Tasting the Rainbow: Teen Arts Performance Camp 2010

From the Top alum and violinist Karen Cueva, who performed on Show 187 in Boston, MA in October 2008, had a remarkable summer participating in the Teen Arts Performance Camp (T.A.P. Camp) in Maryland as a teaching artist. Below, Karen explains the idea behind T.A.P. Camp and discusses some of the amazing experiences she had with music and the arts this summer. Her blog is a little long, but it’s really inspiring and well worth the read!

My name is Karen Cueva and I am a proud From The Top alum as well as a second year violinist at The Juilliard School.  Being a Juilliard student has many advantages: there are our great teachers, phenomenal performing opportunities, and, of course, living in New York City’s Upper West Side.  However, one of the greatest parts of being a student at “the yard” is the wealth of educational outreach opportunities at our disposal.  Many organizations collaborate with Juilliard world-wide to give students the chance to pass their knowledge of their arts forward.  This past summer, the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington, D.C. teamed up with Juilliard for their annual Teen Arts Performance (T.A.P.) Camp.  After applications and interviews, a group of eleven students were chosen as teaching artists to go to the picturesque Camp Brown in the outskirts of Maryland.

The Teaching Artist Team

I was so privileged to have been of such a fantastic group of artists and friends who struck the perfect balance of professionalism and exuberance for teaching during our five weeks together.  I will be forever changed as a violinist and as a person by my experiences at T.A.P.  I am glad I can share them with the From The Top audience.

The Teen Arts Performance Camp’s mission is to offer a true conservatory training experience for youth who don’t typically have access to the arts in their communities.  These children have talent and, more importantly, a passion for the arts which was evident in their progress throughout the camp.  Their ages ranged from 9-17 and were offered courses in music (classical and jazz), contemporary and ballet dance, theater, and musical theater.  Many of the kids from T.A.P. use the Boys and Girls Club as a safe haven from gangs, drugs, and difficult family situations.  Their artistic director, Mr. Tony Small, has been an arts educator for decades, combining the fine arts with a concept he originated called “Edutainment”.  Mr. Small makes learning enjoyable and exciting through song and dance, using cultural references that kids can understand in order to better comprehend science and math.  He covers the scientific method and geometry through rap and empowers the campers by singing hip-hop songs about tolerance, embracing uniqueness, and that by dreaming big and setting attainable goals, they can achieve great things in life.  His devotion to the kids is palpable from the second that you meet him and his experience was invaluable to the teaching artists.

Our three weeks together would culminate in a performance open to the public at The Arc, a theater in Washington, D.C. which would showcase all of the campers in their desired discipline.  The road to The Arc performance was not easy but was filled with learning experiences and growth, both from the students as performers and of the teachers as educators.  The artistic range as well as age of the campers was so varied that it was challenging to give those who had been studying music for a year as much of an enriching experience as the students who attended Baltimore School of the Arts.  However with the help of our on-site administrator, Mr. Barrett Hipes, and many other Juilliard staff, we were able to create lesson plans that were useful to campers, regardless of their level of training.  Each musician performed a solo or duet with a piece that they learned during the three weeks at the camp, while the dancers performed choreography created by the Juilliard staff.  Those in straight theater performed scenes from stage combat to Shakespeare and the musical theater students sang and danced selections from musicals such as Rent and Dreamgirls.  The end of the showcase had the entire T.A.P. camp on stage singing “Hold On”.  The lyrics to “Hold On” express that by holding on to hope and faith, change will come.  I couldn’t think of a more appropriate and emotional way of ending T.A.P. camp.

