LOWELL -- When Erin Morissette picked up a recorder in the third grade, she was immediately hooked. As she learned to read notes and play music, she moved on to a clarinet. When she decided to participate in the UMass Lowell Mary Jo Leahey Symphonic Band Camp this summer, she had no idea she would be the second chair.
Morissette, 17, a senior at Dracut High School this fall, does not plan to major in music in college, but it has become an essential part of her life.
"I can't give it up," Morissette said. "It's exclusive to me. There's nothing to do to imitate that feeling."
She is part of a group of 125 students who are taking part in the 18th running of the camp that aims to help young musicians develop their love for music. Most participants are from New England, but in the past the program has attracted students from as far away as California and Canada. The cost of the camp is $595, and that fee also includes staying in a university residence hall.
Students do not have to try out for the camp, but they do have to audition for their performance positions.
When Morissette got her sheet music in the mail, she was nervous because she did not know what some of the notes meant.
"I never did anything like it," she said.
But Morissette quickly got accustomed to conductor Debra-Nicole Huber's fast-paced instruction and standing exercises. The program united students from many band programs, and they have to team up for a finale concert on Saturday.
"When you see really good bands, you get jealous," Morissette said. "But when you come together, you realize you're one."
She said when she attended band class at school, it felt like a mandatory class. At camp, she is around other students who love the same thing she does.
"Parents would ask, 'what can my child really do with music?'" said Huber, the executive director of the Symphonic Band Camp.
"This allows them to get their feet wet without the consequences."
Students take music sessions and performance workshops from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily during the weeklong camp. They can then take those lessons back to their respective band programs.
There are already talks of the 20th camp where alumni of the program will come back to perform as a group.
Emily Crompton, 20, of Lowell, attended the camp when she was in high school and came back as a coach this year.
"Music is a small world," said Crompton, 20, who plays the French horn. "Band camp was kind of magical, and they love music as much as I do."
Many students participating echoed Crompton's enthusiasm.
"We live and breathe music," said Raffaele Nicoletta, 16, of Chelmsford High School.
"It makes you feel strong, we all coming together."
Saturday's performance will feature the "Three New England Caricatures," music about three characters in New England history, "An American Elegy," a tribute to the lives lost in the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, and "Ireland: Of Legend and Lore," a look at Irish history.
There are high expectations for the finale concert despite players only being together for a week.
"We're on the same wavelength," Morissette said. "They will think we've been practicing for months."
The finale concert is in UMass Lowell's Durgin Hall on Saturday at noon. Admission is free.
A few notes about UML band-camp program
- Approximately 1,500 students have been through the Mary Jo Leahey Symphonic Band Camp.
The percussion section has the most players with 21.
Historically, the most popular instruments have been clarinet, flute, percussion and trumpet.
The camp includes sessions on vocal performance, sound-recording technology and the history of rock 'n' roll.