Band camp?!? No, really, band camp.

Photo by Gene Jochen

Photo by Gene Jochen

There’s something that just sounds funny about an adult going to band camp. You get visions of cousin Norbert with his coke bottle glasses and French horn getting on the bus and waving goodbye to his parents. Joking aside, jazz fantasy camp was a chance to get a little of the formal music education I lacked, and learn how to scat sing.

My friend from Buffalo, saxophonist, Mike SantaMaria, sold me on the fun of it. Knowing that Darmon Meader, founder, musical director, composer, saxophonist, and vocalist with the group New York Voices would be my teacher put a big green button on it.

The cost of tuition, room and board for the Tritone Jazz Fantasy Camp week at Nazareth College in Rochester, NY was $1,375 – steep for a working musician like myself, but perfectly reasonable given what I later discovered were the typical professions and socio-economic statuses of the attendees.

On day one of camp, the Wilmot recital hall at Nazareth was filled with 50 or so fellow campers (mostly instrumentalists) ranging in age from early forties to late seventies. As we introduced ourselves by name and instrument, I felt like a brown shoe in a tuxedo world, having labeled myself as “singer,” while others in my group of nine used the more formal term “vocalist.” I had a lot to learn, both big and small.

The daily schedule was cram-packed with rhythm, theory and master classes. Music theory class with the superb Jim Doser was a lot like high school math in that I did terribly, in spite of patient teaching, and got red-faced with frustration. I made supremely good use of my time, however, and surreptitiously surfed Amazon on my smart phone to order “Music Theory for Dummies.”

My fellow vocalists varied in talent and experience. We had a couple who played sax as well — the lone males in the group — who wanted to improve their singing. I was the only one who had quit their day job to perform, but one of the least experienced in reading music and ensemble work.

Our teacher, Darmon, immediately got us working on our ensemble pieces (think Glee). One of the songs, Frank Loesser’s “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year,” had a difficult solo section, which he pointed out might interest someone who was very ambitious. Game on! I recorded him singing it and endlessly practiced it during limited free time in the days to come. I was determined to nail it.

Evenings were for formal performances followed by jam sessions. Never a shrinking violet, I showed up for the advanced jam, but soon found there wasn’t a protocol for including singers. In a typical session, a player (often the pianist) will “call” a tune — that is, name the song and the key, and musicians take turns soloing after having run the song once through.

Some musicians resent vocalists in jam sessions. Singers sometimes need songs in unfamiliar, difficult keys to play. Also, they reduce the amount of time instrumentalists can solo. Finally, they often don’t read charts well — the road maps for how to play a tune. These deficits have led to jokes at the singer’s expense, ie: How can you tell when your lead singer
is at the door? She can't find the key and doesn't know when to come in. Buh-dum!

That first night, about 14 musicians crowded the jam stage; a pianist, bassist, drummer, clarinetist, flutist, guitarist, six saxes, two trumpets and me, the outlying singer. Undeterred, I grabbed a mic, sat down, and made sure to look like I wouldn't be leaving any time soon. They found a place for me, offering me my own turn as a scat soloist and occasional tune caller. Having discovered a position in the band I later invited some of my fellow singers to join in the fun. We all got along just fine.

Communal meal times gave everyone a chance to become better acquainted. I made a point of switching tablemates at each meal and getting to know as many of my fellow musicians as possible. The array of professions represented was dizzying: a medical physicist, accountant, cardiologist, physician researcher, philosophy and advertising professors, music teacher, three aerospace engineers, and at least eight lawyers — among many other professions. Conversation flowed easily and we didn’t want to stop.

Even more than the music, the one-on-one connections were most treasured: there was Christine, the serious lawyer with a heart as big as Wisconsin who dreamed of donating money she made from her gorgeous singing to the less fortunate; Bob, the gentle trombonist with MS who found it difficult to play anymore and thought he might like to sing; Frank, the shy, brilliant, aerospace engineer who made himself available to accompany me on piano during every break; Giuseppe, the gravelly-voiced saxophonist whose voice was made fun of as a child and wrongly thought he couldn’t sing; Celia the flutist/physician researcher who was torn between a profession she felt called to and the music she loved. Most touching of all was Carol, the paralegal with sass who had been gravely ill, undergone a tracheostomy and lost much of her vocal range, but could still movingly deliver a song with fewer notes, but oh-so-much soul.

Each of their stories wove into mine and I felt a kinship with these people called by the beauty of music, and camaraderie jazz provided. They were no longer strangers, and by the time our final recitals arrived, we had not only become friends, we had gelled into some pretty good vocal and instrumental ensembles.

