Students and Staff Relish Opportunity to Perform in Person

Students play brass instruments under a tent at band camp Image by Ed Brennen
Symphonic Band Camp students play under a tent outside Durgin Hall on South Campus, where the camp returned this year after a one-year hiatus because of the pandemic.

By David Perry

Ask Margaret Wall, 20, what she did when UML’s annual weeklong band camp was scrapped last year because of the pandemic, and she doesn’t flinch.

“How about, cry?” says the alto sax player from Walpole, Massachusetts, who was participating in her third year of band camp. “It sounds dramatic, and I understand why it was canceled, but coming here is a big thing. I look forward to summer because of it. I get to play and see the friends I’ve met here.”

She adjusts her face mask. Band camp this year is different, but it’s camp.

“This is pretty much the first time I’ve played with other people in nearly two years,” says Wall. “I can’t tell you how exciting it is.”

Now in its 24th year, UML’s Mary Jo Leahey Symphonic Band Camp offers students entering ninth grade through freshman year of college a weeklong concert band experience, including performance sessions in percussion, brass and woodwinds, mixed chamber ensembles and jazz bands and other workshops.

Two teenage girls play brass wind instruments in a classroom Image by Ed Brennen
Margaret Wall, right, blows alto sax in a funk and fusion breakout session.

This year it was held in an altered format, mostly beneath a 40-by-60-foot white tent aside Durgin Hall. And instead of students bunking in campus residence halls for the week, for the first time it was a day camp, running from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Sunday through Friday. On the final evening, a concert showed off the fruits of campers’ labor.

“We’re creating art together as we play in an ensemble, and as we go through aspects of that, it changes us,” says Debra-Nicole Huber, the camp’s executive director, who also serves as director of instrumental music outreach for the university. “It’s about the visceral reaction of feeling the music.”

This year the camp, which was named for alumna and benefactor Mary Jo Leahey ’37, drew 40 campers from 26 towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. That’s fewer than a third of the campers drawn to the residential camp in 2019.

“It’s very different this year, without dorming,” says clarinetist Kevin Snow of Lowell, 19, in his fifth year as a band camper. “We’d stay in Riverview Suites, and there was the whole social aspect that came with that. It made it all more musically intensive, too. But in a lot of cases there are the same people, and the same camaraderie and the same drive. It’s like coming home.”

A girl in glasses and a face covering holds an acoustic guitar while looking at a teacher Image by Ed Brennen
A band camp participant works on her acoustic guitar skills with an instructor.

Dan Lutz, UML’s director of bands, says being a day camp instead of residential may make for a less immersive experience, but the students’ talent and commitment were as deep as ever.

“The students are still as passionate and as inspired by the week’s musical deep dive as their predecessors have been at each of the previous 23 camps,” Lutz says.

Veteran band camper and clarinetist Jacob Reinach of Natick, Massachusetts, embodied that enthusiasm and commitment to musicianship.

“Last year I basically spent a lot of time practicing. I took some virtual lessons, but I really missed getting out of the house and being with friends. This camp is rigorous. There’s a lot of playing, the kind of time I wouldn’t spend on my own. There’s a sense of community here. I just love it,” Reinach says.

Mila Allen of Woburn, Massachusetts, recently closed the books on her first year as a computer science major at UMass Lowell. A trumpeter, it’s her fourth year as a band camper.

four camp participants play xylophones while a teacher looks on in a classroom Image by Ed Brennen
Band campers play xylophones in a percussion breakout session.

“Being here allows me to improve. In high school, you can only improve so much, but we push ourselves here. I get to see what I can do. And that still applies this year,” she says.

In addition to Huber, there are 15 other staff members who teach and administer at the camp, all of them UML alumni and many of them band directors at local schools. Additionally, four UML music students assisted behind the scenes.

A pair of music education graduates, Paul Delabruere and Kevin Goddu (both ’16, ’17), are planning their respective 2022 summer weddings around band camp.

“I started coming to this camp in 2008 and have been on staff since 2013,” says Delabruere, a middle school music director in Methuen, Massachusetts. “What do I owe this place? My whole career.”

“We are all so tight here,’ says Goddu. “You really feel like you’re with family.”

It even draws a staffer from the happiest place on earth. Music education alum Justin Mitnik ’99 “wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

15 band camp counselors and the camp director pose for a photo outside Image by Ed Brennen
Symphonic Band Camp Executive Director Debra-Nicole Huber, center, surrounded by UML alumni band camp staff.

Mitnik has been a trombonist with the Disneyland Band at the amusement park in Anaheim, California, since 2015.

“I come here to teach, to help kids play their instrument better, but it transcends that,” says Mitnik. “I love seeing the light bulb moment when you introduce them to a new concept. And they get it. It’s what makes this my favorite week of the year.”

For Mitnik, band camp offers the things he loves most about being a musician.

“The art of making music is what I love. Just getting together with other people. Last year was devastating to the whole industry. I am in LA and the impact was huge. After two weeks of the pandemic, everything went away. Even Disney closed and it never closes.”

After 15 months, he returned to work in June, “and when the band played, you could feel it – it was like a form of hope, it symbolized a return to normal.”

Band camp returns July 17-23, 2022, “hopefully fully residential again,” says Huber.