For magical, meaningful, lifelong lessons look no further than a public school's summer arts program
Cleveland.com columnist Maple Buescher serves as a counselor at Reaching Heights Summer Music Camp, where she once attended as a camper. In a column this week, Buescher explains the many benefits of summer arts programming.
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- On March 18, I played in the final concert of my freshman year of college, with my school’s symphony orchestra. Dressed in black, with makeup and shoe polish abound, we played 90 minutes’ worth of unabridged Brahms, Mendelssohn, Bruch and Piazolla and celebrated afterwards with some unnamed liquids in red solo cups.
On June 18 — exactly three months later — I was onstage with an orchestra that was perhaps even more important. This time, I was in a T-shirt and jeans, playing alongside 10-year-olds, whose violin fingerboards were still covered in tape, marking proper finger positions. The 70 children seated onstage with me and several dozen other staff members were performing in the Finale Concert of this year’s Reaching Heights Summer Music Camp, a weeklong program for middle school musicians in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights public schools. I was once a camper in the very same program, where I learned the skills that took me to and past my college orchestra audition. Like this year’s campers, I went through five days of camp — each including two big orchestra rehearsals, a chamber group rehearsal, a music theory class, masterclasses, sectionals, an elective block and, of course, lunch and recess — before performing in the Saturday concert, playing music I’d gotten less than a week earlier. The experience was so magical that I have returned year after year as a counselor. At camp this year, we were aware that all of our students had lost years of music education to the pandemic. Most of them were at the very beginning stages of their instruments. So, we consciously fostered an environment of joyous learning among them. We were reminded that “everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a learner.” I was reminded of the value of arts-based education as I learned, alongside my campers, lessons that might be difficult or impossible to grasp in traditional classroom settings, but that come easily and naturally when woven into arts education. From thinking about what time signatures mean in music, campers learned about fractions in a way that felt more accessible and relevant. From learning new notes, their physical dexterity improved, and from identifying chords by ear, their ears sharpened. From preparing a concert in just five days, campers learned that growth is possible in a very short time. And from being pushed to difficult lengths, they learned that challenge can be rewarding. The 11-year-olds, who spent their lunch periods writing note names into their music and then bounced with giddiness when they played them right, were proof enough of that. From taking directions, campers learned to listen effectively—and they learned to use their pencils. A young camper told me that he had discovered it was much easier to remember things if you write them down when you’re first told. I, as a college student, have reason to believe that is a life skill. From playing in a large orchestra, campers learned about the importance of diversity and of united difference. They learned that the beauty of music comes from different parts and instruments interacting, not from everybody trying to sound the same. From realizing that not every part has the melody at every moment, campers learned about the importance of balance and teamwork. They learned that, while every part is important, sometimes one instrument might need to play softly, so another can be heard—and that this, in time, will be reciprocated. They learned that celebrating everyone requires accommodating different needs at different times, and that this makes the whole group successful. As much as they learned, campers taught me a lot, too. Campers taught me that there are no children beyond the ability to grow. On my first day, I was tempted to write off some students as too shy or distracted to reach. By Wednesday, though, the same children who had previously been too scared to answer when I asked their names were volunteering to clap rhythms alone in front of their entire theory classes. Campers taught me growth is possible for every child, even if the final definition of success looks different for each of them. I met campers who could play every note on the first day, and campers for whom the most complex passages were out of reach even by the end. But campers in that second group—who never quite managed to play everything perfectly, but whose abilities skyrocketed just the same—impressed me beyond measure with their dedication, initiative in asking questions, and bravery to try things that were difficult. These traits are as deserving of celebration as technical ability. Campers taught me that joy and positive encouragement can go a long way. When campers were praised for asking questions, they became more curious, and we were able to help them grow more effectively. Most of all, camp taught me that what we do matters. Camp staff included many now-adults who had once been campers themselves and had later gone off to internationally-ranked music conservatories and professional music jobs. Even for campers—like me—who will not be professional musicians, the skills we took with us are lasting. The skills I learned as an 11-year-old camper, playing in my camp string quartet are the same ones I use to rehearse with my college string quartet. I check my posture with a trick I learned at camp, and the mnemonic I use to remember the order of the flats is one that I was taught in camp music theory class. And the joy I feel after every concert is a feeling I experienced at camp too. If this sounds magical, that’s because it is. The growth—in confidence, in joy, and in musical skills—that happens over five days is breathtaking. This is especially true considering that our campers are students in a public school district that is designated as “failing.” At camp, they proved that they are not undertalented or unreachable, but that they can blossom with appropriate attention. If this sounds important, you can help. Fund your public school’s arts programming. Donate to your local public school’s music department. Vote for school levies to provide appropriate funding for public arts education. Reaching Heights is one of many nonprofits that provide scholarships for students who could not otherwise afford it to take private music lessons—a gift that provides immeasurable growth and innumerable life lessons—and funds those with public generosity; if you feel so moved, donate to a similar program. Most importantly, go to your third grader’s screechy recorder recital, or your 12-year-old’s beginning orchestra concert. Encourage your young musicians. No matter where their musical education takes them, they will be learning valuable, lifelong lessons along the way. Maple Buescher is a Cleveland Heights native, a 2021 graduate of Cleveland Heights High School, and a current student at Bates College, where she is considering a major in English. You can reach her at maplebuescherPD@gmail.com.