Kids keep cool by playing in a band at Young Band Nation

At one Baton Rouge summer camp, there’s no swimming, no sports, no arts and crafts.

Only rock ’n’ roll. And they like it.

For one week, young musicians at the Young Band Nation camp come together to jam, learn a few songs and get to know each other’s style. They become a band, complete with a band name.

And, at the end of the week, they play a gig.

“It’s performance based — sink or swim,” says Doug Gay, owner and director of Baton Rouge Music Studios, which runs the camp. “That’s where you learn to improvise. That teaches things they could never learn otherwise.”

When the campers arrive on the first day, the directors have already grouped them into three different bands based on their ages and abilities. They start playing right away.

Camp was on its third day at the Music Studios on Bluebonnet Boulevard, and 13-year-old Caroline Landreneau was getting ready to sing.

“How does the voice feel?” asks camp director Jason Wilson. “Good? We’ll do it from the tippity.”

With her right hand, 11-year-old Jillian Eskew plays a lilting melody on the keyboard, the opening notes of “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles. Caroline sits up straight, takes a breath and lets the notes flow. Her voice is rich, her eyes bright.

Caroline is a veteran of the band camp, here for the third time.

“At first I wasn’t that enthusiastic about singing in front of people …,” she says. “It’s really fun now. I’m basically looking forward to it every summer.”

While all the campers take music lessons throughout the school year, not all of them had played contemporary music with a band before.

“It just looked good, playing in a band,” says Jillian.

Besides, there’s less pressure than playing a piano solo.

“If you mess up, everyone will notice,” she says. “In a band, it’s a little bit different. Other people are listening to you and they may mess up if you do, but if everybody is playing together nobody will notice it.”

Young Rock Nation grew out of Doug Gay’s desire to combine traditional musical education with a fun, relaxed rock ’n’ roll atmosphere.

“I loved both, but I feel like that traditional music education world, they’ve got it down pat,” Gay says. “The kids who are participating in that get an exceptional education in music. There is a lack or a void that I wanted to fill that was on the other side.”

Growing up, Gay played percussion in marching and concert bands and formed bands outside of school.

A former band director at the Dunham School, he opened the Baton Rouge Music Studios in 2006 so he could tutor high school musicians studying for solo and ensemble competitions. But most of his clients were interested in rock.

“I was getting kids who wanted to learn Foo Fighters,” Gay said. “I’m like, that’s the universe or God telling me that’s where I need to be.”

One-on-one guitar, piano and drum lessons are the cornerstone programs at the Music Studios. Teachers stick to strict lesson plans, but they also try to help students get past the tough teen years.

“We help them through their awkward phases — 13, 14, puberty,” Gay says. “You’ve got a 38-year-old guy hanging out with you like you’re a peer. Definitely you can’t cross adult-kid lines. How can you inspire them if they don’t know who you are?”

So there’s goofing off and just enjoying music together.

Four years ago Gay was having difficulty keeping his Music Studios profitable. A team of business students from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux developed a business plan for a school project.

Every summer, revenues plunged as many students took time off from lessons. The business students wondered why the Music Studios didn’t offer summer camps.

The camps have grown over the past three years. The studios also offers an “American Idol”-style singing camp.

And there’s a camp focusing on sound engineering and production, which runs concurrently with the Young Band Nation Camp. Students learn to record, edit and mix the bands’ music. They produce CDs and digital music files of each band at the camp.

Most of the young producers already play music and wanted to learn the other side.

“You have to start problem solving and figuring out what is going wrong,” says 14-year-old Josh Campesi. “Most of the time, something is going to go wrong.”

On the last day of camp the three bands — The Elemental 5, Organized Chaos and Custodians of the Essence — play a live gig at Yvette Marie’s Café for their parents and friends.

Jillian and Caroline, joined by 9-year-old drummer Stephen Hampton, guitarist Austin Ardoin, 11, and camp director Wilson, filling in on bass, are The Elemental 5. They open the show, playing three songs and sounding like anything but a group of kids who met just a week before.

Parents crowd toward the front, recording the show on their phones.

The band rocks through “Love Song,” then The Beatles’ funky “Come Together.” For their finale, The Avett Brothers’ “Kick Drum Heart,” Caroline joins Jillian at the keyboard for the high-energy number with a little shouting.

“It fosters self confidence and independence to get up in front of that many people,” says Caroline’s proud mom, Amy Landreneau.

Gay likes that idea. Producing great musicians is not his only goal, he tells people.

“Music is not our main goal,” Gay says. “Our goal is to produce young people who are exceptional at whatever they are going to do because they have the mind-set to be successful.”