This year, The New Century School had the very special honor of hosting Baltimore’s first-ever American Music System (AMS) camp from August 14th through 18th. Directed by TNCS’s acclaimed strings instructor Yoshiaki Horiguchi, the camp was an unqualified success, and “Mr. Yoshi” and all plan to bring AMS camp to Baltimore (at TNCS) annually. If you missed out this time, mark you calendars for next, because a lot of magic happened over the course of that camp week.
According to their website, AMS-Baltimore gives kids in grades 1–8 “a chance to take part in the musical fabric of America.” What this means was described eloquently by the faculty who taught this year’s camp and follows, but in many ways, the video below captures the essence. One tenet of AMS is that context is relevant—where you make music influences the music, and the music you make in turn influences your surroundings. So, on a walk through Fell’s Point to let campers stretch their legs and grab a quick group photo, when the spirit struck, everyone joined together in a song by the water.
This lovely moment came right on the heels of the aforementioned group photo being photobombed by the local pirates, much to everyone’s delight—again, context is everything! Send out love . . . arrrr!
The Who and the How
AMS-Baltimore camp would not have been the same without the amazing instructors who took a week out of their lives to come to Baltimore and share their talents and their sheer wonderfulness.
It all started with Pamela Wiley, who teaches fiddle and violin. She helped Mark O’Connor develop the O’Connor Method (an approach to teaching strings), which eventually broadened to the American Music System Camp. She met Yoshi at a teacher training she was holding in Napa, CA in 2013 and was taken by his enthusiasm. For the next 3 years, he taught at her camp in Charleston, SC. He loved the concept so much that he expressed his dream of bringing the camp to Baltimore. As the head of AMS, Pam likes to be at all the camps around the country to make sure that the concept is being faithfully implemented.
One of the things that we really want to accomplish is that the kids actually learn something at the camp. They learn the different styles of American music, they learn to play a little bit in each style, and they learn to get comfortable making music together—not just their own skills but the concept of making music with their peers.
And that’s one of the primary principles, that at some point each day, kids play music together in “recitals.” These recitals are relatively unstructured and a way for the kids to experience the joy of playing music together but also to enhance their musicianship exponentially. Pam explains: “The kids get together with friends, and they put together little bands. Then they go up on stage and do a little arrangement of a song they’ve learned. It’s very nice, really truly educational. We teachers stay out of this part of the day.” Pam herself learned to fiddle in a similar way. Having played violin in a symphony orchestra for 28 years, she wanted to be able to jam with her guitar- and banjo-playing friends and so became a “back-porch fiddler” to join in the fun.
Another principle is what Pam calls the “3M principle,” an acronym for music more than melody. “The AMS is holistic music. With most instruments, you learn melodies, one note to the next. Whereas with us, from the beginning, we incorporate harmony and rhythm and awareness of the chord changes,” she explained.
American music itself is also an essential component. “We incorporate as many styles of American music, as possible, including classical. There are several different kinds of fiddling, bluegrass, old time, and Irish, and then there’s jazz, ragtime, pop, and folk music. We also encourage singing.” This music connects us to our history and culture.
We are playing songs that our ancestors played, all of our ancestors played 300 or 400 years ago, so we are actually living American history. We’re playing the same music, the same songs, on the same instrument. We’re doing the real thing, and we try to talk about songs from the Civil War, the Revolutionary War. We’re playing “Cumberland Gap” in the old-time class and talking about where Cumberland Gap is and what a really big part of American history it was.
In addition to Yoshi and Pam, the team of instructors included Pattie Kinlaw from Greenville, NC; Rob Flax from Boston, MA; and Melissa Tong from New York, NY. “I’ve put this faculty together from the teacher-training classes I did from around the country,” said Pam. “I did about 35 states and could just tell from the teacher-training classes just who was going to fit into to this, and those are the people you see at the camp. They all wouldn’t know each other but for me, and I’m so really proud of that.”
It’s clear why she would be proud. In Yoshi’s words:
The most inspiring thing to me about the faculty who are working here is that they just don’t teach at a world class level, but they’re also playing at a world class level. There are very few people you’ll find who can do both. So the thing about this faculty is that every one of them have been amazing players and are trained and study their teaching as hard as they do, so you can tell that they are really committed to the kids and making sure that the music spirit kind of lives through the kids. I’m really inspired by that and glad to be able to work with them again.
Yoshi has been profiled here before (see TNCS Launches Strings Program Under Yoshiaki Horiguchi), but he has a lot more to say about his new role as AMS-Baltimore director. He explains that not actively teaching gave him a whole new perspective: “I am able to observe and absorb the teaching styles of these phenomenal teachers. It’s kind of nice to complete that circle.” He also got to see camp from a new vantage point:
It provides a nice balance between the kind of classical training that this area has loads of and that kind of jamming, improvising mindset. It’s nice musically for the kids but also for finding a balance between perfectionism and improvising through life. Once you’re out of school there are a lot more decisions that you have to make on your own. So starting that mindset early through music education is really a great thing. I’m seeing the students learn how to improvise and take more ownership in the decisions that they make. Instead of being told what note they have to play through sheet music or their teachers telling them it has to be a certain way, it’s them asking the questions that can be tough to ask, like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ or ‘What if I don’t do it, what happens?’ and realizing that the worst thing that happens is you play a wrong note, you learn from it, and you just move on. Seeing that manifest itself more concretely in music is a really great thing. Hopefully, they can take that out into their lives.
