Summer Camp on Flathead Lake

Sounds of music on Flathead Lake



Every year for two weeks, a small bay on the west shore of Flathead Lake is filled with the sounds of music.

In a large wood-frame chapel at the Methodist church camp in Rollins, 50 high school music students from around Montana file into their seats. They take their places, adjust their music stands, and after a quick warmup and instructions from director Ron Predl, they launch into a melancholy rendition of "American Elegy," a tribute to students killed in the Columbine High School massacre.

The song, with its soft trumpet notes that resemble taps, floats out of the chapel over the lake, where a pleasure boat slowly chugs past. For these 140 music students, mostly from Montana, the annual Flathead Lake Music Camp is an intense week devoted to rehearsals and studying music theory. Their days last from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., with only an hour and a half left for recreation. The students can choose to participate in jazz band, concert choir, and jazz choir.

Unlike some music camps that offer just one area of study, this camp gives students a chance to cross over into other areas of music. The several small cabins around the Methodist camp become studios, where instructors and small groups devote time to specific instruments like saxophone or clarinet. The camp, in its eighth year, is a labor of love for the instructors. They come from around the nation, representing some of the top in their fields, and are only paid enough to meet their travel expenses, says Bob McCandless, a music teacher in Lakeside and one of the camp's founders. For $280, campers get a full week of room, board and music instruction. Obviously the camp barely breaks even, but it's enough to keep it going.

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"The instructors do it because they like coming here," instructor Scott Jones says. "We like coming to this place. And of course I bring my boat." Jones taught music in the Flathead Valley and worked at the camp in the early days, but has since moved to Spokane to teach music. He keeps coming back. During the rehearsal of American Elegy, Jones sat in the back of the chapel in one of the hard wooden pews. Seeing that the percussion section needed some help, he jumped up, trotted down the aisle and into the back of the band, where he clapped his hands and pounded his fists into the air to help the young players keep time. Perhaps the long days of music were too much for one student, a saxophonist, who nodded off in the front row. Girls in the clarinet section giggled when he jumped to attention.

This is Laura Jolliff's second year in a row at the camp. The sophomore from Belgrade sees it as an excellent opportunity for her to expand her musical horizons. "You come here and you are totally focused on music," she says. You just play and play and play. We get some breaks, and they feed us, but it's a lot of hard work." She'll take what she learned at camp back to her classmates at Belgrade High School. "I want to help make them better musicians with what I've learned." For Jolliff, music is not just notes on a page. "Music gives me a better knowledge of life," she says. "Without music, there would be nothing to help you through life. It's the one thing that can express how you feel."

The music camp is a rewarding experience for the student because of the close-knit faculty, says Predl, a director of music and fine arts from the University of Tulsa. "This is a real opportunity for me to continually sharpen my skills as a teacher and player," he said. The camp has continued to grow since it was founded in 1985. The first year it had eight staff instructors and about 30 students. This year, although down from the year before, there are about 135 students between the two week-long sessions, and 27 instructors.

Doug Straun is a former member of the Carpenters music group who has been coming to the Flathead Music Camp since it began. He credits the camp's success to the faculty's desire to help students — musically and personally. "What makes this camp so strong is that each instructor believes that each student is given a gift," Straun said. "And it is our job to enhance that gift and bring it out. Everybody checks their egos at the gate when they come here. This whole thing is about the kids, and helping them grow. "You never know who you're going to touch, or how. It's so exciting to see that change in a person."

Straun and McCandless have been friends for over 35 years, and have worked closely, on a tight budget, to keep the camp alive since Martie Shiffman first had the idea. Schiffman helped keep the camp financially solvent until it was able to at least break even, McCandless said. McCandless wants to see the camp continue to grow from a shoestring operation to one with more corporate support, so that it can purchase equipment for needy students.

"This is not about money," McCandless says. "This is about giving back to something that has done so much for us." 

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