And that difficult solo I coveted and practiced for? Christine, the songbird lawyer and I split it right down the middle. She was better than I, but no matter. What about Carol of few notes? She earned the sole standing ovation.

Just like in our lives outside of band camp, everyone missed some beats and hit a few flat ones, but here, there was love, acceptance and encouragement all around and gorgeous music was made.


Making the teacher appear.


When the pupil is ready, the Master appears.
– Unattributed

Mrs. Padlog, my piano teacher when I was 11 years old, probably wanted to strangle me. I had a good ear, picked up rhythm quickly, had great melodic sense and practiced only when I felt like it, mostly never. But, songs came easily and I could play them well enough after two lessons, so figured the end-of-the-year recital would be easy-peasy and I would be crowned Best Student.

Facing 30 or so sweaty and anxious parents and children in Mrs. Padlog’s living room was not the cakewalk I had envisioned. King of the Road became a path of landmines in a forest of snakes. Guantanamera was the childhood equivalent of showing up naked at a cocktail party with a chicken wing hat. Playing faster did not help as the black notes danced and blurred while my heart beat crazily and face burned with shame. I ended with a mashed-up flurry of notes, and slunk off stage, followed by sparse claps and sympathetic faces.

I was not worthy of Mrs. Padlog’s patient instruction. It would be 30 or so years before I was ready for my teachers to appear and truly learn from them. In time, becoming a good musician was important enough to overcome self-defeating habits and a bad attitude.

Besides a little bit of talent, getting ready for the teacher is the key component in any success I’ve had as an artist and performer. Do you want to sing, paint, write, act or dance? You’ll need a great instructor, mentor or coach. I’ve been lucky to have a handful of them. Here’s how to get primed and draw them into your life:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!
~ Goethe

Where do you want to go? Do you dream of becoming a tap dancer? Picture yourself dancing in front of an appreciative crowd, commanding the stage to thunderous applause. Chart your path with gusto — a rudderless boat heads nowhere. Seal the deal by sharing your dream with a supportive friend. Four summers ago, I told my husband I wanted to be a jazz singer. He responded with a fist pump and an enthusiastic “yes!” I was on my way.

Expect the unexpected
Your teacher may not look the way you pictured or come from where you thought she would. What matters is that they have the heart of a teacher and can inspire you. One of my vocal coaches, Guy Boleri is a cranky, almost 80 year-old I met at a party. He yells at me, and early on, made me cry. Now I laugh at his bluster. He’s taught me more about phrasing and song choice than any book or college course could have.

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.
– Les Brown

Aim high
Whom do you admire? Often well-known performers and artists will supplement their income with teaching – and they might agree to teach you! They’ll certainly know of a good teacher to recommend. When I heard Andy Anselmo was going to be at a party I was singing at, I buzzed with fear. Andy is known as “Teacher to the Stars,” having taught such students as Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett and Mandy Patinkin. That night I worked up the courage to talk to Andy and now he’s my other vocal coach. In addition to intense vocal exercises and performance advice, I hear anecdotes about great American artists.

Be prepared to pay
And pay you will, in time, money and passion. You might have to give up cable or that weekly dinner out, and while that outlay can sting, the investment in your talent will inspire hard work. My biggest improvements have been when I’ve practiced when I least want to — late at night, when I’m tired, or during a holiday or vacation. It’s my message to the universe: I’m dead serious about succeeding and will pay the price to make it so.

Wearing the white belt here means you have agreed to set aside all knowledge and preconceptions and open your mind to learning as though for the first time. Students here receive one belt and one belt only: the white belt. Those who put in the time, training, and effort will find their belt getting so soiled that eventually it turns black of its own accord.
~ Philip Toshio Sudo, Zen Guitar

Drop the ego
You may have been the lead in the high school play and the family’s best artist, but the attitude most helpful in attracting and keeping a good teacher is humility and a beginner’s mind. They allow you hear criticism, resist comparing yourself to others and persevere in the face of apparent failure.

One of my first and best vocal instructors was a classical teacher named Frank Scinta who was also my father’s choirmaster. Dad knew I needed improvement and gently suggested lessons with Frank. Initially offended, I ditched my punctured pride and studied under him for two years. He gave me the gift of good tone, breath support and enunciation. None of this could have happened if I had maintained the illusion of not needing help.

I believe that when we open our hearts and ask (and if we are willing to work), the universe, God or whatever sends us what we need. The gift of a good teacher is that they can take our mediocre or budding talent, help us surpass our own expectations and rise high above limitations.

So, get dreaming, get humble and get ready to fly!