School band isn’t a perfect fit for some kids — even for the musicians among them. Some desire to enhance their performing abilities and get a chance to stand out while rocking the house.
That’s a concept that Walt Hetfield of Mr. Hetfield’s Rock & Roll Summer Camp, based in Rehoboth Beach, had in mind when he first started the camp 18 years ago.
The two-week day-camp, held in late July and early August each summer, draws children ages 8 to 16 from all over Sussex County each summer — many of them from the Cape Henlopen and Indian River school districts. Hetfield said even kids coming to the area on vacation with their families have attended the camp.
The longtime music teacher at Rehoboth Elementary School and the frontman for the Buddy Holly tribute band Oh Boy!, Hetfield has also taught children from New Jersey, Maryland and even Virginia.
Hetfield said he recognized from personal experience that school band programs often lack in creativity and do not give kids the opportunity to express themselves and stand out. As a child, Hetfield said, he was not satisfied playing the trumpet in his school band but found a creative refuge in learning how to play the guitar, which was not an instrument offered at his school.
At Rock & Roll Summer Camp, Hetfield said, students get the chance to play in small groups and have their musical talents be heard and developed. He said the program increases their confidence and gives them a taste of what performing as a professional musician is really like.
“I don’t believe in virtual reality,” Hetfield said.
He said he thoroughly believes that getting kids on stage and exposing them to the ins and outs of performing is an important skill for them to have as young musicians. And, Hetfield said, the kids get excited about being on stage and getting the chance to be actively involved while working together and making music.
“Kids just like to do things,” he said. “They like to be actively engaged in whatever activity it is.”
Hetfield said that, this year, he has about 20 kids in the camp — guitar players, bass players, drummers, keyboardists, brass and singers. Prior to coming to camp, all of them are expected to have some musical training in the instrument they wish to play.
During the first days of the camp, Hetfield and other staff members teach the group new songs. (He noted the addition of a smartboard as a great learning tool.) Depending on which song each child wants to perform, groups are created, making smaller bands out of the larger mass of kids.
He said he allows the kids to choose their groups “organically,” depending on who they had the best chemistry with. Some of the older students tend to drift toward each other or more experienced musicians, Hetfield added.
The camper’s aren’t limited in how many times they can attend the camp. Once they move beyond the 8-to-16-year-old range, some campers have continued their Rock & Roll Summer Camp experience by becoming counselors.
Justin Fisher, 17, can hardly remember how many years he has been a part of the camp, but he guessed it was about 10. Fisher, a drummer, said he has been a counselor for a number of years now and has enjoyed helping the younger campers with their percussion skills.
“It’s such a blast,” Fisher said. “I even find it’s more fun as a counselor.”
Younger campers said they have already gotten a lot out of the camp. Frankie, 10, said the highlight of his learning experience has been figuring out how to play songs on his own. He and his cousin, Lynden, 9, said they were both most looking forward to performing during the camp’s two life performances, in Lewes and Dewey Beach.
Grace, 13, said that her biggest highlight is the friends she has made in the multiple years she has attended the program.
In his second year at the camp, 11-year-old Cian Titus is not only playing the electric guitar — an instrument he’ll play in the rock band at Southern Delaware School of the Arts this fall — but opted to try bass on the classic tune “Wild Thing.”
“I wanted to expand my range instruments,” he said. “I just wanted to try it,” he added of the bass, which he noted his godfather, Al “Big Loud Al” Cook, plays professionally with the classic rock band Tranzfusion.
Along with learning their songs and practicing their instruments, throughout the week, the students are also exposed to several different activities from the music industry.
On Thursday, they were set to see Love Seed Mama Jump perform at the Rusty Rudder. Hetfield said he feels it is important for the young musicians to see how a successful band uses proper stage presence and musical technique.
The campers will also go to B&B Music in Lewes, where they will be taught how to use musical equipment, such as amplifiers. They’ll also get to take part in a real recording session at Mid-South Audio in Georgetown, so they can get a feel of how they sound when they play together and how making a recording works.
Hetfield added that he wanted the kids to have a very busy week because that, too, mimics the lifestyle of a real musician.
“It’s really crazy at some points, but we get a lot accomplished,” said Asia, 13.
All of the hard work the campers put in during the first week of camp and beyond goes into the preparation for two live performances by the groups. Their first concert will be Monday, July 31, at Bethany Blues in Lewes. Then, on Aug. 3, the bands will have a special opportunity to open up for Love Seed Mama Jump at the Rusty Rudder in Dewey Beach.
The Rudder makes an exception for that night, allowing people younger than 21 to attend the camp’s performance before Love Seed Mama Jump takes the stage.
After the two performances, the students are rewarded for their hard work with a pizza party on the final day.
“It’s all about preparation,” Hetfield of how hard the kids work to achieve their goal. “You prepare them for the moment.”