Desmond Sam and William Guiracoche in rehearsal for the camp musical, Aladdin Jr. <i>Photo by Brian Hatton</i>.
Desmond Sam and William Guiracoche in rehearsal for the camp musical, Aladdin Jr. Photo by Brian Hatton.

First in a series on free summer opportunities for New York City students. Coming soon: The Summer Arts Institute at Stuyvesant High School.

More than 100 middle school students sit scattered throughout an auditorium at the Manhattan School of Music, clapping and cheering as names of students selected to perform in a concert are announced. Joanne Polk, the Dean of MSM’s Precollege Division, shares a funny moment from one of the students concert sign-up sheet. “When I wrote ‘How long is your piece?'” she says, “You wrote, ‘It depends on how musically I play it.'” She finishes the morning announcements with a reminder about “Twin Day” that coming Friday, and the children stream out of the auditorium, many carrying instrument cases.

Musically talented 6th through 9th graders come from public schools all over the city for the Manhattan School of Music’s Summer Music Camp, where they study ensemble performance, music theory, and ear-training, take lessons in their particular discipline, and explore improvisation, conducting, composition, and more through electives. Mornings are for classes; afternoons are for extracurricular activities like marching band, ballroom dance, and acting classes.

Rebecca Charnow, director of MSM’s Young People’s Division, says the camp is an important opportunity for middle school students, whose schools may have cut arts programs due to an increased focus on testing in mathematics and reading.

In the musical theater class, two dozen students rehearse for a performance of “Aladdin.” The energy in the room is infectious; when the teacher announces that they will start at the beginning of the show and work on the first scenes, Asada Alston, a tiny pigtailed girl with a huge voice, jumps up and down excitedly, clapping her hands. When asked about the camp, Alston, a 10-year-old from Queens who idolizes Alicia Keys, says, “You have to learn everything like that!” She snaps her fingers. “I never stop singing at home.”

Cedric Hills, a slight, blond-haired 11-year-old, stands a head shorter than his stage-daughter, Princess Jasmine, but he speaks his lines with all the gravitas of a sultan. Hills, who will enter the 6th grade at Chelsea’s Clinton School for Writers and Artists, says, “I like to show how I can turn from one character to another, like a transformation. I know I’m me, but I can turn into another character.”

Faculty member Karim Merchant and his student Raldy Vargas during a jazz piano lesson.  By Brian Hatton.

This seriousness about the arts is shared by other students at the camp. Raldy Vargas, an advanced piano student and rising 9th grader at Christopher Columbus High School, is noted at the camp for showing up to his audition carrying a keyboard, just in case the school didn’t provide one. During his weekly one-on-one piano lesson, he works on jazz standard “Take the A Train” with teacher Karim Merchant. Merchant pushes him to strive for more accuracy in his playing, modeling how to practice the fingering for short phrases. Later, when Merchant asks what he’d like to work on, Vargas says, “There’s a song on YouTube I want to learn, it’s technically not jazz but….” He begins playing snatches of the piece. Vargas says that he trained himself to transcribe music that he hears.

The camp directors, Polk and Charnow, say many of the students are in large school programs but have had limited opportunities for regular private music lessons; a few are self-taught. The students auditioned for the camp in January and all are at an intermediate or advanced level of musical ability.

The camp has a 97 percent return rate, according to the directors, and some students go on to attend MSM’s pre-college and college programs.

India Carney, a rising sophomore at LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and the Performing Arts, attended the camp for four years and is back as a counselor in training this summer. “The best part of camp is that I’m surrounded by people who do the same thing as me. It’s impossible to come here with a bad attitude.”

Photos courtesy of the Manhattan School of Music.