Band Camp

What did you do for your summer vacation? I went to Band Camp. Yes, I am 71 years old and I went to Band Camp.

In the spimages 3irit of the adage that “you should never stop learning,” I hung up my press credentials when I retired from ABC News and picked up a bass guitar. I’m one of those people who groove to the beat of music. I have always been able to hear the bottom, the bass, of just about any song. The lyrics? The words? Don’t ask me. I hardly ever pay attention to them, not to mention the melodies.

It’s the rhythm, not the rhyme, that gets to me. That’s why, I suppose, I played drums as a youngster for nine years from elementary through high school. Inexplicably, as a graduating senior I put my drumsticks down after playing in my final concert at commencement and never seriously picked them up again. Much later in life, I often wished I had.

When retirement came, I knew I’d have a lot of time on my hands. So, I turned to the bass. That’s right, with apologies to Meghan Trainor, “it’s all about that bass.” Indulging my fantasies of becoming some kind of over-aged rock star, my wife went out and bought for me an electric bass guitar and amplifier starter kit. What with You Tube and libraries full of self-help books, I figured teaching myself to play would be a snap. Well, let’s just say it was painful, and leave it at that.

So, now, I’m taking lessons at a little music shop not far from my neighborhood. The place is owned by a guy named Jesse who is a terrific guitar player. His philosophy for learning to play music is simple: Have Fun! Jesse seems most happy when he is sitting around jamming with a group of friends. That’s what he call his shop, “Jesse and Friends Music.”

Part of Jesse’s curriculum includes a summer camp for budding musicians during the month of July. It is five days of intense focus on music theory, composing and writing songs, but mostly learning to play music on electric guitars, bass guitars, acoustic guitars, even ukuleles. His target audience are kids, pre-teens, tweens and teenagers with dreams of becoming the next Springsteen or Swift or Sheeran or Grande. He maps out different weeks for kids of different age groups.

“What about adults?” he was asked. “You teach adults to play guitar, too. Right? Why not a band camp for them?” He’d never really thought of that. “Would you be interested?” he asked. “Sure,” came the reply. “A bunch of older folks jamming four or five hours day? Sounds like fun.”

Thus, a band camp opportunity for those of us of a certain age was born. But, trying to bring together a group of septuagenarians or others of similar decades is not as easy as you might think. It turns out I was alone in my age group having an interest in attending a summer camp.

Jesse was not to be deterred. He rounded up three of his more promising young  students and, I can only imagine, said to them something to the effect of, “How would you like to spend a week jamming with your grandfather?” Much to my surprise, they signed on. God love their adventuresome spirit. Either that, or they were just taking pity on one of their elders. Either way, good kids.

So, for five hours a day one recent Monday-through-Friday we bonded musically. My band mates are interesting kids. One is a rocket scientist. Literally.  He is a 19 year old college sophomore studying aerospace engineering,  He was our lead singer and plays a mean guitar. The boy knows his chords.

Another was a 16 year old ukulele genius who can make that instrument sing. Like many others of his generation today, he spent most of his time between sets with his nose buried in his smart phone. That’s OK. He stopped texting long enough to step up and sing one of the songs we played. It was a Metallica number. Let that not be lost on you. There I was, a guy with two granddaughters, covering a heavy metal band

Our third band member was a 14 year old  boy who shows very promising musical ability. He works hard. But he is almost painfully shy and sometimes attacked his guitar tentatively. I wanted to give him some grandfatherly advice along the lines of, “You’ve got to come out of your shell, boy. Kick it up a notch!” But I kept my counsel.

Every band has to have a name. We called ourselves “The Quazars.” I’m not sure why except, maybe, it sounds very techno in this technological age. At my age, there are some things beyond understanding, I suppose.

Our band leader was one of Jesse’s instructors who has knocked around the music scene for decades. He is a drummer who goes, appropriately, by the name of “Bongo.” You can’t make this stuff up. Bongo is closer to my age than the kids and he has played with some well known groups through the years. Sometimes I wish I could have been Bongo when I grew up.

Our diligent practice at Band Camp had its reward. Two road trips. Jesse and Bongo had arranged for “The Quazars” to play two outside gigs. One was at the local performing arts center. The other was at a popular nightclub/bar in the area. Don’t get me wrong. We had the venues, but we had no audiences, to speak of. The places were virtually empty. The point of the exercise was to get some experience about what it takes to pack up all the gear a band needs, hit the road, arrive at a venue, set up for the gig, play it, tear down and hit the road again.

We were supposed to play on the main stage to an empty theater in the performing arts center, the PAC. But upon our arrival the PAC manager informed us that was not going to happen.  A film company was shooting a movie on the premises and had taken over the stage. “No problem,” the PAC manager cheerily said, “You can set up and play right here in the lobby.”

That’s precisely what we did. In truth, the lobby is cavernous in size, almost like a theater itself. But, it wasn’t quite the same as a stage appearance. Our audience consisted of life-sized, cardboard cutouts of three professional wrestlers advertising an upcoming appearance of the WWF in the PAC’s arena. Bongo quickly turned the change of plan into a learning lesson, pointing out that a band can never know what may happen on the road and that band members always have to be flexible. Nice save, Bongo.

We did play the stage in the nightclub. It is called a “night” club for a reason and we played at noon. The place was open and only a handful of folks had wandered in for lunch. A few others were already sitting at the bar apparently getting a head start on their daily alcohol intake. But no one was there for the music, that’s for sure. Still, the spotlights were on,  the sound system worked well and we played the room. We even got a smattering of applause, the loudest of which came from our 16 year old’s mother who had come to watch.

Band Camp is over now and I’m glad I went. I learned things about music, the Circle of Fifths, the Cycle of Fourths and other cool stuff like that. I have three new young friends and I really wish them well in their musical journeys.  Now I will focus on playing with another group of like-minded musicians. We are all among Jesse’s “Friends” and are all taking lessons from him. We meet once a week to jam. I’m still the oldest in the group, but these guys are more my age. We call this group “MyGen,” as in My Generation. Now, that’s a band name that makes sense.

Published by J. Paul Hickey

Author, Bass Player, Retired National Correspondent for ABC News - 32 years with the network - Retired in 2012. Narrates Audiobooks. Volunteer at Fort Sumter National Park. Holder of two university Honorary Doctorate Degrees, Distinguished Eagle Scout, former SCUBA diver.

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