“Once I saw Jam Camp, I just jumped at it. I was like, ‘Mom, we have to do this.’”
For Caroline, 14, the combination of music and the magic of YMCA Camp Widjiwagan make Jam Camp unlike any other.
“I’ve been to quite a few music camps, like programs and stuff, but not here at one of my favorite places on earth,” she said. “It’s super cool to be able to do what I love at the place that I love with the people I love.” Then the teenager added, “That sounds so cheesy.”
Widjiwagan’s Jam Camp gives kids ages 11-15 the chance to build a band. Industry professionals nourish the campers’ love for music, while they develop discipline by playing daily. After two weeks of training in guitar, keyboard, bass, drums and vocals, kids perform for friends and family in a grand finale concert.
Summer 2017, Jam Camp’s second year, produced three bands from more than 40 campers, which performed at a local coffeehouse in Smyrna.
“It takes a lot more teamwork than the average camp because that’s the biggest part of being in a band,” Caroline explained. “You have to have rhythm, and keys, and voices that have to blend and come together, and guitars, and all these aspects.”
The six other campers sitting around the circle in Boe’s Jam Shack voiced their agreement.
Providing opportunities to build skills
Thanks to the two-year, $120,000 grant from the Boedecker Foundation, Camp Widji was able to outfit all of its outdoor performance venues with speakers, lights and soundboards. In addition, camp purchased all the equipment needed for six garage-style bands.
In 2017, the grant provided for the renovation of one of camp’s outdoor pavilions into a year-round, environmentally-controlled music building (Boe’s Jam Shack), which includes practice space, performance space, and storage.
Jam Camp’s music director, Ryan Mullenix, sat in front of the campers—all of them barefoot to protect the new carpet—and expanded on Caroline’s comment.
“I try to organize and direct individuals to become a unit—not seven people working together, but one person working—and understand they’re not working for each other, they’re not working for themselves, they’re not working for me, they’re working for that song,” he said.
Encouraging growth as a team
Ryan is one of the industry professionals who guides the campers with both knowledge of the business side and passion for the creative side of music.
As a result, the kids surprise themselves with what they’re able to accomplish. Lucy, 14, said her favorite memory is when Ryan assigned songs for the band members to teach themselves.
“We learned three new songs without Ryan, and we performed them, and I just can’t believe we taught ourselves,” she said.
On Ryan’s part, it was an intentional effort to help the kids grow.
“There’s a moment when you can see individuals get it. It clicks,” he said. “You can see, ‘I understand this part. I understand this song. I know what’s coming next.’ And they no longer think about the part they’re playing, but rather the song they’re creating.”
Resident Camp Director, Matt Crawforth, said this accumulation of knowledge is central to Widji’s progressive curriculum. From archery to music, kids’ daily activities are designed to help them continually build skills.
“It’s reducing that summer learning loss,” he said. “They can be A-plus students in school or they can be struggling in school, but they come here, and it’s a different environment, and they can learn in different ways.”
Fostering a hunger to learn
Last year before Jam Camp, Lucy had never picked up an instrument.
“I came to Jam Camp because I love music. I was like, ‘I want to learn something,’” she said. Lucy got to experiment with ukulele and bass and returned this year to learn more.
“I found out that there was an amazing bassist here, and she was playing the blues on one song. I was just like, ‘Can you teach me that?’”
Her type of “musical appetite” is what Ryan hopes to encourage in all Jam Campers.
“I want to see these guys walk away and be hungry—want to learn a new instrument, want to start a new band, want to get into performing, want to learn about the music industry, possibly a couple of them end up working in a music-related field,” he said. “That’d be amazing.”
Creating safe spaces to play
But even “hungry” kids can hold back due to fear. So, the staff members also help the campers overcome performance anxiety. Matt believes that providing a nurturing atmosphere gives them the support they need to take risks and the freedom to make mistakes.
“We have a wide spectrum of kids—whether they’re coming in with just a little bit of trying music or they’ve been playing since they were five years old,” he said. “Being able to come here and know it’s a safe space where they can be themselves is a big factor in them being able to say, ‘Okay, I will step up on stage in front of people.’”
Only two days away from their big performance, Caroline, Lucy, and their band mates weren’t afraid to end the morning session learning to make music without instruments—by beatboxing. After Ryan’s instruction, each camper attempted a noise, followed by group laughter.
It seemed they’d found their support and freedom as a team, sitting barefoot in Boe’s Jam Shack.
“We know that no matter what happens outside the Jam room, we’ll always have each other,” twelve-year-old Bella, the youngest band member, said. “And it’s always going to be good at Widji if we have each other.”