While T.A.P. revolved around a rigorous schedule, it was the candid moments that quickly became my favorites.  On the first night of the camp, the teachers led an ice-breaker game which was followed by group discussions.  Each discipline was split up and talked about how they came to choose their discipline and what they loved about it.  I was struck by how open these kids were about their life situations.  Having mostly pre-teens and early teens in our group, I wasn’t expecting such involved answers, but was particularly moved by the story of one of our drummers, who told us why he loves music.  An asthmatic his entire life, this student’s family one evening had to call the paramedics due to an asthma attack.  Once he was on a stretcher, the unthinkable occurred, he was dropped and landed on the concrete leaving him with a brain injury that forced him to relearn how to walk, talk, and eat.  This camper had shared with our group that he had been playing the piano since a very young age but due to his accident he was unable to remember how to play.  When the hospital noticed his affinity for music, they offered him a drum set, as it was the only instrument they had.  It was at this moment when his love for the drums began and during his trying times would always rely on his drum set as an outlet.  Even today, this T.A.P. camper is still working to get back to the place he was prior to his accident, but upon meeting him, you can feel his resilience and determination to be the best person he can be.  I was inspired when I heard of this student’s plans to go to college, become a record producer and have his own studio.  I have no doubts that he will accomplish all of his goals and beyond.To hear a camper say that their art is their escape, or our presence made their summer the best one they had ever had, or that they wanted to work and get into Juilliard one day, validated why we came to Camp Brown.

While in the beginning of T.A.P., many of the campers were closed off to learning new skills or respecting authority, by the end of the third week, the students were incorporating many of our rituals on the campus as their own.  One of those rituals was to have the teachers perform for the students every day at a meal.  A chant signaling the beginning of the performance would take place during lunch or dinner and what would happen next was a performance of anything ranging from a monologue, dance, or traditional folkloric Chinese song being performed.  The teaching artist’s mission for having this be a central part of the camp was to continue the inoculation of the different arts into daily life and to appreciate them equally.  The Juilliard interns were stunned when one day at lunch, it was the students, not the teachers, who performed.  A few of the boys from the theater and musical theater classes performed a rap about how much they love skittles, the multi-colored candy.  While many would just take this as fooling around, it really was the motivational turning point of the Teen Arts Performance Camp.

Later that week, the Skittle Song had permeated through Camp Brown and was used in lesson plans, meals, and during evening activities.  That song meant so much more than a rap about candy:  it was truly the uniting force within our camp.  The teaching artists wanted to use the students’ creation as a valid artistic contribution at T.A.P. to prove that they can create something truly memorable by using art.  One day during a teacher debriefing, the Juilliard teachers decided it would be fun to give the kids skittles during a rehearsal so they would get a morale boost (at the time, rehearsals were not being as efficient as they could be due to a lack of discipline).  So after one of the four-hour rehearsals, we created a jam session environment where the instrumentalists and drama students were playing various beats, dancers were improving and the musical theater teachers were singing.  All of a sudden, the Skittle Song is played in the jam session and bags of Skittles appear, creating chaos in the recreation hall.  I had never in my life seen such an outstanding reaction of pure joy come from a group of kids.  There was jumping, laughing, dancing, and rapping while a rampage of kids would stick out their hands for just a handful of skittles.

It is utterly amazing to me how these kids, many of which gave the impression of indifference at the beginning of this performing arts camp, responded just by the gesture of a gift of a candy.  Seeing those ecstatic faces and the change of attitude within the camp to one of hard work and determination, will always stay with me and taught me more about being a teacher than any music class could have.  I speak on behalf of all of the Juilliard students who were at Camp Brown that through our experience at the Teen Arts Performance Camp we learned what it meant to be a teacher.  It’s not all about making fun lesson plans and teaching eighth notes versus sixteenth notes or listening to Miles Davis and trying to understand his genius.  Our time at T.A.P. taught me that a teacher is someone who goes beyond the classroom (or, in our case, the cabin) and becomes a mentor to a child.  A teacher is someone who takes the time and energy to show a child the rainbow of possibilities that can be acquired if discipline, dedication, and creativity becomes the fabric of everyday life.

Teaching Artists Vasko and Caleb

All of the teaching artists wish the T.A.P. kids all the best in their future endeavors and keep up with them on a regular basis thanks to today’s technology.  Personally, I feel incredibly blessed to have been a part of this pilot program through Boys and Girls Club as a Juilliard student and am incredibly grateful to From The Top for the opportunity to write about the best summer of my life.

Sunset at Camp