I have mentioned a time or two that I grew up in a family of musical dorks, but the fact that my parents sent me to band camp (and the fact that it was my idea) should really drive my point home. I went to South Dakota State University’s band camp in 2001 and 2002: right around the time the phrase “this one time at band camp” was in its heyday.
I went to band camp with my dear friend and childhood neighbor Sarah, who had gone the year before and successfully convinced me that it was worth a week of my summer vacation. I agreed, and Sarah and I traveled off to band camp.
At band camp, you stay in the college dorms. My mom works at SDSU, so she had no problem figuring out where we were supposed to go. (Having my mom close by ended up being a real asset: one night, she brought us Pizza Hut for supper.) We were issued keys, meal cards, and lanyards: we felt like real college students (minus the “allowed to go off campus unsupervised” part). We even had to bring rubber flip-flops for the shower: if that doesn’t say college, I don’t know what does.
Sarah and I were roommates for both years, and we had a blast. I brought the oscillating fan, and Sarah brought her CD player. We spent the entirety of band camp 2002 with “Oklahoma” by Billy Gilman on repeat. Lights-out was relatively early as far as teenage summer standards go, so Sarah and I devised an unnecessarily elaborate system in order to stay up later and prevent the counselors from discovering us. If the counselors had, in fact, found us up after lights-out, the very worst they could’ve done was tell us to go to sleep, but Sarah and I still didn’t want to get caught. We stuffed a towel under the door and a sock in the peep-hole to block light, and we wrote up code phrases to notify each other if we heard incoming counselors. (I’m almost positive that our phrases were “the goose flies at midnight” and “the duck dies at dawn.” Don’t ask me why.) We thought we were really sneaky, and I guess we may have been: we never got caught staying up past lights out.
The first official band camp thing you had to do was audition for your chair placement. Sarah and I were always the last chair clarinets in concert band. It was more for lack of dedication than lack of talent: Sarah and I certainly didn’t spend a lot of time preparing our audition piece. It was summer, for crying out loud! We had better things to do! Both years, Sarah and I auditioned with the exact same piece: “Beauty and Joy.”
We always auditioned one after the other, which was likely
a mistake. The clarinet professor was named Corliss Johnson, and he was one of
the most patient people I’ve ever met. I don’t know how he stood hours of
teenagers on various woodwinds (he was responsible for oboes, bassoons, and
bass clarinets as well), squawking through scales and ill-prepared solo pieces.
|Yes, I still have a copy.|
Sarah and I never really worried about the auditions. We just wanted to get them over with; we really didn’t care about our placement in the band. We just wanted something to play and, with luck, to be able to sit by each other. And that’s exactly what we got. The second year, though, I almost blew it. Sarah and I were lined up in the hallway with a bunch of other clarinetists, waiting for our auditions. I can’t for the life of me remember how it happened, but I somehow managed to break my mouthpiece. A huge chunk snapped out of the mouthpiece, rendering my clarinet unplayable. I was stunned: band camp hadn’t even started yet, and I was out of commission. What the hell was I supposed to do?! Lucky for me, a fellow clarinetist just happened to have an extra mouthpiece that she was willing to loan out for the week. Thank God for that girl.
Each year, the bands were directed by a number of people. Jim McKinney did a lot of it, and he was good at it.
Mr McKinney would gently tell
us what we were doing wrong, and he would never hesitate to praise us when we
got something right. Unfortunately, Mr McKinney didn’t do it all. Each year,
there was some kind of special guest conductor. We had the same guy both years:
We were going to play a couple of pieces that he had written,
and he was going to direct them. Sounds kind of cool, right? Well, it would’ve
been… if Robert Sheldon wasn’t such a total ass. He was absolutely brutal. The
first day we sight-read one of his pieces (which were really boring, I might
add), Robert Sheldon just laid into us. He told us that we were sorry excuses
for musicians and that he ought to walk out right now. I don’t believe that
anyone would’ve been disappointed if he did. Robert Sheldon had a tendency to
rub his face and neck while he spoke to us. It’s hard to describe how weird it
was: he would use both hands and rub his face all over. His hands would
occasionally stray to his chest, which made the band really uncomfortable.
While he was doing it, Robert Sheldon wouldn’t miss a beat and would continue
to call us totally useless and talentless wastes-of-space. This kind of talk
continued throughout the rehearsal week, and we quickly learned to ignore it.
|What a guy!|
|He even looks like he sucks.|
However, Robert Sheldon did manage to make a young saxophone player cry. She raised her hand to be excused: her reed had broken, and she wanted to run back to her case and get a new one. Sounds legitimate, right? Robert Sheldon didn’t think so. He ripped her a new one: she should ALWAYS be prepared and bring another reed with her; she’s WASTING his time and ours; she had DAMN WELL better make sure that never happened again. The poor little saxophone player slunk out, tears running down her cheeks. Sure enough, no one ever asked to be excused to get a reed again. Whether that was because people brought extras or just didn’t say anything if one broke, I’ll never know.
