The Fiddle and the Drum

Last Week of July: Band Camp and Tinkering Camp

Oh my friend,
How did you come
To trade the fiddle for the drum?

“The Fiddle and the Drum” by Joni Mitchell

We are done with the camp portion of summer. June was in camp five weeks straight, a week of overnight camp and four weeks of day camp, ending with orchestra camp at the University of Maryland this past week. Noah had only one week of camp this year, band camp the week before June was in orchestra camp, so we’ve had concerts to attend two Fridays in a row. I always enjoy the kids’ musical and dramatic performances, so that was a nice treat.

June’s friend Maggie and her older brother Eli were attending band camp, too, so we carpooled with them the first week. Beth drove the three kids to the University in the morning and Maggie and Eli’s mom drove them home in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, June was at a tinkering camp at her old preschool, learning to whittle a spear, making leaf rubbings, roasting bananas studded with marshmallows and chocolate chips in a campfire, climbing rocks near Sligo Creek, and sledding down hills—did you know you don’t really need snow to sled? It works almost as well on grass.

Most days June walked to and from camp with Megan and her eight-year-old sister Fiona, picking them up on her way, and on Tuesday and Wednesday stopping at their house to play for a couple hours before coming home. (Tink is a half-day camp.) Thursday, they added Talia to their walking party because she was coming home with June. Both Megan’s mom and Talia’s mom both told me their daughters were excited but nervous to walk to or from camp with no adults and that they probably wouldn’t have done it without June. “She’s like a Sherpa,” Beth commented.

Talia’s six-year-old brother Nate was also at Tink, so their mom (also named Megan) took him to the library to pick up some Star Wars books and then they joined us at our house for the second half of the playdate so we could have some adult conversation.

It was a hot, muggy day in a hot, muggy week, so I’d planned the play date around ways to keep cool; I got the sprinkler running in the back yard and made five orange and mango juice popsicles that mornings. But the girls quickly reminded me why I don’t plan what’s going to happen on a play date any more. They wanted to play Animal Jam in one of the hottest rooms of the house, so that’s what they did, though they did pause long enough to fetch popsicles from the freezer and to dash outside and run through the sprinkler for a few minutes. Talia also had an opportunity to beg her mom for one of June’s baby snails, because to our great surprise, her new snails are reproducing. Noah’s counted ten babies, though it can be hard to tell them apart from the gravel, so it’s anyone’s guess. June’s trying to give them away, and her friends are game, but the snails have not been too popular with her friends’ mothers. Sample dialogue:

Adult Megan: “No, because those snails have babies.”

Talia: “But that’s the point.”

As it was actually a little cooler outside our house than in it, Nate sat in the back yard reading his books and playing on Megan’s phone, and we sat out there with him, enjoying the breeze, eating popsicles, and catching up. “How’s your summer?” Megan asked me.  When we were both stay-at-home moms, and then later when I became a part-time work-at-home mom, Megan and I have often commiserated about how hard summer can be. But I had to say it really hasn’t been that bad.

Two of my biggest sources of summer stress—the kids’ bickering when they didn’t have camp and time-consuming camp drop-offs and pickups when they did—have diminished considerably. The kids haven’t been home at the same time any week so far this summer, between Noah visiting YaYa, our beach vacation, and their camps, so we’ll see if the arguing crops up later in August when they are home together for the last week and a half of summer break. Somehow, though, I don’t think it will and the reason actually makes me a little sad. As they’ve gotten older, they interact less. When they’re not trying to do anything together, of course, they don’t fight. I’m hoping it’s a temporary tween/teen thing and when they’re adults they’ll be closer.

The other thing that’s changed is I had to do very little in the way of camp drop-offs and pickups. June’s camps were mostly in Takoma and she could get herself to and from them, though on hotter days I’d sometimes take her on the bus in the morning if she didn’t feel like walking or (at drama camp) had bulky props to deliver.

Megan, who’s now working part-time, too, said registering her kids for the same day camp every week has helped a lot. This is something I’ve rarely managed to do. Not that there’s much opportunity now, as Noah’s aged out of a lot of camps. He would have gone to drama camp at Round House, but their teen program doesn’t run for as many weeks as their camps for younger kids and the only week he wasn’t out of town or at band camp was stage combat and he wasn’t interested. Plus, he’s been pretty busy with his computer science summer school class, so it may be just as well. In fact, the week he was at band camp he couldn’t finish his assignments, even working every evening after camp and the whole weekend, and he had to turn some of them in late.

Noah’s concert was at two p.m. Friday, an hour earlier than it usually is. I had to pick June up from Tink a half hour early so we could get to Maggie’s house. Maggie’s mom Kathryn was not only giving us a ride, their family donated an extra ticket for the concert. Every camper got only two tickets this year because they were in a smaller concert hall.

