When I think back on my K-12 years, I’d say that some of the most valuable educational experiences happened outside of school – and, more specifically, in community youth orchestras. Those weekly rehearsals added up to more learning and bonding than their scant 2 hours would suggest.

Almost twenty years later, I don’t know where most of my high school graduating class is, but my youth orchestra friends? We’re still in touch.

That’s part of why I was so enthusiastic when Shelley Phillips invited me to teach winds at the Community Music School of Santa Cruz’s Kids Trad Music Day Camp this year. This program is part of a tradition that stretches back over 20 years.


I’ve taught at (and written a series of eight blog entries about) their Teen Camp before. While that one’s a sleep-away camp for a full week, this one is a daytime experience that stretches out over two weeks. It’s especially designed for kids ages 7-13 who have at least 2 years of experience on their instrument, but in truth the Community Music School philosophy has a hard time saying no to someone who sincerely wants to learn, so we had a wide range of ability levels.

That’s okay, because the idea is that music is a fundamental way that human beings relate to each other, and so everybody has a part to play. The teachers are expected to be flexible enough to modify parts to meet the students’ needs. I worked with recorder students who were solidifying their grasp on basic fingerings, all the way up to flute students who were getting ready for their own youth orchestra auditions in the fall.

This meant our morning winds class conversations were delightfully all over the place. In one breath we’d celebrate the first time someone was able to hear chord changes and keep holding a long note under the melody. In the next breath, we’d talk about tone color and how a classical flutist might describe a traditional flute player’s tone as deep blue or dark purple.

In the afternoons, we had folk orchestra rehearsals: flutes, fiddles, harps, guitars, keyboards, cellos, and more. Our tunes included a march from Scotland, a waltz from Sweden, a reel from Cape Breton, and of course an epic medley from How to Train Your Dragon.

There was also plenty of time for play: swimming, playing on the swingset, and exploring the woods with friends. For crafts, fiddle teacher IMG_9085Deby Benton Grosjean had kids creating ingenious dragonfly clothespins to hold their music down in the light breeze that wafted through each day (I had more than one dangling off my backpack by the end of the camp, all gifts I was touched to receive from students).

The whole thing happened in a redwood grove up in the mountains, on a closed campus that literally has a castle in the middle of it (but more on that later). The space for imagination and creativity surrounded us and expanded in our hearts.

I don’t know what these students will remember twenty years from now, but if we’ve done our jobs right, they’ll be like the Kid Camp alumni who showed up everyday at lunch, nostalgic about visiting an important part of their own childhoods, and just so happy to connect with those who are carrying on that tradition, one dragonfly at a time.