After last year’s post-Covid summer rock band camp, I felt crushed and heartbroken. I got advice and made changes for this year’s camp–and now I feel pride and excitement. Here’s what happened.
I’m the founder of NYC’s largest guitar school, including NYC’s longest running rock band summer camp. Over the past 15 years I’ve loved watching the personal and musical growth that our mostly teenage campers have demonstrated, hearing their music, and seeing the positive learning environment built by our skilled and passionate coaches.
But in August 2022, I wasn’t feeling so good. In fact, I felt terrible.
Summer 2022–our first full camp after two years of Covid restrictions–was the toughest we’d ever run. Our mostly teenage campers were falling apart like never before, and our team and I were blindsided and unprepared.
We’ve always understood that teens can exhibit angst, self-doubt and poor judgment–that comes with the territory of running a camp for teens! But last summer felt new and different, and not in a good way.
We experienced a significant spike in the number of campers who seemed fragile to the point of making it tough to run our bands.
Some campers struggled with confidence and anxiety, like the girl who repeatedly left rehearsal for cell phone pep talks with her mom, or the student who visited our director daily to complain of feeling judged and left out by her relatively normal bandmates. Other campers literally didn’t play well with others. A girl yelled at bandmates for not knowing their parts and stormed out of the rehearsal room. A boy threw an instrument against the wall and cursed at a coach.
Caught up in the moment, we tried to solve situations on the fly–but despite good intentions from our team, parents and campers, fun and growth were being replaced by anxiety and stress and individual situations affected the dynamics of entire bands. It was so distressing!
On the surface, camp had been successful. Most families gave us positive feedback. But the underlying reality was that some coaches planned to never return, multiple individual campers had not enjoyed their experience, and I personally felt frustrated and upset.
At first, I seriously considered ending the camp. “We’re not mental health professionals–we’re music coaches,” I told myself. The camp was just a small part of our overall business, and I hated the idea of putting a program in the marketplace that I wasn’t confident in and proud of. But that didn’t feel right–because I love the camp! My own kids, nieces and nephews had attended. So many campers over the years had grown into adults who treasured their NYCGS camp memories, and I felt like for years we had delivered on our NYC Guitar School mission of coaching “greatness, one lesson at a time.”
As I reflected, I felt like the very issues that were frustrating me were proof that our camp was needed–if we could only make it better.
So next, I considered running the camp, but with draconian controls to prevent conflict and hurt feelings–like increased rules, constant supervision, not allowing students to choose their own songs and a one-strike-and-you’re-out behavior policy. But that didn’t feel right either. After all, our mission is to help students grow in competence, resilience and confidence by giving them a hard but doable task–putting together a great show with other campers–with a wonderful side effect of having fun and making friends. I still believed in that mission! The problem was, I was no longer confident we could deliver on it.
I needed help!
So I reached out to Lenore Skenazy, a co-founder of Let Grow, a non-profit dedicated to promoting childhood independence and resilience, to share our situation and to ask for help.
I felt intimidated and grateful a few weeks later when my partner Jen and I joined a Zoom call with Lenore and two of America’s top experts on building psychological resilience, Let Grow board members Peter Gray (Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Boston College and author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life) and Samantha Boardman (Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University and author of Everyday Vitality: Turning Stress Into Strength).
Why were they all so game to help? In part it was because some NYC Guitar School students and I had recently recorded Let Grow’s “anthem” at our school (“Just Go Outside”–to the tune of “I Will Survive”). But also, my story was exactly the kind of real world situation for which Let Grow has concrete, no-cost solutions that actually work.
And boy, did I need them!
Peter, Lenore and Samantha patiently asked me questions about the camp and listened to my story, and then shared insights, research and advice with me as well as resources for further study.
- We were not alone! There is a mental health crisis for young people in America and many programs for teens are seeing more students with heightened anxiety and lowered resilience.
- We were lucky because our campers tend to be motivated and interested. Many educators struggling with mental health issues are working with young people who are in a class because of parental duress or other requirements. Not us! Our students want to be with us–so strategies could be oriented towards supporting our campers to do what they want to do anyway!