At band camp, you had to fill your schedule with rehearsals, sectionals, and classes. The first year, Sarah took choir and I didn’t, meaning that I had to fill up my empty days with music-related classes. I signed up for at least one “practice time” per day, which just meant you were supposed to go find a practice room and work on your music. I took some sort of music arranging class, where I learned the very basics of music theory and using Finale. Sarah had one time slot in which to take a class, so we took Beginning Band together. As you might’ve guessed, Beginning Band is where you spend the week learning another instrument. We were encouraged to try something out of our instrument “family,” so Sarah and I chose to learn the French Horn. We were horrendous, but so was everyone else. The Beginning Band class even put on a little concert, which is pretty impressive considering we’d had approximately six hours over five days learning these instruments.
The following year, I decided that I didn’t want to spend my time in music theory classes, so I joined Sarah in choir. I had to audition, and I was petrified: the last time I sang acapella was when I was five. I choked my way through a scale and was promptly deemed an alto. Good enough for me. Since band and choir rehearsals took up a sizable chunk of our day, Sarah and I only had to find one class to take. We chose Music Appreciation: a class led by a spacey trumpet-playing counselor and his equally spacey girlfriend. They would play music and gaze dopily into each other’s’ eyes. There was never a whole lot of discussion: they would say, “Listen to this Beethoven piece. Isn’t it great? Listen to this Handel piece. Isn’t it great?” and go back to swooning over each other. At the end of the week, they had us go around the room and tell them what our favorite piece of music was. Most of us could only remember a select few pieces, as we had spent most of the class playing hangman with whoever was close by.
The Spacey Counselors were just two of the bizarre menagerie manning the SDSU music camp. There was Michael, the pale piano prodigy who had hands that bent at crazy angles. Sid was a trumpet player, and he was the camp stud. All the teenage girls had crushes on him… except for Sarah. “I think my mom has that shirt,” she said one day when Sid was sporting a lovely peach plaid button-down. Rick Crawley was the saxophone guy, and he was cooler than any of us could ever hope to be. The head of this whole operation was SDSU’s own director of bands, Jim McKinney. Sarah and I just loved him. He was a goofy Texan who was totally serious about his job, but he knew how to make it fun for a gaggle of high-schoolers.
The band camp attendees were a peculiar bunch, as well. I don’t remember many of the people I met during my time at band camp… just some vague memories of a dorky kid who wore a fedora and played trombone, and a girl who looked like a young Princess Diana. However, two people have managed to stick fairly well in my memory, and both of them were scrawny teenage boys. Kent was the same age as me, but I was a head taller and outweighed him by a good thirty pounds. I don’t remember a whole lot about him, except that he was a percussionist and used to dry his hair under the bathroom hand-dryers every morning. The other kid I remember was a couple years younger than everyone else, but he was a sort of wunderkind. Sarah and I didn’t figure out what his real name was until camp was nearly over (it was Evan), so due to his gangly limbs and extreme youth, we called him Billy Elliot. (Fun fact: three years later, Sarah ended up on an SDSU-sponsored high school music trip to Europe with this very same kid.) One of Sarah’s and my classmates, Clint, was at band camp as well. While we were walking to dinner one night, Clint was showing off his new bendable glasses. In the commercials, the glasses would bend almost completely in half and not break. Clint wanted to demonstrate: he took his glasses off and said, “Can your glasses do this?” Of course, they snapped clean in half. Everyone with glasses assured him, through uncontrollable laughter, that our glasses could indeed do that!
When we weren’t being verbally abused by Robert Sheldon or falling asleep in Music Appreciation class, SDSU made sure there was never an idle moment. SDSU arranged a number of field trips for us in our downtime. We would always go to one of the summer plays put on by the college (I know we saw South Pacific one year, and it may have been Peter Pan the other). We went to the campus art museum and the campus agricultural museum, and we got to watch a talent night put on by the campers and staff (one camper played a recorder with his nose.) Best of all, we went (multiple times) to the SDSU Dairy Bar. SDSU students would make cheese, butter, and ice cream, and it would all be sold at the Dairy Bar. The ice cream was (and is) amazing. The flavors change all the time, and the portions are more than generous. Over the course of band camp, we got tons of coupons for free ice cream at the Dairy Bar – and you’d better believe that we used them post haste.
Despite all the goofy counselors and crazy Robert Sheldon, I had a great time at band camp. It was way less self-righteous than church camp, and the food was way better than Norwegian camp. Plus, as much as I hate to admit it, I really did enjoy playing my clarinet. So if (God forbid) I ever have children, I’ll gladly ship them off to band camp… but I’ll make sure Robert Sheldon is nowhere to be found.