Jamming, it turns out, becomes a very good metaphor for resilience, and that’s part of why this camp is so vitally important to the dedicated instructors who give so much of themselves to hold it year after year. Music is art, wonder, humanity, math . . . and a vehicle for developing good people. But how do you get kids ages 5 years to 11 years to jam, exactly?
At first it was a little tough to get the kids to start a jam session, which is why we have most of the kids taking a ‘how to jam’ class. Imagine a classically trained player who has never performed anything before it’s perfected now being asked to play something on the spot that he or she has never seen. Having that mindset of the classical player and entering a jam session where mistakes are encouraged and kind of expected is challenging. So those two contradicting ideas were present at the beginning and everyone was a little bit shy. But over the course of the week, they realized that’s kind of the process. You are in a jam session, and you quietly try to figure out the notes. It’s okay to play wrong notes, and eventually you’ll play more and more notes that you know fit in certain parts of the song until the song is over. And that’s your jam session—and it’s okay, you don’t have to play it perfectly.
As a violinist and fiddle player, Pattie Kinlaw teaches classical as well as American roots music and specializes in bluegrass. Enthusiastic and energetic, she says she probably had as much fun as the kids did during camp.
This week has been great! The kids are learning all different tunes, ways to play, and ways to work together. They are a range of ages and also a range of abilities, but, as teachers, and especially because this is a non-method camp, we just want the kids to interact with one another, create music with one another, and make decisions about their own creativity—just really get out of the box. It seems to work really well on various levels.
Although this wasn’t her first visit to Baltimore, she appreciated the opportunity to get to know it a little better, “to hang out, get a feel for the city, get vibe of the people. It’s been a very wonderful experience.” Back in North Carolina where she both teaches and plays, her ensemble Hank, Pattie, and the Current just released their second album.
“I play things with strings, I hit stuff, and I sing. I consider myself an artist, teacher, scholar, an instrumentalist, songwriter, composer, producer, and educator,” said Rob, whose sense of fun is immediately apparent.
I’m a multi-instrumentalist and I play a lot of different instruments. I’m a strong believer in multi-instrumentalism, and I think that it was something that was very valuable for me. So I am teaching, officially, violin technique, and co-conducting an orchestra here at camp, and I’m also teaching drumming on buckets, and shakers, and other hand percussion. I am here on faculty as a bassist and as a mandolin teacher as well. I’m not teaching much mandolin or bass, but I am playing those roles as needed. Everybody in all of my classes will sing as well, because I’m a strong believer in singing as part of that multi-instrumental strategy. There’s also a little bit of dancing here and there—that should be connected to music, I think, especially with the drumming classes.
He isn’t kidding, as you can see here:
He also enjoyed camp very much, saying it went “fantastically well.” “This is the first year of this camp, and everything is running very smoothly. The faculty is outstanding—I’m really honored to be working with these tremendous musicians and educators. The kids are all very enthusiastic, which helps, too.” During his downtime, Rob found bands to jam with all over Baltimore.
As a freelance violinist, pianist, and singer, Melissa plays with orchestras as well as rock bands, pop artists, and singer/songwriters in addition to her own blues band. She also sits in on recording sessions and plays on Broadway.
How she has time to teach AMS camp is a mystery, yet it’s clear why she’s here:
It’s been really inspiring to watch the students blossom throughout the week. On day one, everyone is naturally hesitant and shy, and we’re throwing a lot of new ideas and experiences at them. Then, to watch them open up and embrace it; to jump at the opportunities and take control; to start arranging their own tunes, organizing bands, and performing at the recitals has been really beautiful. One student in particular, who is visiting from China for the summer and speaks basically no English, was at first not engaging in the group activities. But, as the week went on, we have found music, of course, to be the universal language and he has really come around. Also, the kids have started counting off in Chinese for him. When he had his first recital, I almost started crying when he hopped on stage.
Melissa has friends in Baltimore so was able to meet up with them during her spare time as well as get out to see some shows and experience the Baltimore restaurant scene. She also tapped into the Baltimore acro-yoga community and made some new friends while upside down.
As each of her colleagues did, she felt it important to mention how special their coming together is. “We’re all a family; it’s hugely important for us to just get together for camp. We feel like the dream team. We really wouldn’t want to be working with anyone else.” “I hope that we can keep growing it,” she added. “I congratulate Yoshi and the school and community for a great first year.”
On the last day of camp, parents and families were invited to a performance of all the great American (and other) music their children so enjoyed learning throughout their glorious week. From instrumentation to vocalizing to “learning to jam” class, they were immersed in music and being musicians. Here are their songs in the order they were played.
South Appalachian Old Time Class
How to Jam Class
And Thank You, Host Families!
Said Yoshi, “The community has been amazing also, between the hosts and the area around here. The hosts especially have been so incredible to house our faculty for the week and make them feel really welcome. I’ve gotten word from all of the faculty that they’re really enjoying where they’re staying.”