The Kids Are All Right

How I Spent My Summer: Band Camp

The Gig: Spontaneous Combustion -- Matt, Ellis, Rachel, Favi, and Claire -- defies authority with I Fought the Law.
The Gig: Spontaneous Combustion -- Matt, Ellis, Rachel, Favi, and Claire -- defies authority with "I Fought the Law." (Photo By John Anderson)

Monday, July 7, 2003

Dear Mom,

Today was my first day at camp. I didn't cry, wet my pants, or get homesick.

Remember when I went to Tulane Day Camp in New Orleans? We wore little green-and-white uniforms and hats. We made potholders that melted on the burner, sang silly songs I still remember, and learned to identify birds. At the more sophisticated Jewish Community Center camp the next summer, we camped out overnight, complete with roasted marshmallows, sleeping bags, and raids from the boys. Mom, going to camp ain't what it used to be.

Kids camps today are more specialized than medicine. There are church camps, sports camps, and academic camps. Camps to make kids lose weight and camps to teach them to be filmmakers. Camps for fencing, sewing, theatre, computer skills, skateboarding. There's even a camp that visits theme parks and amusement parks. Being the music-obsessed town that it is, Austin has two music camps and a guitar workshop.

Michele Murphy runs the Natural Ear Music Camp that I'm at for the next three weeks, the original one in Austin. She's been playing music in Austin for most of her life, by herself and with people like Alvin Crow. She's boisterous, mouthy, opinionated, and totally dedicated.

Starting tomorrow, I take lunch orders at camp, quizzing the pintsized musicians about their choices of pepperoni rolls, cheese pizza, or hot wings. I'd rather the kids thought of me as the lunch lady than a reporter, so I am jazzed about it. After all, it's been a long time since I went to camp.

Love, Marg

Tuesday, July 8

10:45am: Twenty-four teens and subteens between the ages of 9 and 16 file into the Music Lab rehearsal complex in South Austin. From 11am to 3pm over the next three weeks, they'll choose songs, learn to play them as a group, and practice, practice, practice! Then they will play "the Gig," a final exam of sorts -- out at a real, live Austin music venue. Most of them already know how to play, and some are quite proficient. They're divided into five bands, each with a teacher: local musicians Tracey Crossett, Will Knaak, Eve Monsees, Corey Keller, and Will Sexton. Michele pairs groups with teachers. Boys outnumber girls by roughly 2-to-1.

11:30am: Tracey's boys fumble through the 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me." Eve tries different instruments with different kids. Will Knaak's group experiments with Doug Sahm's "She's About a Mover." Corey's charges mull over a Stevie Ray Vaughan song. Will Sexton strums guitar with his gang.

1:30pm: After lunch, Michele flops on a couch at the front of the complex and exhales. Soon, she's riffing on one of her favorite subjects: how the brain works. Her theory is that kids can't learn if they're forced to sit still; they have to wiggle about. "Even parameciums communicate through vibration," she laughs. "It's music on a cellular level."

1:45pm: It's time for afternoon rounds, and Michele already is approving songs for the five bands. Will Knaak's group gets the distinctive groove of "She's About a Mover" going, which fits Michele's criteria. She has final approval of the songs and leans toward classic Sixties rock but has a way of making the kids feel like the choices are their idea.

3pm: Cars and SUVs fill the cramped parking lot. There are chatter and high-fives as the kids depart with their instruments and equipment. Day two of camp is history.

Wednesday, July 9

11:05am: Tracey's group of five 10-year-olds is tiptoeing around the Monkees' "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" and finding it more difficult than it appears. They wade into "Pipeline" and "Walk -- Don't Run," but settle on "You're Gonna Miss Me" and Roky Erickson's "Don't Slander Me." Tracey watches them carefully. At 17, she's played bass with the Quicks (formerly Catscratch) for two years, but has been a student of Michele's longer. As a NEMC alumna, she sat in her students' place not long ago.
Natural Ear Music Camp director Michele Murphy shares a laugh with Matt Clark (l) and Josh Crow.
Natural Ear Music Camp director Michele Murphy shares a laugh with Matt Clark (l) and Josh Crow. (Photo By John Anderson)

11:30am: Down the hall, Will Knaak's group has three 12-year-olds, a 13-year-old, and a precocious 10-year-old. There's much discussion about who will sing in this group. They noodle around on "Treat Her Right," but it doesn't click. Knaak is 18, a guitarist with his own band Knaak Attack and also a graduate of the camp. He's not many years removed from his students either and encourages them when "I Fought the Law" works better.

11:55am: Upstairs, Eve Monsees oversees another mixed-gender group. She plays Beatles' records on a portable turntable, and within minutes her group is working on "Day Tripper." Like Tracey and Will, Eve is young -- 19. She and childhood friend Gary Clark Jr. are among the rising blues guitarists in town, playing with the Chicago masters at Antone's recent anniversary. Not having been a NEMC graduate, she's a little greener about teaching, but her natural rapport with the kids overcomes that.

