Music Education | Feature

Before Glee, There Was Grammy Camp

A USC summer camp teaches high school students how to work the industry-caliber digital audio gear behind music-making.

A Justin Bieber wannabe can try to follow in the international phenom's steps by posting videos of performances on YouTube and hoping to be discovered and signed by somebody in the music industry. But what about the kid who wants to work behind the soundboard? How does a fledgling sound engineer get the exposure he or she needs to jumpstart a career in that direction? That's one goal of a summer camp for high school students hosted on the campus of the University of Southern California at its Thornton School of Music. For this program students live in dorms, eat in the campus dining hall, and get access to professionals and industry specialists that train them in industry practices and on professional equipment.

In July, Grammy Camp, as it's named, will pull together about 80 high school students from across the country for 10 days of intense instruction, collaboration, and performances in Los Angeles. Depending on their interests, students follow one of several tracks. Those include rock-star-style paths for singing and songwriting or performance, but also others that are behind the scenes, such as audio engineering or electronic music production.

Grammy Camp 2011

This year Grammy Camp will take place July 9-18 in Los Angeles. The foundation is also introducing a seven-day camp in New York, which will take place August 2-8. The deadline for applications is March 31.

The Camp is put on by the Grammy Foundation, which is affiliated with the Recording Academy, the organization that hosts the annual Grammy Awards. It's backed up by university faculty, music notables, and companies such as Avid, which provides access to industry-caliber gear and training experts.

"Whether you want a career as a performer, singer, or engineer, there are common elements for how you're going to get into that career and what you're going to need to know once you do get there," said Kristen Madsen, senior vice president of the foundation and the person who started the camp six years ago.

Grammy Camp participants (with country music artist Keith Urban) performed on stage during a benefit concert on the UCLA campus last July. From left to right: Kevin Schwarzwald (violin), India Pascucci (drums), Katie Gavin (vocals), Kristen Castro (guitar), Urban, Brenna Miles (vocals), and Savannah Meares (vocals). Image courtesy of The Recording Academy. Photographer: Jordan Strauss/ © 2010.

Training and Collaboration
A typical day at the camp starts about 7 a.m. with breakfast, then moves quickly into training courses for individual tracks in the morning, collaborative sessions in the afternoon where groups of kids from different areas work together, and often ends with the whole camp coming together to attend group panels or hear special guests that in the past have included performers Sara Bareilles; Maroon 5; Colbie Caillat; and Earth Wind & Fire. Campers crunch work on projects that culminate in a showcase concert at the end of the week into the crevices of spare time. That includes soundboard work performed by the young engineers or creation of digital music by those studying music production.

The Thornton School provides two studios with a full soundboard and recording system for recording live tracks. "But it doesn't have the kind of equipment that the roughly 30 kids on the technical tracks need access to," Madsen explained. That's where Avid comes in. The company has donated the use of workstations--one per student--loaded with its software. "If we stuck with the two studios on campus, you'd have a couple of kids on the boards and a lot of kids standing around. This way they all get to rotate in and out of the big studios during the day. They each have workstations for classes and whenever they have time to work on their projects."

Avid also premiered its Axiom 49 keyboard controllers at the 2010 Grammy Camp, allowing the campers to check out these powerful keyboard and DAW controllers before anyone else. It has also outfitted the workstations with ProFire 610 interfaces and Pro Tools M-Powered 8 software. The company also brought in spokesman Greg "Stryke" Chin, the producer behind remixed artists including Pink and Depeche Mode, who acts as an instructor for the electronic music production track. Nathan Adams, a technologist with Avid partner CET Universe, handled the audio engineering track.

The students watch a big screen at the front of the room that's displaying the instructor's gear while working at their own workstations, Madsen said. "I walk in and stand in the back of that classroom, and it's like they're speaking in a foreign language."

Avid has also sent company representatives to the camp to share their own areas of expertise. "We love when the sponsors of gear like this will come in and take a hands-on role," she added. "That accelerates what the kids are learning."

In the afternoons the same students will work with other groups to begin laying down tracks for the CD that will include the 25 to 30 new songs written or produced by camp's end. Although a lot of the recording that takes place in the studio will bring together singers and musicians, the music producers may also be inventing sounds by digital means.

"If the music production kids are collaborating with the song writers, and they want instrumentation that doesn't exist among the kids at camp--for example, a sitar--to include in that piece, that's going to get laid down separately from the live performance and then plugged in in a different way," Madsen said.

It's not all work, Madsen insisted. The kids get field trips to Los Angeles recording studios, including scoring studios for movie companies, gaming companies such as Electronic Arts, performance venues, and the Recording Academy offices.

Engineering a Live Performance
As the days pass, the work becomes more intense. "They know they have a performance," observed Madsen. "They know they have a showcase to produce. They have to learn how to get on and offstage. They have to learn the lighting cues. The engineering kids are at the soundboard, watching and learning about live music and live sound. They really get their hands on just about every element that would occur in their world if they become a professional engineer or professional singer/songwriter."

She insisted that the final concert is a student-only event. "We're a safety net, to make sure something doesn't fall apart, but they really run that show."

The concert that takes place on the final night is also the high point for the adult participants who have organized the camp, instructed, advised, and mentored the students. "It's the last night. The kids are exhausted. They're running on adrenalin and probably hormones at that point, and just having a blast," Madsen said.

But what astonishes her each year, she said, is the support the students show for each other. "These are kids coming from cities all over the country with very different backgrounds, different talent levels and interests. Some kids are popular, and some are loners. But to a kid at every camp we've had, they're all cheering each other on. This is their moment when they get to do that for each other. You see this joy expressed by them on that stage."

Then they return home, armed with a copy of the camp CD, the chance to add Grammy Camp to their college applications, and stories they can share with other students in their schools. Madsen recalled one student who came from Fort Collins, CO. "That's not a major music market. He heard about it, sought us out, got accepted, and came." Afterwards, Madsen said, he went back to his school and told his friends to apply. The next year one of those friends made it to camp as well. "He said, 'I'm going to send you 10 kids-from Fort Collins.' So they become missionaries for us."

Perhaps just as important, the students who go through camp can seek out and influence adults within their schools to help make sure music programs stay alive. A study by the federal National Center for Education Statistics that surveyed eighth graders found that 57 percent of schools were offering music instruction in 2008, about equal to the count for 1997. But in tightened budgets and heightened focus on academic standards, music programs are under constant pressure to justify their existence.

The Grammy Foundation sponsors the Grammy in the Schools initiative, which raises money to help high schools with their music programs. "We've had schools apply and become Signature Schools because one of their kids or alumnus has been involved in some way in one of our other programs, such as the camps," Madsen said. Schools receive grants from $1,000 to $5,000.

"The sponsors who have been with us for multiple years, they're sucked in by how terrific it is, by how much these kids are just blown over by what they're getting, and by how Smart and talented and savvy they are," Madsen said. Ultimately, she added, "it's a life-changing experience for all the kids here."