- Anxiety is sometimes worse among top performers. We could make our camp less anxiety provoking–and help train our campers to be more resilient–by encouraging campers to focus on supporting each other, and reminding them that their only job was to play their achievable part.
- Anxiety is also increased by loneliness. Anything that would encourage connection between campers would also help them be more resilient.
- Empowering kids is way more effective than controlling them or protecting them. Asking young people how they think we should resolve challenges usually results in better outcomes than forcing them to comply with top-down standards.
- It’s hard to alleviate anxiety or anti-social behaviors by focusing on those issues. Treating teenagers as fragile or broken and then trying to protect or fix them can sometimes even make issues worse!
- Mixing age groups and giving older kids responsibilities towards younger kids tends to reduce bullying or other antisocial behaviors by older kids–and increases maturity and confidence in younger kids. Our old policy of isolating 8-11 year olds away from the 12-14 and 15-17 year old teens needed to go.
- Some unsupervised and unstructured time with other kids or teens is associated with kids having more fun, more friends…and more focus when rehearsal or class time rolls around.
- Cell phones in a classroom are associated with overall higher anxiety, feelings of isolation and lack of focus among students.
As I met with Jen and our camp director Issac to plan 2023’s camp based on the insights from the psychologists–and some of our own–I felt excited. These changes might not be right for every camp–but here’s what we put in place:
- Phone free! We decided to collect phones at the beginning of each day to increase the attention that campers could pay to each other, reduce distractions–and also give teenagers a chance to work issues out on their own before contacting parents or friends. Notably, we decided not to return phones for lunch, even when teens left the rehearsal studios for the streets of NYC, because we felt like a completely-phone-free day would be easier to maintain than a sometimes-phone-free day (and we hoped that teens would be more likely to make friends during lunch without a phone).
- Two-week sessions only, and full band programs only. In order to give campers more time and space to get to know each other, we eliminated one-week sessions and ended our guitar and music-production stand-alone programs.
- Mixed age programs. We started a student-run open mic for all campers–organized and run by teenagers each session, but featuring kids of all ages. We started a “Sibling Band” program where younger or less experienced campers were matched with older and more experienced bands for open rehearsal visits and sharing. We instituted camper-led music clinics in which more experienced campers shared musical skills with other campers.
- Free play and unsupervised rehearsals. Previously we provided 8-11 year olds with a music-oriented extended day program with classes in songwriting or music production. We replaced that with “choice time”–for the last 90 minutes of camp they could choose more music practice–or they could hang out in a room full of art supplies, games, comic books, and other kids, and do whatever they wanted. We also opened a rehearsal room at lunch time for teenagers to jam without a teacher in the room (although interns would be present to fill in on any missing instruments).
- Icebreakers for band bonding–and camper-led democratic problem solving. We asked our teachers to begin each band session with ice-breakers and bonding exercises. We also asked them to explicitly explain some of the challenges that come up in bands and ask their students to propose guidelines to handle challenges.
- Behavior waiver. One important change happened in the camp application, where we added a behavior waiver to make expectations clearer–normal stuff like treating others with respect, arriving on time, not disrupting rehearsals and following screen guidelines–and to make it easier to expel students fast if we felt they were unduly interfering with the camp experience.
- An administration structure to support our philosophy. We removed camp administration responsibilities from the Camp Director so that Issac could be focused completely on running the camp. A Camp Sales Director handled the back end admin and, if needed, talked through our approach with parents.
Putting these changes in place took a lot of work. People and organizations are complicated– each camper had their own individual experience and some of the initiatives went better than others. However, Issac summed it up: “We tried new things this summer with the underlying principle of empowering kids and helping them grow…and I’m happy to say that we saw fantastic results in student interaction, engagement, and overall energy..”
Beyond the overwhelmingly positive feedback I and our team have heard from parents, a few things really stand out to me about this last summer.
