You're never too old to make music

Close to 300 people took part in the annual Midsummer Musical Retreat at Whitman College.

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WALLA WALLA - As far as cumulative age goes, the Midsummer Musical Retreat at Whitman College is probably the largest gathering of musicians over 40 attending a band camp in the United States.

"We don't take anybody younger than 18. Just us. This is for adults," said Mary Newton of Seattle, a clarinet player and support staff for the retreat.

But she did point out that there was one teen woodwind player this year, but she most likely came with a parent who was also a "camper."

"If you have kids (as a general rule), you have to leave them at home. This is just for campers," she added.

Not all the 300 "campers" were 40-plus. There were also a couple dozen in their late 20s. But the vast majority were older musicians who have played their instrument for decades in smaller community bands or by themselves.

"Some of the people that came here, this is their only chance to get to play in a big ensemble," Newton said, pointing out that the Midsummer Musical Retreat offers campers the chance to play in a full orchestra, full symphony and a number of smaller chamber groups.

Of course, not being full-time professionally paid musicians, some of the campers find it hard to keep up with the intense, weeklong practice schedule, Newton said.

"For campers, the biggest challenge is having the energy. Your arm gets tired. If you are a wind player, it's your mouth or lips," Newton said.

For Jeff Jennings of Cle Elum, Wash., it was the lips. Early Friday morning, the 30-year veteran trombone player sat with two other trombonists and one tuba player, getting coached by professional tuba player Ryan Schultz.

"Bah bah bah. Bah bah bah. Bah bah bah," Schultz called out like a drill sergeant in three-quarter time, over and over, until at last the four players mastered a fairly tricky section after the 14th measure of Hector Berlioz' Marche Hongroise.

"Count always. Don't listen. Count always. I think this is the hardest thing you will have to play at camp this week," Schultz said.

Many of the campers agreed, including Newton.

"It's a tough one. Berlioz is always a challenge. There are some tough licks. It's a challenge," she said.

But it was also a welcome challenge for Newton, Jennings and the many other campers, who often return year after year, one from as far away as Scotland, Newton said.

Even Jennings, a first-time camper, said he would be back.

"I'm already booking the week out for next year. I want to come back and have fun, and it's a good learning experience," he said.

Later Jennings recalled what friends said when the retired computer programer told them where he was going to spend a week this summer.

"The response was, ‘You are going where?' I am going to band camp for adults," he said, laughing.

The cost of the camp runs just under $950, and includes meals and lodging on campus, as well as numerous small group practice sessions.

The instructors are made up of roughly 30 professional musicians, many of whom are employed full-time with major symphonies like the Seattle Symphony. And none of them are snobs, Newton pointed out.

"One of the other things they (the instructors) have is the appreciation of amateur music. They have to want to share their skills with us," Newton said.

So while other adults are heading to their much loved vacation destinations, at Whitman College the campers came together for their love of music.

"Where in the middle of summer can you have the opportunity to play, play, play?" Newton said. She added that even in their downtime, the campers still make beautiful music together.

"Every once in a while you find yourself in a small chamber group with a coach and a small group, and everything is just magic ... and when there is a little spare time, which there isn't enough of, people are always grabbing each other and saying ‘let's go play.'"

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