At The New Century School, music education is extremely important:
Music instruction has always been an important component of TNCS’s dedication to educating the whole child. Music is a meaningful part of every TNCS student’s academic journey, and music happens throughout the day, including during cultural study. In addition, formal music classes are available both during and outside the school day to elementary and middle school students.
As the school has grown, so has the music department and the opportunities it offers. Last summer, TNCS strings instructor Yoshiaki (“Yoshi”) Horiguchi brought the first-ever American Music System (AMS) Camp to Baltimore, and a whole new avenue for music exploration opened up at TNCS. This year, AMC-Baltimore’s second year in existence, kept the music alive and branched out in some great new ways.
What is American Music Camp-Baltimore?
It all started in Charleston, SC—in fact, that’s where TNCS Co-Founders/Co-Executive Directors met Yoshi, then a camp instructor. According to the AMC website:
The purpose of American Music System . . .. is to create and support educational environments and activities that develop and nurture the musical and social skills needed for children to participate meaningfully in the rich culture of musical diversity in the Americas. Our top priority is quality education for all interested students through example, instruction, and mentoring. We strive to make these environments and activities affordable to families of all income levels.
American Music Camps have locations throughout the east coast, and AMC-Baltimore is the newest addition to the family (check out American Music System Summer Camp at TNCS! to learn more about its inaugural year last summer). While every American Music Camp has traditional American music at its core, each camp location has its own unique experience to offer. AMC-Baltimore, for example, is proud to include a bucket band and beat boxing in its curriculum, music-making specific to this region. Music that is common to all camp locations includes traditional music from the Appalachian Mountains to Bluegrass and Blues. Much of the music they learn has been passed down through many generations—some, like the Texas Waltzes you can view at the end, had never been transcribed until now but had lived on in the oral/aural tradition.
Students learn from world-class faculty who perform American Music in all parts of the country and get the opportunity to play in ensembles and learn how to improvise. This year’s camp instructor lineup included Emilie Catlett, Rob Flax, Yoshiaki Horiguchi (also Camp Director), and Melissa Tong. (Click their names to learn more about them or download their bios here.) Yoshi, Rob, and Melissa returned to AMC-Baltimore from last year’s camp, and Emilie joined afresh.
To qualify, students needed at least 6 months instruction on violin, viola, cello, bass, piano, or guitar. As many students study music through the Suzuki Method, AMC-Baltimore understands the importance of aligning with this method, offering the chance to hone skills and continue with daily practice while exploring music that is outside the Suzuki Method repertoire.
Yoshi explained that each student received a lanyard at the start of camp that contained the student’s ID as well that student’s itinerary of classes.
Above all, students are encouraged to apply their hard work in an engaging and fun musical environment. AMC-Baltimore’s nickname—fiddle camp—says it all!
Making Music Magic
The thing about descriptions of AMC-Baltimore is that, although certainly a starting point, they can’t do this amazing camp justice. What happens during the week of strumming, drumming, picking, and singing is nothing short of magic. Students become receptive to and experience music in a way that formal instruction precludes. Parents report that their children start saying things like, “I didn’t know the notes, but if I closed my eyes, I could see the music.” Although trained from early ages to read music, they start picking up songs by ear. They are encouraged to jam, extrapolate, and improvise, and they are open to doing so because they see how much fun the instructors are having while modeling this approach to music-making. Oh! Music is fun!
So, if seeing (and hearing, in this case) is believing, here are some videos of in-class practice. Videos of the final performance students put on at the end of the week for families can be found below. (Also check out TNCS’s YouTube channel for even more!)
The above three videos show students separated by level (first is students with less experience; bottom two are advanced), but, “depending on the class,” says instructor Rob Flax, “some things are also all-group activities. There are really no rules, so whatever happens, happens. It’s a very carefree and exciting way to get creative.”
A song called “Lobster Socks” grew out of one of these impromptu sessions (as well as Rob’s sartorial choices) but took on chords and a melody as more and more students caught the spirit. Said Rob: “We are looking to take music off the page and explore different stylistic ornamentation. Students learn how the different harmonies work and all the nuts and bolts that make up a song.”
(Rob’s verbal explanations were accompanied by musical demonstrations of what he was describing, which you can listen to here, to get the full experience.)
The way our jam sessions work is, we’re all sitting in a big circle, and anyone can start a song. As soon as I can figure out what the first note is, I can jump on in. Hopefully everybody jumps in. We tell the students, ‘if you’re not sure how this song goes, wait and listen. Maybe try and figure the notes out by ear as we go, or ask a teacher, or look at the chords on the board.’ Everybody find something to do—even if it’s slapping their cellos to a beat, like Yoshi does with his double bass. They can also do solos. A student just comes to the middle of the circle and improvises something that might be completely different from the melody of the song and just be as silly or creative as they want, then step back out and let the group take over again. The way we end a song is by sticking a foot in the air to signal that this is the last time!
There’s magic in that process. The jam sessions is where a great deal of discovery happens. I love to see, at the end of the day after all our other organized chaos, students finishing their day and still playing as they leave the room because they’re so excited. They’re still participating even after the show has ended, so to speak. That means we’re doing something right. That’s my favorite part.
A perennial favorite among kids, bucket band rose to new levels, thanks to Rob’s instruction in Indian and Persian scales, among other types of music. Each student gets the chance to riff on a theme in “Rufus,” and the other videos show percussion instruction of increasing complexity. The drumstick “rabbit ears” you may see signify that the song is done.
Welcoming New Participants
This year, in addition to camp enrollees, AMC-Baltimore welcomed two students from OrchKids as well as a raffle winner from Patterson Park Public Charter School to join fiddle camp.
“OrchKids is a year-round, during and after school, music program designed to create social change and nurture promising futures for youth in Baltimore City neighborhoods,” according to their website, and Ayanna Wiggins and Isiah Dixon agree with that description. Yoshi was an OrchKids teacher for 8 years and had the “pleasure and privilege” of teaching both Ayanna and Isiah during his tenure there. He reached out to some of the site coordinators for suggestions of students who might be available to attend camp, and out of about 1,000 OrchKids among eight sites, Ayanna and Isiah were chosen to participate.
Ayanna, entering 10th grade in the 2018–2019 school year, has been playing violin for 7 1/2 years. She got into playing violin at Lockerman Bundy Elementary—the school where OrchKids debuted its program. “I like the sound of the violin—I just fell in love with it,” she explained. “And it was something to keep me productive.” She plans to apply to Harvard and Yale law schools in the next 2 years, but, “If being a lawyer doesn’t work out, I want to go to Julliard,” she said.
Isiah, entering 8th grade, has been playing cello for 9 years. “In my 1st-grade year at Lockerman Bundy, I tried the cello and didn’t like it. Then I tried the clarinet and didn’t like that, so I went back to cello. Now I like it,” he said. He plans to pursue a music degree in college, supplemented by basketball.
Both OrchKids students enjoyed AMC-Baltimore very much, calling it “fantastic.” “With younger kids,” said Ayanna, “I get to be a mentor they can look up to. I can show them how enjoyable playing music is and motivate them.”
From “Boil ’em Cabbage Down” to “Elk River Blues,” the tunes delighted the audience and musicians alike. (But, sorry, no “Lobster Socks.”)
Mark your calendars for next year, folks, because AMC-Baltimore’s third year will bring even more of the music-making magic!