- I’ve never seen this many young kids stick around at the show to hear the older teens perform–or have seen so many older teenagers encouraging the younger kids at the show. Younger kids in particular knew and looked up to older teens this year. (I loved it when my 11 year old niece, a drummer, excitedly told me how amazing the teenage girl drumming on “Crazy Train” in the open mic was. What a win-win–one kid gets to be a role model, and the other one gets to have a role model!)
- Many teachers told me that this was the most organized music school or music camp experience they’d ever been part of. It turns out that putting kids more in charge makes it easier to teach!
- One highlight was when I dropped by the kids’ lunch room, I asked why the games and art supplies weren’t out…turns out they don’t want them, because all week long they’d been holding “court cases”…that day’s case was “who killed the M’&M.” Every single kid had a job: judge, lawyer, defendant, prosecutor, expert witness…all kid-organized. When I asked whose idea it was they yelled “all of us”. The irony is that set aside time for free non-music play has gone along with more fun and focus in their music rehearsal time.
- At the end of the summer, many teens approached Issac to ask him about leading workshops or even interning in future camps.
- For me the most gratifying part of the summer was noticing that a few teenagers who had struggled in various ways in past camps were occupying new and positive roles this summer, being known, respected and appreciated by our entire camp community for their leadership and example!
What’s next? We’re still planning next summer. But a few things seem clear.
- The No-Phone policy was really successful. Jen said “I was surprised at how strongly parents felt about going phone free and how grateful they were to have someone else enforce it (instead of them). But the surprising thing was how much some of the teens wanted to be phone free–they said they had become too addicted to their phones. Other campers expressed that they had felt left out in past years during lunch because they didn’t have a device! Teens just want to make friends, and phones can get in the way. These conversations gave me confidence that this was something really important to our families and our community.”
Being fully phone free was transformative in ways we didn’t expect. Students had more time to work out issues within their band on their own–and solved almost everything by the end of the camp day. Our policy even resulted in a great original song by one group, aptly titled ”They Took Our Phones!”
- The behavior waiver was helpful. As Jen said, “When slightly more difficult issues came up (and there were only a couple this year), it allowed us to talk to teens directly and concretely about their behavior and the consequences…and the teens uniformly responded well. It allowed us to put agency back in their hands. No parents needed!”
- The 8-11 year olds loved free play (aka Choice Time). Sometimes it was chaotic, which is definitely a feature rather than a bug, but which was sometimes a challenge in a studio environment in which literally every room is filled with expensive equipment–so next summer we’ll look for designated play friendly space on another floor.
- Unsupervised time together helps teens make friends and build confidence–so we’ll try to make more unsupervised opportunities for teens to connect. One idea is to provide unsupervised weekend rehearsal space that teens can sign up for on their own, no teacher involved. Another is to facilitate weekend or evening activities around the city that teens can meet up for, with minimal supervision. This will also be another leadership opportunity, where teens can serve as organizers or ambassadors to welcome and involve other teens.
- Mixed age programming mostly worked. One area for improvement is in the student-led clinics–because even among young people the distance between advanced players and beginners is profound. Next summer we plan to talk to the teenage clinic leaders about making sure their lesson plans will inspire and encourage beginners, not intimidate them.
I know there are trade-offs to consider in the changes we’ve made. Our evolving philosophy will work great for some families and coaches, and not for others. So we will need to be clear so that families can decide for themselves whether our camp is right for them.
For example, some parents told us they don’t feel safe about their teen not having a phone at lunch. Their concerns are 100% valid, however we’ve decided to say, “We understand, but we just don’t do that, because our camp is an all-day-long phone free camp.” Similarly we’ll need to be up front that 8-11 year olds will not be rehearsing music all day–they are going to be playing UNO, jenga, and made-up games nobody could predict.
As Lenore says, “Trusting kids to be decent, proactive problem-solvers results in more responsible and mature kids.” Building a camp to support that concept takes work and focus–but is exponentially more fun and smoother running.
For me, the bottom line is that I once again feel pride, joy and excitement when I think about our summer camp.
And yes, the musical performances were top-notch!
For more info on summer camp, visit nycguitarschool.com/summer. Are you a school director or camp owner who is considering similar initiatives? I’m happy to share any helpful info I can–reach out to me via email@example.com.