cabin band rehearsal

One of the things that the Community Music School of Santa Cruz’s Teen Camp does astoundingly well is to provide teens with opportunities to engage with each other, directly and with minimal adult interference.

Cabin bands are one of the key mechanisms for making this happen.  Essentially, the teens create a band with the people they’re bunking with for the week.  The groups rehearse together throughout the week and know that on Saturday morning they’ll be performing before their parents and friends.

There are two things I love about this.  One is that these performances are an example of the kind of real risk and real reward offered by involvement in the arts.  When the teens stand up to perform, they put themselves on the line.  The cabin bands sharpen this experience in that there’s no band director to stand behind: the audience can see and hear the result of the cabin band’s work, and it’s truly their own work.  Art is personal, and making your own choices can feel risky, like you’re exposing something about yourself. Cabin bands give students a chance to do this in community.

The second thing I love about this is that it opens up a space where teens have to communicate and collaborate with each other.  The teens themselves decided on what tunes they would play, worked out arrangements with each other, and practiced to perfect their sound.  Faculty floated through the groups during rehearsal time on an informal basis, providing feedback where requested and mostly in the form of suggestions.

For me, this is an essential difference between large and chamber ensembles.  Whereas in large ensembles we generally have to fit with the conductor’s instructions, small ensembles force us to interact with each other.  So instead of saying, “I do my part, and you do yours, and as long as the conductor’s happy, it’s all good,” we have to ask, “How do we want to sound?  How will I react when a fellow musician asks me to play differently?  How do I express my ideas?”

The Community Music School of Santa Cruz sets a high bar for this in that teens don’t choose their cabin mates.  The staff sorts them into groups ahead of time, specifically spreading out talent and friends alike.  This fits with the camp’s emphasis on community – it’s the exact opposite of the gym class nightmare where captains pick teams and then you compete to divide winners from losers.  Instead, the implicit goal is to challenge students with this question: “How do you get along with people who are more or less advanced from you, or who might be different from you in ages and interests?”

Trusting students to engage all this – to go through all the steps involved in getting to that end performance – feels risky.  What happens if they don’t get along?  It sounds like a recipe for frustration, but part of the point of arts education is that ability to delay gratification, communicate a vision, work toward a shared goal, and engage the process.

As a faculty member, it was a distinct privilege to work with the groups and get to see them engage with each other and their music.  By the time they got to the Saturday morning performances, it was a chance to celebrate their growth over the course of the week.

cabin band performance credit lars johannesson

But more than that – they sounded good.  And the creativity they demonstrated in their performances was nothing short of astounding.  (I’m talking about putting together Legend of Zelda with Mumford and Sons, incorporating choreography into their stage presence, using ambient sounds, and more.)  Wow.  Each group was truly excited to hear each other’s performances, and they rose to the occasion for each other and for their audience.

We want to protect students from themselves sometimes, and in the attempt try to control process and outcomes alike.  To some extent, this is understandable given the pressure to show results and satisfy supporters.

But instead of focusing so narrowly on the end product, I think we can show our value in the process: in the way that arts involvement builds skills in communication, knits together community, and provides opportunities for risk and reward.

Instead of taking charge to protect our students, what happens when we open up spaces for them to strike out on their own terms?