Music education creates determined learners: reflections on eight years of music camp

Dan Heim directs the Heights Summer Music Camp string section during a rehearsal. Photo by Susie Kaeser.

I have the privilege of organizing the Heights Summer Music Camp, a project of Reaching Heights. For each of the last eight years, it has given an average of 85 elementary and middle school music students from the CH-UH school district a week of intensive music exploration, instruction, and growth. We attract kids who have had years of private instruction, and those who have had just a year of group instruction in their elementary schools. About a third of the campers attend with scholarship support.

Each year, I have witnessed campers push themselves hard, have fun, and rise to high expectations. It is magical. 

In addition to the widespread transformation of a slightly wary group of shy children on the first day of camp into a confident and capable orchestra, our campers provide inspiring evidence of the power of effective instruction and a supportive environment to bring forward the capacity for growth that exists within every child.

While part of the day is spent in chamber groups and an interactive music theory class, the orchestra is the camp centerpiece. Twice a day, the campers meet together to rehearse as an orchestra under the direction of Dan Heim, Heights High music director. Each instrument group spends an additional 45 minutes together working on its part of the music, assisted by high school mentors and professional educators and musicians. 

In just a week, this motley crew of rising fourth through eighth graders pulls off something magnificent. They master three pieces of music to perform at the end-of-camp concert. They play the notes and rhythm accurately, and play together, with musicality. This is the learning goal, and it is articulated to them daily as they receive the instruction and thoughtful feedback that helps them achieve it.

This year, like every year, the audience jumped to its feet with heart-felt applause as the orchestra took its final bow. The enthusiastic response was well earned. The music was terrific. I always cry. How often does one get to witness such a clear expression of what education can achieve?

An awe-inspiring finale concert occurs year after year because each camp day engages these young musicians in the goal of making good music. The camp sets high expectations and clear, achievable goals (and campers can hear for themselves how they are doing). It provides specific and effective instruction along with support and meaningful feedback that recognizes progress and what to strive for. It is a communal learning experience where everyone is accountable to the group, and it combines serious work with joyfulness. All of these aspects of the camp motivate the campers to learn and improve.

One ecstatic parent reported that each day after camp, her child took the initiative to practice more—unheard of!  An informal survey of 33 campers revealed that this is the norm; all but three usually practiced after a day at camp. Camp inspires a desire to do well. Knowing that effort and success are connected may be the camp’s greatest contribution to the academic lives of participants. 

Motivation is a critical factor in learning. Research reported by Dylan Wiliam in Embedded Formative Assessment shows that students are “more motivated to reach goals that are specific, are within reach, and offer some degree of challenge.” This describes the work of the Heights Summer Music Camp Orchestra.

Heights Summer Music Camp gives these learners an experience in which they discover the rewards of investing themselves in a growth process. It provides the right mix of challenge and support to motivate participants to push themselves. The result delivers an affirming message: Excellence and equity can exist together.

Music is a special subject that helps shape children as learners. We need to guarantee effective music education in our schools because it helps students become inspired, determined and committed learners—a fundamental goal for public education that supports their learning across content areas.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a 30-year resident of Cleveland Heights, former director of Reaching Heights, and serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 5, Issue 8, Posted 5:32 PM, 08.06.2012