12 hours a day of band camp teaches music and life lessons
Precision Camp and Pearls of Precision Marching Band and Auxiliary Summer Intensive is just that — intensive
Before 9 a.m. Thursday near downtown Atlanta, the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center on Morehouse College’s campus was filled with more than 300 attendees during this year’s Precision Camp and Pearls of Precision Marching Band and Auxiliary Summer Intensive.
For five days, students ranging from sixth grade to 12th grade and representing more than 30 schools in the Atlanta metro and surrounding areas came together to learn, practice and review music and dance techniques to be performed in front of proud parents, friends, teachers and directors on Friday night.
For 12 hours each day this week, they practiced their music and steps, vowing to continue striving for excellence with each note and choreographed move. Drum majors representing local high schools broke into groups to practice for an upcoming assessment, dancers studied moves from auxiliary coordinator Naderah Munajj, and band members received guidance from several directors volunteering from area high schools and colleges.
On this particular day, band members practiced and perfected what they’d learned the past three days under the tutelage of Bethune-Cookman University’s band director Donovan Wells. Wells was one of the handful of guest conductors from historically black college and university (HBCU) bands who volunteered their free time to help the young participants throughout the week.
“Don [Roberts] had asked me a couple of times and it seemed like this camp and my band camp were always butting heads with conflicting schedules,” Wells said. “It didn’t butt heads this year, and Don has been a friend of mine at least 22 years. Any time I can do something for him or any time he can do something for me, there’s no hesitation.”
Wells had met some of the band members before during high school recruitment sessions, football games and band-related events, and was more than happy to be able to lend a helping hand at camp.
“It’s summertime, and being an educator for 34 years, I know that this group of kids could’ve been doing something else, but they’re here,” Wells said. “That’s the good thing about a camp like this. It gives kids the option to do some things constructively with other kids. It kind of gives them the mindset of the right thing to do, the direction they need to go in. I think camps like this are great.”
That was the vision band director and facilitator Don Roberts had in mind when he founded Precision Camp in 1994. Since then, Roberts has strived to improve the camp to prepare students who hope to one day become part of the prestigious HBCU bands they grew up admiring.
Roberts, also the executive consultant for the ESPN/The Undefeated band rankings, wanted to help the local band community by creating an affordable space for those who wanted to attend.
“The reason we started the camp is because camps are expensive,” Roberts said. “If you are in Atlanta and you took your kid to a college camp out of town, by the time you do hotel, food, travel, you’re probably going to spend around $1,000. I asked some of the directors about kids going to camp, and they said, ‘I wish we had something here that we could do that’s affordable for the kids.’ ”
At the time, Roberts was also a high school band director who found himself taking on requests to assist other directors by talking to their band members. Instead of traveling and making several stops around town, Roberts decided it would be more feasible to bring everyone together under one roof. The first camp, held on the campus of Morris Brown College, welcomed 75 participants.
Although the camp has grown over the years, it remains affordable. With camp fees set at $100, attendees receive three meals a day, the opportunity to play in Morehouse’s performing arts center, guidance from adult instructors, and bus transportation that picks up and drops off students from their homes. Roberts hopes to keep camp costs low, but the inexpensive fees come with their own set of challenges.
“One of the challenges is keeping the camp inexpensive, but I’m going to find a way for kids to come to camp, whatever it takes,” Roberts said. “We don’t turn any kid down, even if they don’t have money to come to the camp. We find a way. It’s a community camp. We give back to the community with this camp. It’s Atlanta’s camp.”
Throughout the years, the camp has seen numbers grow to more than 1,500 attendees in one summer, which caused the camp’s performance to be held at a larger stadium that would accommodate the large crowd.
But in 2011, Roberts decided to temporarily halt the camp after the death of Florida A&M University band member Robert Champion, who died from injuries received during a hazing incident.
“Out of respect, we didn’t do the camp for a few years,” Roberts said. “After Robert Champion died, you had to repair the psyche of your band. You had to let people know the band was safe, let people know that their kid was in a comfortable environment and let parents know that hazing was not an issue. After he died, we may have had a little over 125 kids after that. We went from a big camp to a very small camp. We had to build that trust up again.”
After the camp returned from hiatus, Roberts vowed to never miss a year. This year, more than 330 attendees filled the performing arts center. Roberts took note of the growing camp numbers and believes next year the camp will move back to a larger stadium for their performance.
For some, the camp is more than just an opportunity to improve in the band. Christopher Smith, a 16-year-old senior at Stephenson High School in DeKalb County, has used the camp to make lifelong friends. The camp has also been therapeutic for the trombone player during difficult times.
“It’s helped get my mind off of other things with family and school,” Smith said. “Me playing music relaxes my mind and helps me calm down.”
Smith has participated in the camp for three years. During his freshman year, his grandmother, the woman he’d lived with his whole life, died.
“Losing her was hard,” Smith said. “But coming to camp and playing music distracted me from what was really going on. After that happened, I started taking music more seriously because I believed it could really take me somewhere.
“Here, you’re going to have to come with the mentality that you’re going to work hard, that some things are not going to be easy but you’re going to have to push through it. It’s a learning moment, so you can take whatever you learned from this camp and take it back to school. You learn to lead and not just do things in band, but in life. This camp can take you from being an average person to being better than that. It’ll make you a leader.”
What also makes the camp unique is that it offers professional development to band directors besides helping students. Stephenson High School band director Quentin Goins enjoys this aspect of the camp, noting the advice and leaderships skills he has learned over the years.
“During this camp, there are also sessions for directors to grow,” Goins said. “Everybody is growing and as with any educational setting, if the teachers grow, the students will grow. I think this is what the camp does and it’s fun at the end of the day.”
Goins began attending the camp himself during its inaugural year in 1994 as a sophomore in high school. Since then, he has devoted his time to coming back for 16 years and helping students who were just like him.
“At the end of the day, it’s about letting students learn music and learn to be better musicians when they go back to their respective schools.”
While practicing renditions of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” and Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” the students received a surprise visit by Grammy Award-winning record producer Swizz Beatz, who’d been visiting Morehouse’s campus with his eldest son, Prince Nasir. Swizz Beatz gave the band members words of encouragement before taking a few pictures and shaking hands with attendees. Swizz Beatz said he hopes the students learn that staying off the streets and remaining focused on their dreams are what will keep them grounded and lead to success.
“The sky is not the limit, it’s just the view,” Swizz Beatz said. “Even if they don’t see their dreams right then and there, they should keep pursuing what their passion is and what makes them happy. Just seeing our culture coming together and doing something positive is touching. To be able to have my son witness this as well is amazing. Growing up in Atlanta myself and then coming back in this type of way is touching.”
As the day wrapped up, excited students — and band directors — began looking forward to the final day, the grand finale, and performance that will kick off on Friday evening.
“The kids are going to be fired up and excited,” Roberts said. “They get to play for their parents and show them what they learned in a week, and that’s what makes it all worth it. This camp is very rewarding. Any time you can give back to the community, it’s very rewarding.”