1:30pm: Will Sexton helps clean up the lunch mess before returning to his class. He was younger than most of these kids when he started playing music professionally with W.C. Clark and Speedy Sparks. Two of his students are 13; the others are 14, 15, and 16. They're working on SRV's "The House Is Rockin'" but are anxious to try something more contemporary. Sexton's easygoing manner and own two children give him an edge with the group as he lets them find their own groove.

2:10pm: Drummer Corey Keller has Michele sit in on his class. The group of 16-year-olds is working on another SRV/Doyle Bramhall nugget, "Life by the Drop," as well as ZZ Top's "Waitin' for the Bus," but something's not quite right. Michele suggests changes in the guitar rhythm, which works. Corey grins. He too was a teen player who climbed the ranks into Antone's stable of musicians. He's almost as excited about teaching at camp as the kids are about being there, and he bonds closely with his four students as the day winds to a close.

Thursday, July 10

10:59am: Hi, Connor. Hey, Peter. Hi, Joey and Vijay and Will. Hi, Claire; hi, Aaron. Hey, Nick and Zach. Hi, Sofi and Tracy and Maya. Hi, Diego. Hi, Pat. Hi, Lucas and Elliot. Hey, Andrea. Hi, Caitlyn; hi, Clark. Hi, Matt; hi, Fabi and Rachel. Hi, Ellis. Hey, Claire.

Friday, July 11

10:56am: At the end of the first week, the routines are set. Tracey's kids are already tuned up. They're also learning about rehearsal complexes and the common courtesies they demand. "Shut the door!" is one rule Michele is fond of teaching. "Shut both doors!" is another.

11:15am: Michele begins rounds. "Turn it up," she tells Eve's class. The volume on "Gloria" rises. "G-L-O-R-I-AAAAAA."

12:25pm: Rachel from Will Knaak's group is in the hall with Michele, who's offering advice on the role of a lead singer on "I Fought the Law." "Those words, 'Breaking rocks in the hot sun,'" urges Michele. "Imagine you're out in the heat, and it's so hot the tar on the road is melted. Think about that when you're singing that song." Rachel nods and the next go-round is a two-alarmer.

1:40pm: Corey's 16-year-olds are discussing the merits of a Weezer song. Michele blackballs it, saying it doesn't rock and "will be like throwing a wet sock" on the audience at the Gig. The kids persist, and against her better judgment, it stays.

3pm: The Gig, less than two weeks off, is becoming a topic of conversation and band names are being bandied about. "We might be Da Munchkins," says Vijay with a firm nod. The after-class banter turns to birthdays, and one of the teens says he was born in 1990. "1990!" exclaims Joey. "That was before I was born!" It's a good thing camp is over for the week ...

Monday, July 14, 2003

Dear Mom,

Today the dynamic changed when the overnight campers arrived: 11 boys between the ages of 14 and 17 from all over Texas, the U.S., and Canada. They're divided into two bands, and it's obvious they're practiced musicians. They rehearse at morning and afternoon sessions like the day campers and pick up extra rehearsals in the evening at the Hardin House by UT, their "dormitory." Michele's son Micah stays with them and drives the van.

They're closer to young men than boys with their wispy mustaches and hints of beards, but their braces give their youth away. They're also very astute; when I mentioned that we'd be visiting Antone's midweek to see Jimmie Vaughan, they were ecstatic. "Jimmie Vaughan! Jimmie Vaughan!" one repeated in awe. I was taken aback because five, 10 years ago, it would have been "Stevie! Stevie!"

L-R: Will, Joey, Peter, Vijay, and Connor were the Escalators, paying homage to the 13th Floor Elevators with an all-Roky Erickson set.
L-R: Will, Joey, Peter, Vijay, and Connor were the Escalators, paying homage to the 13th Floor Elevators with an all-Roky Erickson set. (Photo By John Anderson)

Michele is truly something to watch. She's the ultimate earth mother hen, so in love with the idea of teaching kids that she keeps some kid bands together and conducts home-schooling during the regular school year. I spend most of my days following her around and watching the way she interjects herself into the classes, teaching the kids and sometimes teaching the teachers. By Friday, I was wandering the halls by myself, listening to these kids earnestly laboring over "Gimme Some Lovin'," "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and "Day Tripper."

If I ever wondered about the future of rock & roll, it's right here.

Love, Marg

Tuesday, July 15

11:20am: Alvin Crow is giving Michele the business. Crow, who's been playing music since he was 4, is teaching one of the overnight groups. He's also one of Austin's premier musicians and a onetime member of the Oklahoma Symphony in addition to heading up his own Pleasant Valley Boys. He wants to teach the Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction." Alvin is confident of the boys' abilities and pushes for it. Michele capitulates, and Alvin strides up the stairs to his group.

