AKRON, Ohio — Jimmy is in the back of the school bus sucking face with the head baton-twirler. Across the aisle, Biff the bully is pestering a pimple-faced kid. And Mr. Holland is leading a group into the umpteenth rendition of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
Ah, the memories.
What if it were possible to relive band camp as an adult — without the smooching, bullying, or Mr. Holland? Instead you play with grown-up kids who like to make beautiful music, you aren’t forced to march in the heat of summer, and you’re old enough to “take one down and pass it around.”
Nearly five dozen people recently participated in an adult band camp at the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
“More people bring pencils and behave themselves here,” joked Lynette Janke, retired Kenmore High School band director. “And look at us. We are old people having a blast.”
But some folks don’t get it. When Janke told a sister about her plans to attend camp, the woman reminded her sibling that she had just bought a sports car and was too old for a midlife crisis: “And now you are going to band camp?”
“I like hanging around with people my age doing something other than sleeping until noon,” Janke said during the four-day camp, held this month.
The camp is the brainstorm of Jane Berkner, professor of flute at the University of Akron and, among other things, director of arts and enrichment for the Conservancy, a nonprofit group that raises money for events in the park.
“I love to see them be happy,” Berkner said of the campers. “I love a successful program. I think it’s a good thing to do. And I like the fact that the Conservancy is committed to this kind of program and wants to see cultural programs grow.”
This is the second year for the camp.
“I had no friggin’ clue how much work it was or I might not have started it. I think the first year is the biggest hurdle. When I got to the end of the first year I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it the second year. But everything was in place.
“When I saw that the instructors, who I work with at the university, wanted to come back (after the first year), that inspired me to continue. They were so excited, telling me it was a great idea,” Berkner added.
“The adults are fabulous to teach because they love good instruction. They are coming to something later in life that they just love to do. They are so grateful.”
Good instruction indeed — some might even consider the teachers local rock stars.
Among the distinguished camp instructors were Bob Jorgensen, retired director of bands at the University of Akron; Tucker Jolly, retired professor of tuba at the University of Akron and creator of the popular TubaChristmas in Akron; Robert Esterle, saxophonist with Esto Jazz; Wendy Webb Kumer, founder and director of Pittsburgh Flute Academy; Kris Belisle Jones, professor of clarinet at the University of Akron and principal clarinet of the Akron Symphony; and Matt Dudack, percussionist with the Akron Symphony and director of the Steel Drum Band at the University of Akron.
To the relief of campers, practices were held inside the Happy Days Lodge with a powerful air conditioner that provided relief during days when the air felt like soup.
The tunes filled the large room and spilled out into the beautiful park grounds. During a rehearsal, a family who had wandered into the area paused to boogie.
Inside, Liz Franks, 22, of Shalersville, Ohio, lowered the clarinet from her lips, revealing an ear-to-ear grin. The joy she felt was visible from head to toe.
When you are playing, “you are in the zone,” noted Berkner. “It’s a way to remove yourself from the day-to-day routine.”
A typical day of band camp included a hike and bike and musicians’ morning stretch, ensembles before lunch, band rehearsals in the afternoon and informal performances. The age range of participants was 18 to 88 — with the majority past retirement age.
Most of those who lived nearby went home for the night. Frederica Cohen, a retired strings teacher for Akron schools, used the week as her annual vacation and joined others staying at the Stanford House, an overnight accommodation for park visitors.
“Don’t you get tired of this?” oboe player Lynn Phillips of Toledo was asked. “You are spending hour, after hour, after hour practicing.”
In reply, she sighed happily.
Those of all skill levels are permitted to attend the camp, though participants should feel comfortable performing with a band. And it’s not necessary to work, or have worked, as a musician.
Take Richard Vasicek, for instance. The 88-year-old plays clarinet and sax.
“When I was 9 years old, I studied the clarinet. I wanted to become a music major, make it my life. But it was the Depression era and I saw my teacher struggling and starving.”
So he pursued a career as an electrical engineer.
The jovial Vasicek of North Olmsted is convinced that music has a healing power. When he was 19, he was forced to stop playing for a couple of years while his body healed from the cruel effects of tuberculosis.
“Music is a great thing. It is a healer,” he said. “I think it was my will to heal.”
Today, he plays in up to six community bands.
“I just love music. I took up piano a couple of years ago. It’s good for your brain.”
Vasicek was an inspiration for many of those who attended. Matt Riley of Akron was sitting beside the musician, four times his senior, during a jazz performance.
“I looked at him and told myself ‘I hope I’ll be able to play like that when I’m his age. That’s something I want to strive for,’” said Riley.
Jane Delcamp, a retired kindergarten teacher with Revere schools, has played the flute for more than 50 years.
“I was told before I could play the flute, I had to play pop bottles — Coke, orange and grape. I would fill them up with water and play little tunes” by blowing across the tops, she said.
At home in Akron, Delcamp plays the flute for relaxation. Her cat, Ellie, plays the piano by jumping on the keys.
“My other cat, Zippy, likes to sing — or howl,” she said, laughing.
Delcamp explained that when playing with a band, it’s necessary to be tuned in to others.
“You have to play so that your part doesn’t overshadow someone else’s. It has to be a wonderful blend,” she added.
Tom Mulkey of Toledo said his wife found out information about the camp online. Like the others, the retired assistant boiler operator praised the instructors and promises to return next year.
“That’s one thing that’s great about this place,” he explained. “Bob Jorgensen works with you and works with you until he gets it the way he wants. It’s like a woman putting on her makeup — you’ve got to get it perfect. And he is the supreme makeup artist.”
This year’s camp ran July 14-17 and cost $350. The 2014 dates for adult band camp at the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park have not been scheduled, but to learn more, call 330-657-2909, ext. 100, or visit www.conservancyforcvnp.org/experience/arts-culture/music-camp-by-nature.