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USM music, theater camps return to the stage

About a decade ago, Alan Kaschub ’91 signed up his son for USM’s music camp without the 11-year-old’s knowledge. Kaschub’s sister had attended the camp in the 1980s and loved it. Kaschub himself was a Music Department faculty member and knew how important the immersive experience of camp could be to a budding musician. 

So his son was going to camp with his trumpet. 

The kid loved it.

A photo of Alan Kaschub

Alan Kaschub ’91, Director of the School of Music at the University of Southern Maine. (Photo by Will Wohler ’07.) 

“He proceeded to do every camp possible, and he lived for those camps,” said Kaschub, now director of USM’s School of Music. “He once said, ‘Remember that time you signed me up for camp without telling me?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, thank you for that.’ I think he was really grateful he got that experience.”

Hundreds of kids get that energizing USM music camp experience every summer. Except last year. As the pandemic raged, the School of Music decided it couldn’t hold sessions safely, so it didn’t hold them at all. 

This summer, music camps are back, along with USM’s theater camp

There will be some changes this season: Except for theater camp, all camps will be day camps; enrollment has been capped, and music campers will wear specialized masks. But sessions will be in-person on the Gorham campus and as immersive and inspiring as always. 

“We really feel we’re going to give them a great experience this year, the kind of experience they really crave,” Kaschub said. 

USM’s music camps started in the early 1980s — Kaschub’s sister attended the very first year. Since then, thousands of young musicians have spent their summer days learning how to better sing or play the trumpet, tuba, drums, or other instruments.

A photo of Southern Maine Music Academy students performing a year-end concert in 2018

About a decade after his father signed him up for his first USM School of Music camp, Dan Kaschub (top row, middle) performed a solo with the jazz ensemble during the Southern Maine Music Academy's season-ending concert in 2018. (Photo courtesy of the USM School of Music.)

The summer program offers a number of different camps that divide kids by grade and skill level. The Southern Maine Music Academy, for example, caters to committed high school musicians. The Southern Maine Youth Band Day Camp is for fifth- and sixth-grade beginners. 

“Kids who are just starting their instrument, they’re in a very formative time. They probably got their instruments in the fall of fifth grade. They’ve been working on them and making what progress they can while juggling all the other things they have to do in school,” Kaschub said. “What the Southern Maine Youth Band Day Camp provides is an all-day music experience, playing with similarly minded kids who are pretty dedicated and. . . by the end of camp are playing at a pretty significantly higher level than when they came in. That taste of success is, I think, really, really powerful to those kids.”

But this year Kaschub is concerned that music education sometimes got lost as local schools struggled with the rest of the pandemic’s priorities. Some didn’t even hand out instruments this year, a missing rite of passage for Maine fifth graders. 

“That’s a worrying sign,” Kaschub said. “We need to do everything we possibly can to make sure kids get these experiences. We don’t want schools to become places where kids only concentrate on English, math, and science. Arts are incredibly important to developing students who value feeling. I know that sounds very Mister Rogers, but Mister Rogers was right.”

Usually, most of USM’s arts camps offer overnight programs. This year, all music camps will be day camps and only the Southern Maine Theater Academy will be overnight. The change will allow the camps to accommodate as many kids as possible — capped at 50 per session — while keeping them socially distanced. 

This year’s biggest challenge: Keeping up with ever-changing rules and logistics in the age of COVID-19. Camp leaders typically start planning sessions in the fall and open registration on Feb. 1. This year they couldn’t start planning until spring and didn’t open registration until May 15. 

Still, the camp session for high school musicians is nearly full, as is the theater camp. 

Each camp lasts several days. Except for the Youth Band Day Camp, all camps will run from Sunday through Friday. The youngest campers will instead attend Monday through Friday. Start dates vary; theater camp begins first, on June 20. 

The Youth Band Day Camp and Junior Music Academy, both for beginners, have the most openings. 

“I hope that lots of kids sign up,” Kaschub said. “I know they will have a great experience and will be grateful their parents signed them up for it.”