June was positively mournful as we walked down the brick path away from the brightly painted bungalow where she attended preschool for three years and has been going to camp every summer since then. “This is my last moment as a camper at Tink,” she said dramatically. It was true. The age range is five to ten.

It only got worse in the car on the way to the concert when we learned from Kathryn that the age for volunteers has been raised to fourteen just this year. (Noah’s been volunteering there for SSL credit since he was twelve.) Eli, who’s thirteen, had wanted to volunteer there this summer and had been denied. June was dismayed to learn she has to wait four years to go back, unless there’s a change in either the ages cutoffs for campers or volunteers. They’ve both changed over the years, though, up and down, so you never know.

We met Beth in the lobby and settled down to watch the concert. Maggie was up front playing the saxophone in the fifth and sixth grade band. Among their numbers was “Sakura,” which I know is meant to evoke Japanese cherry blossoms because the orchestra played it at June’s last school concert. It was interesting to hear it played on band instruments. Eli played percussion in the seventh and eighth grade band, but we couldn’t see him too well. The smaller concert hall had another downside, other than scarcity of tickets. There were no risers so it wasn’t possible to see the percussion players most of the time. I know he had a cowbell solo, though. His parents didn’t call out, “More cowbell!” That must have taken some restraint.

I did catch a glimpse of the padded white heads of the mallets moving while Noah played bass drum in the first piece of the ninth and tenth grade set. And I was pretty sure he was the triangle in “Kentucky 1800” because he’d been practicing a triangle part at home and he seemed to be moving slightly whenever I heard the triangle. He also played snare drum, triangle, wind chimes, cymbals, and timpani. Beth and I were happy he got some timpani experience because they didn’t have one at his middle school and he wasn’t in a school band in ninth grade because of schedule conflicts. He later said the song in which he played timpani “The Heart of Madness,” based on two Edgar Allan Poe poems and one story, was his favorite. I liked it, too.

His overall post-concert assessment was “It could have been worse.” He was concerned with some mistakes he’d made on the triangle, which of course I didn’t hear, partly no doubt because I’m not a musician, but more likely because I was mostly hearing the song as a whole and not focusing on the individual pieces.

Even after four years of band camp concerts I’m still amazed at how polished the concerts for all the age groups come off sounding, after only a week of practice. It’s not like a school concert, when they practice for months. But there is some self-selection involved. Noah once said that nearly all the kids who go to band camp are serious about music but not everyone in instrumental music at school is. That’s one of the things he likes about it. He’s modest and has a tendency toward understatement, so “it could have been worse” isn’t as dissatisfied as it might seem. I hope inside he’s proud of himself, because I certainly am.

We went out for celebratory pizza and then Beth, June, and I went to the fiftieth birthday party of our friend Becky, who used to be June’s music teacher in preschool. It was a dance party, and all three of us danced a little. There aren’t many people at whose birthday parties I would dance, especially as tired as I was after staying up two hours past my bed time the night before to listen to Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at the DNC, but Becky is one of them. We also got a chance to talk with a friend who has a daughter in Noah’s grade and to June’s second grade teacher, and to eat cake. It was a fun evening.

First Week of August: Orchestra Camp

Sunday afternoon we were back in the same concert hall at the University of Maryland, for orchestra camp orientation.  After a brief informational meeting for parents, the kids split up. Beth left to go to a PTSA meeting and I followed the fifth to seventh grade orchestra to watch their first rehearsal.

They got right to work. The teacher seated the violas and cellos by experience level but the violins had to leave the room in groups of four to sight read a piece. This would determine whether they were playing first or second violin. The teacher said she didn’t like to stress the seating hierarchy in the younger group, then she explained at length how she might re-arrange them during the week based on their performance in rehearsals and how it was possible to appeal one’s seating assignment, and I wondered if this was the unstressed version, how cut-throat things were in the eighth to tenth grade group. June looked nervous when it was her turn to leave but she said later it went well. While the violins were going in and out, everyone else got right down to business, learning their concert pieces, with an occasional break for ice-breaking games.

Two of the songs June already knew from her school orchestra and another was “We Will Rock You,” which caused me to wonder to what extent songs at youth musical program concerts are selected for the parents’ entertainment value. What else could account for the disproportional presence of 70s and 80s pop hits at such events?

Campers also received their elective assignments. June had songwriting/composition, a cappella singing, and chorus. Those might have been her top three choices. In any case, she was very pleased. The elective classes are located all over a large, complicated warren of a building so they all had twenty-five minutes to locate all the rooms they’d need to find the next day. This impressed upon me what a grown-up seeming camp this was. I told June it would be good practice for finding her classes in middle school.

