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There’s a special kinship at this camp, and it starts with music.

The UW Summer Music Clinic — attended by countless thousands of Wisconsin students during its history — celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. In its modern incarnation, the “clinic” is essentially a week of intensive musical study and fun for middle and high schoolers, most of whom stay in UW-Madison dorms and spend their days sharing and building their love of instrumental and choral music.

The program’s near-century of summers will be lauded June 27 at a Summer Music Clinic 90th Anniversary Celebration held on campus at the University Club. The $25 fee to attend the celebration will benefit the long-running camp and scholarships (the deadline to purchase tickets is Wednesday).

The camp originally was designed for music instructors, said current director Elizabeth Snodgrass.

“The very first clinic did not have students — it was just for teachers — because unlike in other fields, math and so forth, there were not clinics on helping teachers learn to teach. So a bunch of music educators got together and said, ‘Let’s try this.’

“Soon after that, they started inviting the teachers’ students to the clinic, and it just grew from there,” she said.

Between 350 and 400 students attend the camp each week, Snodgrass said. One week is designed for middle-school-aged musicians, followed by a week designed for high-school-aged. The majority are from Wisconsin, but students come from across the Midwest and as far away as Arizona, California, New York and London, England.

One of its most well-known graduates is Broadway and TV star Nathaniel Stampley, also a UW-Madison graduate.

The Milwaukee native first heard about Summer Music Clinic from a cousin who attended “and I always wanted to do whatever he did,” Stampley recalled.

When Stampley himself went to camp during the summers of 1989, 1990 and 1991, “It was the first time as a teenager that I was surrounded by singers and instrumentalists who were all excited about music. There were beautiful summer days, yet you’d hear singers, violinists, horn players warming up or practicing in their rooms after classes,” he wrote in an email.

“This was the first time that I was completely surrounded by musicians (and) didn’t have to explain my love and passion for music and the arts,” Stampley said.

“I had never heard a double-bass concert previous to my summers at SMC and it was sublime. Those summers opened my eyes and ears to appreciate the pursuit of dreams and possibilities. I have always carried that with me in my career.”

A broad musical education

The clinics are built around large ensembles, such as concert band, orchestra, choir, jazz ensemble and musical theater. That includes two hours of rehearsal every day, led by conductors from around the state and even around the world.

“That gives kids the opportunity to work with people they might not otherwise be able to in their home towns,” Snodgrass said.

Students also get small-group instruction on their instruments or in singing, then get to select “from a whole variety of class electives that are designed to support them as a developing musician. That can mean skill-building, or building their knowledge of the fundamentals that support music education, such as music theory, music history — and even beyond that, trying to expose them to a broader sense of the arts through disciplines such as spoken word or hip hop,” she said.

“This year, we have someone coming to teach about a form of composition called melharmony,” she said. The point is “to get kids exposed to the many different facets of music, not just that ensemble experience.”

Ben Jaeger, band director at Memorial High School (and the Madison Area Music Association’s 2014 Teacher of the Year), has taught classes at Summer Music Clinic such as the history of rock, music theory and tuba. Now the camp’s director of residential life and engagement, Jaeger was formerly a counselor and even a camper himself for three years.

He recalls how Stampley, a camp counselor when Jaeger was a student, “stayed up after hours to talk to me about college and careers — and it meant a lot to me,” he said. “That is a shining example of the caring staff that we employ to this day.”

No auditions

Through its 90 years, the camp has had its challenges: A polio epidemic, students being displaced by military personnel who used the dorms during World War II, even the growth of competing music camps in recent years.

“None of these major challenges ever seemed to threaten the camp itself,” Snodgrass said. “It was always, ‘OK, what do we have to do to make this happen?’”

Students attending Summer Music Clinic don’t have to audition to get in; their only tryout is for about five minutes at check-in so instructors can place them in the ensemble that will challenge them, but allow them to “learn the music in front of them in a short amount of time and perform in the concert (for parents) at the end of the week,” Snodgrass said. “So it’s a very accessible and inclusive camp in that regard.”

Top players in 11th grade who are Wisconsin residents can also audition for one of 10 tuition waiver awards — four years of free undergraduate tuition at UW-Madison or UW-Milwaukee.

Jaeger was a scholarship recipient, as was Kate McRae, today the vocal music teacher and musical theater director at Lodi High School. McRae started out as a camper at Summer Music Clinic, won a UW-Madison tuition remission scholarship through the camp, returned as a counselor and now is a teacher.

Since her first time as a camper, “I have been at Summer Music Clinic every summer, with one exception,” McRae said.

“The amount of ideas that I’ve received from camp — there’s no possible way to number that,” she said. “Every summer I go to camp, I’m rejuvenated, excited and inspired by these wonderful young musicians who come to share their talents with each other for a week. It’s a beautiful, magical week.”

Richard “Dick” Wolf, professor emeritus of music, spent his entire career at UW-Madison involved with developing programs for young musicians and their teachers. He attended Summer Music Clinic in 1947 and 1948 — an experience that “reinforced my desire to become a music educator,” he said. While teaching at Edgewood High School and also serving as a teaching assistant in the UW Band department, he spent five summers in the late 1950s and early 1960s on staff at the music clinic library, learning more about the literature for band, chorus and orchestra.

He rose to Music Clinic director in 1962, a job he held through 1973.

“To be overseeing a program that had the possibilities of affecting the lives of so many young musicians was exciting and challenging, to say the least,” said Wolf, who noted that many students at the camp make life-long friendships with other young musicians.

“People have been coming back literally for decades. There are people who are coming back for their 31st year working at Summer Music Clinic,” Snodgrass said.

“I think that is a huge testament to the culture of the camp — a lot of people talk about it like it’s ‘coming home,’” she said. “Every summer, this is home, this is family — we come every year to be together and share in that joy of making music together.”

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