- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 22, 2007

Bassist Chase Kaczmark plays the bouncy riff he has been working on for the rest of his band, Elevator Breakdown. The lead singer swivels in her chair across the room and complains “that happy thing” doesn’t fit with the moody tune the band has been working on all week.

Anyone who has seen a few episodes of VH1’s “Behind the Music” could predict what happens next: The bassist throws a drug-fueled tantrum and quits the band, forgotten forever as the rest of the group achieves fame while the fat royalty checks roll in.

Not at DayJams, a national rock ‘n’ roll camp with branches in Rockville and Alexandria. Chase, 15, and his bandmates are searching for the right chords in their afternoon songwriting class in Rockville.

“Like I said, this is democracy in action. Who wants it in the song?” instructor Ronnie Shaw asks the group members, who then vote with raised hands.

Camp director and former professional guitarist Chuck Underwood says campers pick up cooperation skills and self-confidence while they learn how to design a logo or use a wah-wah pedal.

Parents and potential campers who want more specialized options and personal attention than school or the average camp can provide are looking more and more to arts camps like DayJams. Children ages 8 to 15 with a passion for anything from clay to dancing can spend the summer learning.

While some camps focus on one type of art, others provide a plethora of options in one place — sometimes even in one day.

At Camp Arena Stage in Georgetown, for example, participants can jet from papier-mache sculpture to Directing 101 to African dance, all in the course of a morning. For two weeks ($900) or four ($1,600), campers attend six different arts-related courses every day, five of which they choose for the entire session and one that changes daily.

Moses Gurman, 13, strummed his guitar in Rock Band, his third daily class at Camp Arena Stage, while another camper tuned his bass and a third looked over a notebook of poetry she planned on turning into lyrics for a song. In the two years he’s been going to Arena Stage, Moses says his favorite class was on improv comedy: “You can be creative using the purest form of your imagination.”

Each afternoon following lunch, the camp comes together for the Noontime Show, which, for some reason, actually starts at 12:30. They take in anything from an aria sung by a classically trained counselor to the routine a dance class had been working on.

For the YouTube generation, this sort of variety is “absolutely key,” says Eric Lewanda of Olney. His 9-year-old daughter, Emily, is attending a few weeklong camps this summer at Sandy Spring Friends School’s sprawling campus in Sandy Springs.

SSFS offers more than 100 different one-week camps, including 36 that deal with the arts, for $300 to $400 per week. Camp director Stephanie Ugol says that the average SSFS camper does four or five camps in a summer, ranging from acting to soccer to rocketry.

Campers and camp instructors alike say that arts camps are educational and offer freedom and choice over the curricular constraints many students face during the school year.

On Fridays at SSFS cooking camp, parents are invited for a meal of baked ziti and mint brownies — made, of course, by their children. Between bites of brownie, parent Sharon Elstein of Derwood, says she looked for a place where her two boys wouldn’t be too regulated during the day, like they are at school.

Many other campers and instructors echo this sentiment; the key to a good camp is making it as unlike school as possible.

Ellie Cohen, 11, says she definitely prefers Camp Arena Stage to her art class at Bancroft Elementary in Columbia Heights.

“Our art teacher at school makes us do spelling tests,” she says.

Director of Art for D.C. Public Schools Paula Sanderlin says the District “recognized deficiencies in arts programming,” and says an additional $2.5 million was allotted this past year specifically for art. Still, elementary school students typically spend only 30 to 45 minutes a week in art class, leaving many children wanting more.

“Public school has such a limited amount of time, so the amount they can get into it is a lot different,” says Angeline Szoka, an assistant at Claymation Camp, one of the many short camps offered at Glen Echo Park. Each week a group of campers creates the set and characters for an original short movie.

Instructor Andrew Morgan says that it takes about two hours to produce a minute of film, but the 15 campers seated around the set waited patiently to record voices and sound effects for their characters.

Even children in private and parochial schools are looking to summer for better arts programming.

Anthony Brown, 9, says he never made anything in art class this past year at Landover’s Jericho Christian Academy like the colorful caterpillar puppet he made one day at Glen Echo’s Puppetry Company.

Allan Stevens, his instructor and co-founder of the Puppetry Company, has been teaching a puppetry class for children for 24 years. The weeklong program includes projects such as scarf marionettes and fuzzy animal hand puppets, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the company’s current production.

“[At school] we just make stuff from paper. They just give us two sheets and tell us to put it a certain way, and then she goes through the steps. We all draw the same thing,” Anthony says.

This is just the sort of “cookie-cutter” art that Tamar Hendel, director of the Create Arts Center in Silver Spring, says she tries to avoid. Create Arts also houses an art therapy program, so instructors at this summer’s two-week camp sessions — which include classes in pottery and weaving — are sensitive to each child’s growth and development as an artist.

Clay Harris, who teaches cartooning at the Create Arts Center, says art is “a good way [for children] to talk about their problems without actually talking.”

But don’t think that just because they’re young, the art is filled with pure intentions.

As soon as Elevator Breakdown heard a journalist was visiting the DayJams session, at least one future rock star perked up with visions of fame.

He shouts across the room, “Matt Stentson says, ‘Hi, Mom.’ ”