"If it's gonna fall apart, this is the week it will happen," Michele predicts. Ten years of camp have taught her that crises occur at the midpoint, so she's on her guard. Yet the groups, all seven of them, are riding high in good spirits and camaraderie.

1pm: John Moyer, the other overnight group teacher, eats with his 9-year-old daughter, Kylie, who attended the early summer-camp session. Moyer is the closest thing to a rock star in the group of teachers, as bassist for Soak and now with San Antonio's Union Underground. His dreadlocks fall over his face as he tears a piece of pizza for Kylie, and a student asks about playing Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way." The answer is yes, and before lunch is over the song's distinctive lead is booming from the rehearsal room.

Thursday, July 17

11:10am: "The Gig is a week from today." Those words from Michele resonate throughout the seven rehearsal spaces in the Music Lab and the countdown starts.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Dear Mom,

Just a short note as the last week looms. The Gig is on Thursday.

This week we took the kids to Antone's to see Jimmie Vaughan. He introduced himself to them, and the animated group I'd brought turned into silent, awestruck teenagers. Jimmie was gracious, shaking their hands and taking pictures with them.

I also took the overnight-camp boys to the Chronicle offices on Friday. The idea was to give them a little reality check about pursuing music for a living. Raoul and I showed them the stacks of CDs that come in every week and then told them the percentage of ones that get reviewed. I don't think they'd ever thought of it that way, and it seemed to have made an impression on some of them.

When I left on Thursday, Lon rolled down the window and some of the boys yelled out, "We love you, Margaret!" They rock my world.

Love, Marg

Monday, July 21

11:10am: There was trouble at the dorm last night when one of the overnight boys was caught smoking, which is a big no-no. Micah got really pissed, but Alvin thinks it's more than the smoking. He contends the boys are treating Micah, who's only a few years older, like an adult, and it bothers Micah. Michele takes the infraction very seriously, but once it's been dealt with, she continues on her way.
Teacher Alvin Crow directs the overnight campers in Pitchatent.  L-R: Malcolm, Alvin, Tim, Noah, Daniel, Eric.
Teacher Alvin Crow directs the overnight campers in Pitchatent. L-R: Malcolm, Alvin, Tim, Noah, Daniel, Eric. (Photo By John Anderson)

1:35pm: The mood is determined. There isn't much goofing off or teasing today. Having had their song choices approved by Michele, each band works on honing its three-song set. They've also chosen their band names. Michele fine-tunes the acts, offering critique and praise to teachers and students alike about style, performance, and stage presence. "We don't want the Dead Children Syndrome happening onstage," she urges. "Look alive! Move!"

Wednesday, July 23

12:05pm: No more long practices. The bands take turns visiting one another's rehearsal spaces and playing audience for each other. They move from room to room, upstairs and downstairs, squeezing in and spreading out, breaking only for lunch. They're excited, because after almost three weeks of rehearsing and practice, the Gig is almost here.

3:01pm: "What are you wearing?" Andrea and Caitlyn, the oldest girls at camp, are discussing their attire for the show. Many of the kids are exchanging computer screen names, cell-phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. "This is really cool," one of the boys confides to another, "but just wait till next summer."

Thursday, July 24

1pm: All seven bands are dress-rehearsing their show in the Music Lab's "Big Room," a large space with an elevated stage. The idea is to run through the entire show in order, and if all goes well, do it twice. The adrenaline flows as lunch arrives. Pizza boxes are passed among 40-some students, teachers, and the occasional parent. This is one hopped-up group.

3pm: The Gig is four hours away.

Friday, July 25, 2003

Dear Mom,

Yesterday was the final day of camp.

The Gig at the Broken Spoke was awesome. This is the third summer I've seen the kids perform and by far one of the best set of gigs I've seen. Even their names resounded: the Escalators, Deer in the Headlights, Not Kiwi, the Fagans, Spontaneous Combustion, Generation Y, and Pitchatent.

And you should have heard them. I felt like parents must, when they watch their children attempt something new. My heart swelled with pride every time a group got up and played; the more ragged their sound, the more endearing they became. The tighter they sounded, the prouder I was. It took guts for them to step forward and play, guts I never imagined when I was making potholders at camp.

Afterward, some of them said goodbye to me, gave me hugs and pats on the shoulder. I was deeply touched. I never imagined three weeks ago that I'd be so involved with them. Now it's over, and in a few weeks they'll be returning to school. This summer will be just a memory for them as they turn their young lives toward the unimaginable task of growing up in this millennium. I miss them already.

I think I'm gonna cry now.

Love, Marg

What I Learned At Camp

1) The kids don't know as much as they think they do.

2) The kids know more than you think they do.

Natural Ear Music Camp, contact Michele Murphy at 477-5910 or at

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