Finally, everyone reconvened in the concert hall for more information and for the camp director to raffle off various prizes, such as t-shirt from previous years, fast food coupons, amusement park tickets, a plastic baggie containing two Starburst, a pencil and $5, and an empty cardboard box which symbolized the privilege of sitting in the box seats the next day during the daily concert by guest artists.

Remember how I told my friend Megan this was the year camp transportation was a breeze? Well, I must have jinxed myself because there was a water main break on University Boulevard which snarled traffic for days as they tried to repair it. As you may guess from the name of the street, it goes to the University of Maryland and the bus I needed to take uses it.

We knew about the water main break ahead of time so I left the house at 1:50, and arrived at the stop just after two, thinking that no matter how bad traffic was, I’d still get to June’s camp in time for its 3:30 dismissal. Around three, when I’d been waiting at the stop for an hour, watching traffic crawl by, including several buses for routes other than the one I needed, I started to panic. I called the camp and left a message saying I’d most likely be late. I called the number on the bus stop sign that purports to tell you when the next bus is coming and got a recorded invitation to leave a message. (No one ever returned the call.) I tried to hail a cab, but the only one I saw didn’t stop for me.

After a series of tearful phone calls and texts back and forth with Beth, she got a cab from work and headed in the direction of the University while I walked a few blocks to the next bus stop, just in case the bus was detouring around my stop. There was a big crowd at that bus stop and when a C2 came soon after I arrived, there was some quiet cheering.

I ended up getting there before Beth, but still twenty minutes late. No one from camp had delivered the message to June that I’d be late, but apparently other people got stuck, too, because there were still quite a few kids waiting for pickup when I got there and June wasn’t too worried. We all went to the Student Union and had ice cream, because it seemed necessary after all that stress.

Tuesday they were still working on the road, but there were fewer work vehicles so traffic was better and I arrived more than an hour early. After that I arranged for June to come home with the mother of a sixth-grade girl she knows from her school orchestra.

June enjoyed camp. She made friends, liked her elective classes, and participated in the spirit days, wearing stars and stripes, or wacky clothes, or Maryland colors. She was assigned to play second violin. She had wanted to be first violin and was a little frustrated about already knowing the first violin part to two out of their five songs. She took it pretty well, though, considering she’s used to being a big fish in the small pond of her school orchestra, where she plays in an ensemble for advanced students. Turns out there are a lot more advanced players at orchestra camp.

On Friday afternoon it was concert time. June wore the required uniform of camp t-shirt and khaki shorts, though not without complaint. The shorts, hand-me-downs from Noah, were not exactly her style but nothing khaki would be, so we weren’t buying her shorts or a skirt she’d wear just once.

Beth, Noah, and I all met in the lobby of the concert hall. Noah and I got there almost an hour early, out of caution, and the last of the performances the elective classes were giving for the other campers was in progress. I got excited, thinking I might see June’s a cappella group or chorus class sing, but alas, they’d already gone. Parents aren’t explicitly invited to those mini-concerts, but if I’d known they’d be right out in the lobby for any passerby to see, I would have come earlier to see June and to see Noah’s movie music class perform the week before. Live and learn.

Choir camp and orchestra camp meet the same week, so their concerts are combined. Chorus went first, singing five songs. The chorus director reminded us the students had learned all the music in five days, which really is quite an impressive feat, especially as one of the songs they sang was a Serbian folk song, in Serbian.

The fifth to seventh grade orchestra was next. Their second song was “Ode to Joy,” and I have to admit, I thought, “Again?” when June first told me they’d be playing it because if you’ve been to as many band and orchestra concerts as I have, you’ve heard this one many, many times. But when they played it, I was won over, because it really is a pretty piece of music when it’s played well and they did play it well. The fourth song was June’s favorite, even though she said she missed a few notes in it. It was called “Fiddle and Stomp.” As you might guess, they stomped their feet in between the fiddling. And then they ended with “We Will Rock You,” and they rocked it.

The eighth to tenth grade orchestra was on next and they were just breathtakingly good, especially on “Waltz of the Wicked,” and “Danse Bacchanale,” both of which were complicated and hauntingly beautiful. I remember at Noah’s first band camp concert and being impressed with the older kids because I’d only heard elementary and middle school band concerts up to that point. This was similar. It was obvious a lot of those kids have put a lot of time and effort into their music.

It was a good two weeks of music-making. Noah’s considering being a junior counselor at band camp next summer, and June’s also thinking of returning, but switching to choir camp, so there’s a good chance I’ll be back at the University of Maryland at least once next year, hearing my kids fiddle, drum, or sing

  • Nicole MacPherson

    Sounds like they had a great time. Can you believe Noah could be a junior counselor? That seems like such a big step! Wow! I love the thought of musical camps – too bad my kids are the opposite of musical!