ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - When you're 13 years old and going on super-stardom, Camp Rock hosted at the St. Augustine Amphitheater is the place to be.
"You get something out of it, you know?," 13-year-old Jordon Henley of St. Augustine told First Coast News about the program on Thursday. "You jam a lot and you're having a blast... and it's just a lot of fun."
Camp Rock is the brainchild of Jim Stafford, who runs Eclipse recording studio across town on U.S. 1. Think of a week-long day camp themed around the movie "School of Rock" starring Jack Black. The program's 2016 inaugural class included just 11 kids, burgeoning to 30 in just its second year.
"This year we set a limit of 30, and we filled up," Stafford said with a smile while watching his charges from a seat about 15 rows away from the stage.
"You get touring musicians to come in and nurture middle and high school-age students, form them into bands," Stafford continued, explaining the structure of the five-day camp that includes collaboration both in a classroom setting (using the spacious backstage dressing rooms at the Amphitheater, where so many famous performers have prepared) and on-stage.
"They met each other for the first time on Monday," Stafford detailed. "And, Tuesday they were formed into groups, and here we are on Thursday, and they're performing at a very high level."
Indeed they were. As Stafford explained, the program is best for kids who have at least some experience playing an instrument, although previously playing with other musicians is not a prerequisite. The only other requirement is a thirst to learn, as 12-year-old vocalist and drummer Madison Wardell happily detailed.
"I've learned that if you breathe deeper in to your diaphragm you can get a higher note," she said, beaming yet another trick of the trade:
"If you smile while you're singing, you'll get perfect pitch!"
Thirteen-year-old Eric Hasselman, whose styling is of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" impressively echoed another Eric (Clapton, who played on the Fab Four's 1960s hit) said he's learned a thing or two from Camp Rock.
"I learned mostly to - how to work with a band, and how to, like know when to do certain things during a song," the young phenomenon-in-the-making said.
Stafford agreed, impressed that the kids are picking up an important tenet of the study: In music, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
"With these kids, you can see them exponentially improve, and it's that feedback off each other," Stafford said.
If dreams of stardom are a seed, all on hand agreed Camp Rock is water to its growth.
"We get so much out of seeing [the kids] light up," Stafford smiled, "and all of us [instructors] wish there were something like this when we were younger."
Amen to that, said young Madison Wardell: instruction without interference.
"I just think that it's cooler because we're not actually having teachers help," she said. "We're doing this as a band together, with no teachers. Well, the teachers are involved, but, you know."
Yes, it was obvious. The kids were getting a pitch-perfect blend of guidance - no pressure about playing the wrong note - a symphony's worth of inspiration.
On that note, I asked Henley how he'd like to headline a show at the Amphitheater some day as a professional touring musician.
"That would be awesome, that would be really cool!," he said, looking out at the seats.
Hasselman took the vantage point of the acts he's seen from those very same seats.
"I've seen bands here, and it's just cool seeing it from this point of view, looking out."
As for Wardell, she wasn't mincing words about rocking the house one day in the future.
"I'd just die ... of happiness!," she exclaimed with an important addendum any 12-year-old girl would confirm. "I'd also die of happiness if I met Justin Timberlake!"
Camp Rock includes a performance by the kids Friday at noon at St. Augustine Amphitheater. The concert is open to the public. Next week, they'll head in to the Eclipse studios to cut a CD.
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