Kids give us what we need
June 18 was magic. When the Heights Summer Music Camp Orchestra performed its final piece on the stage at Heights High that day, the audience—family and friends, district leaders, music advocates and longtime supporters of the Heights music program—erupted with a standing ovation. People were blown away by the music and by the young people taking their bows.
After a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, this was a restart for the camp. We were starting from scratch. Only eight people who attended the camp as fifth-graders a few years ago were eligible to attend when we reopened. Everyone else was new to the experience. We were thrilled to enroll 71 campers.
This is the 16th year that I have been the camp director, and it was my 16th finale concert. This one felt different. It felt more important.
Each year, our music director, Dan Heim, sets the tone for the week when he shares the camp philosophy with our staff: “Everyone is a learner, and everyone is a teacher.”
An exceptional teacher, Heim articulated the expectations that shape our efforts: Every camper can learn something new, will make progress, should feel support, can teach us something about learning, and should have fun. It’s a perfect climate for everyone to work hard, excel, and open themselves to new perceptions of themselves.
In a short week, the daily camp routine, led by amazing music professionals and enthusiastic high school mentors, transformed our gaggle of slightly wary fifth- through eighth-grade campers into a tight-knit community of musicians. Part of each day was spent preparing for the concert. Musicians are lucky. They can hear their own progress and share it with others. A concert provides a great opportunity to do both.
During the concert, substantial learning was audible and so was the joy! I was struck by the interplay between the audience and the orchestra. After two years of COVID, the audience seemed to need this wonderful performance—at least I did.
For many of us who have been living in isolation, the concert was an awakening. This shared experience among audience members, among the performers, and between the audience and the orchestra was comforting and electric. It’s something everyone carried with them as they returned to life after camp.
I’m certain the performance raised awareness among parents that music teaches important lessons, and that their children are capable of tremendous growth. With sufficient support, they can and will stretch themselves.
The campers had the new experience of playing for a large audience. The immediate feedback rewarded their effort. It lifted them. I am hopeful it solidified parent, camper and school district commitment to music.
Music is social. While individuals practice alone, we need to be around each other to experience the full benefits of music-making. Camp could not work via Zoom. But for the better part of three years, our school district tried its best to serve our children during a pandemic. For the music program, concerts were not an option, and instruction was from afar. A lot got lost.
As our community and schools continue to reclaim normalcy and overcome the stress, fatigue and loss inflicted by COVID, I believe the music camp helped everyone it touched. We know our young people can develop new skills and knowledge, self-confidence, satisfying relationships, and the motivation needed to reach beyond what we imagine they can achieve.
If you attended the concert, you know it is worth it to provide children with what they need. They respond by giving us what we need.
Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights, and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters. A community booster, she is the author of a book about local activism, Resisting Segregation.