was music to my ears. I quickly signed up because the camp was slated to go down at University School of Nashville, right across the street from my day job at Vandy.
The first day of camp, the campers split up into bands and then rehearse either an original or a cover song all week long with two-three volunteers known as band managers, then perform that song in a showcase on Saturday. More on that later. With this camp being co-ed, I halfway expected to end up doing more bathroom make-out raids than teaching, but the first day I quickly learned this would not be the case. These kids are here to learn how to rock. Nothing more. Nothing less.
My biggest challenge with teaching photography to these kids has always been how to keep it fun/interesting and how to skim through everything in only a week's time. Having an assistant photo teacher who's a former SGRRC camper/photo student was a big help this year, and her input really helped me to hone the lesson plan for this type of environment: don't get too technical because that's boring, do more stuff where they get to take pictures of each other, and remember that we're only giving them a glimpse of the possibilities.
I must mention the band that I'm managing, because to be totally honest, this is the funnest part of camp for most volunteers. I'll break it down into a day-by-day account:
All campers are in the auditorium together, with the band managers at the back. TNTRC director Katie Blankenship tells them to form into bands on their own, and then pick a band manager. A rather beautiful chaos ensues, but it's not long before a few kids come walking to up to claim Joe Blankenship, John Judkins and me as their band managers. My band has a drummer, bass player, keyboard player, vocalist and guitarist. The average age is about 13. They tell us that they want to write their own song. The bands I've managed at SGRRC all did covers, so this is a first for me. We get to the practice room, they get set up and the bass player starts jamming on a simple 2-note bluesy riff. Soon the vocalist and keyboardist decide the song should be about being on the playground and getting your homework stolen. Ten minutes later they have a chorus. We run that a few times, and then the bass player comes up with a different riff for the verse. Most of the kids are at a beginner skill level on their instruments, but this is rock 'n' roll, and it doesn't have to be complicated or difficult to be good.
We come in and see how well they remember the chorus and verse from Day 1. After a time or two, they nail it. They realize they need a second verse, and a few minutes later they have one. The riffs happens to be in a minor key, and the melodies they're singing are in a minor pentatonic scale ... and then it hits me: These kids are 12, and they're singing the blues! How frakkin' cool is that?
So we've got a chorus and two verses down, and we decide that they need to be pushed even further. We decide they need a bridge and something to add more dynamics. Can these beginners handle a bridge? Hell yes, they can. They come up with yet another set of chord changes, and after a few runs through the song they're getting the transitions and our minds as band managers are being thoroughly blown.
We hope they remember everything, and they do, but it could be a lot tighter. That's what we work on and sure enough, by midway through rehearsal time they've got it tighter than ever before. We're already doubling the chorus at the end of the song, but a band manager has an idea to push them just a little bit more: insert an extra a cappella iteration of the chorus at the end to get the crowd clapping along. We figure it'll take a few reps to get that idea going, but our minds are blown yet again as our band, who chose the name Playground Detectives, nails it the first time through.
Today is Day 5, and we'll be tightening everything up even more. It's simply amazing to see these kids accomplish so much so quickly, and I can't even begin to describe how good it feels to be a facilitator of that. Honestly, I've gained more from them than they have from me. Nothing I do in my day-to-day life really involves kids, so this is indeed a refreshing and humbling experience. I wholeheartedly recommend volunteering with YEAH in some way. If they were based in Nashville I'd probably be doing something with them every week. They have several year-round after-school programs very similar to what they do in the summer camps.
The showcase is Saturday in the USN auditorium (2000 Edgehill Ave). The cover is only $10, doors open at 6 p.m. (show at 7), and there will be a raffle with some cool prizes, including a guitar signed by Emmylou Harris and VIP tix to Next Big Nashville. This is the biggest fundraising event for the camp, and they need your support. The whole ordeal will easily be over by 9, so you'll even have time to go to other shows later. Do it for the kids!