Back from Band Camp

Erin and I returned Sunday evening from the Music for All ( Summer Symposium or, for the uninitiated, band camp. I know, so I will help you get it out of your system right now.

This one time, at band camp…

Feel better? I know I do.

I never was in band. I was in a band, and we would have been rock stars except for the fact that none of us could sing. I believe our teenage egos also felt the need to reflect rock star behavior by fighting with one another – or perhaps many rock stars have the maturity of your average teenage garage band aspiring rock star. It’s hard to say which is more the case.

When I first met Erin, she told me that she was going to volunteer that Summer at the band camp she had attended in High School. I didn’t know there were band camps, having never been in band, so I had no idea what she was talking about. The next Summer she joined the nursing staff at the camp and the year after became the head nurse. That third year I went for the last few days of camp to see the final performances and help her drive home – she tends to be rather sleep deprived after ten days of 24/7 call. To give you some idea of how transformative the experience is for me, I have returned every year but one since.

That having been said, it is very difficult for me to explain why camp is so transformative – which is to say that I can explain it, but you may not believe it. The first thing you need to know is that the heart of the camp is volunteers, SWAGs, who come back year after year to volunteer their time, energy, love of music, and compassion. Most all of them have band or orchestra experience. Some are college students, others first came as college students and keep coming back even though they have “real” jobs – many of them are teachers, many of those are band directors, and some are professional musicians.  There are some who love music but now work in other fields. The clinicians who work with the kids are successful High School, College, and University music faculty from around the country, and I believe the educational experience is second to none – but that’s only part of the gift of being at band camp.

The real gift is the environment. It’s unconditional love and compassion at its finest. In fact, although there isn’t a religious component to the camp I can tell you it is the most profoundly transformative spiritual experience of which I have ever been a part. For me, my three days at camp each year is like being on retreat, except usually hotter and sometimes rainier. Imagine a place where drum majors engage in daily march off competitions and they all cheer and rally around the person who just beat them! Imagine a place where it doesn’t matter who you are, the clothes you wear, or anything else because what binds people together is their love of music – and all of the usual divisions fade away in the light of that music. It is common cause at its finest, and love of neighbor such as I have never witnessed anywhere else.

Perhaps Heidi Sarver, Associate Professor of Music and Band Director at the University of Delaware and in charge of the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy at Music for All said it best this year when she said that the environment at camp could be the environment everywhere we go, if only we would decide to make it so.

You see, we really can change the world simply by deciding to change the world. If we change our attitudes, if we reach out in love, if we treat everyone we meet with respect and dignity for no other reason that we share the human condition and the human journey (no small reason!), if we just decide to treat everyone we meet with kindness and compassion, then we will change the world. I can hear the objections – and to each of them I say, “do it anyway.” When people treat us poorly they do so out of their own pain, when we respond inappropriately we add to that pain and a vicious cycle is born. If we can learn to avoid taking inappropriate behavior personally and instead learn to ask, “how can I help?” we will be amazed at the transformation that occurs – both in us and in others!

Of course, we can choose to continue to not have time for anybody or anything that doesn’t impact us directly or work to our immediate advantage, but let me ask you one question: How’s that working out for you so far? If we want different results, we will have to try different behaviors. If we want peace, we will have to create peace. If we want to be understood, we will have to understand. A little time at band camp would do all of us a world of good.

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