RealJams Academy, The Real School of Music’s premier week-long summer music program, has fostered the growth of more than a couple thousand young musicians since its inception in 2009. From immersion in programs such as: Join A Band, A Cappella, Musical Theater, and Audio Production, RealJams Academy is a summer camp truly like no other.
I had an opportunity to sit down with the Director of RealJams Academy, Bill Doss, alumni Leighann Hodgkins, and instructors James Towlson and Chris McKenney to chat about their experience with RealJams.
What is the greatest part about RealJams Academy?
Bill: RealJams Academy provides students with more life experience than parents realize. It’s not just about leadership or quality instruction, it’s about giving students the opportunity to become immersed in the music they enjoy, and a chance to allow them to just be themselves with other students who share the same passion.
We really try to emphasize with our students that they’re signing up to be a part of a team and it's all about the integrity of the song and about the band as a whole.
What sets RealJams Academy apart from other summer music camps?
Bill: It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing, but there are a few things in particular. The quality and attention to detail our staff provides throughout each week is something that may go unnoticed, but contributes to providing the highest quality audio recordings and music videos of each band.
The videos are another thing that sets us apart. Students shoot a themed music video and contribute to the process, from conceptualizing based on lyrics and song theme, to rehearsing, to shooting the final product. Putting together a music video is more about the process of shooting the video, which helps the students grasp the meaning of the lyrics and gain a stronger connection to the songs. We’re very excited to be able to offer the video development element as a part of the RealJams curriculum.
You started up a RealJams Academy program in Charlotte, NC?
Bill: Yes! We brought the RealJams Academy program to The Ballantyne School of Music in Charlotte, NC last year and it’s back by popular demand this summer. They just started their camp this week. Allen Gommez, who is the first non-Real School of Music instructor to run the program, has been training throughout the year to prepare for this week.
What can each student expect when they arrive for their first day at RealJams Academy?
Bill: Based on age, ability, and musical interest, we place students in the most appropriate band, and we really make an effort to guide the bands and make sure that they are working well together. We are very flexible and invested in making sure the students are placed in the best possible band for them, and we monitor the individual development to ensure that each student is learning and enjoying the experience.
By the end of the first day, students will know the band that they are a part of. Most often, students don’t know each other prior to starting our program, so it is a great experience for them to meet new people. They develop strong bonds with their band mates throughout their time together.
Can you elaborate more on how you make sure that each student is having the best experience possible during the program?
Bill: It is highly important to us that every student is involved equally in every song, performance, and the overall program. For example, one student might be more into writing lyrics while another may be interested in brainstorming the video concept. We divide up the roles and play to each students’ strengths.
Everyone gets to try new things and step outside of their comfort zone. Whether it’s trying a new instrument, or brainstorming the mood or direction of the song, we are committed to having everyone try something new and stay involved in the creative process.
Do you find that many of the same students return from year to year?
Bill: Yes! Even entire bands will return for consecutive weeks or years. Since we offer six different programs, even as student’s interests change, we have a program that works for everyone.
Leighann, speaking as a graduate of the program and now as a member of the staff, what was your experience like?
Leighann: RealJams was one of my favorite parts about being a student at Real School. You get to write your own music and meet new people that like the same things as you. It was always a positive experience and I learned more than just music skills. You gain leadership skills, you build self-confidence, and you learn how to effectively work in a team.
Bill, what qualities do you look for in your instructors?
Bill: Being totally committed and invested in the success of each student is required. We have an amazing team consisting of highly trained musicians, audio engineers, video producers and music educators.
Real School instructors James Towlson and Chris McKenney are great examples of our exceptional team. James is a songwriter in his spare time who has been singing and performing since the age of four, and Chris just put out an original album with his band, Supersona.
James and Chris, what do you love about being a part of RealJams?
James: Working with RealJams is one of the most energetic and invigorating jobs I've ever had! Working with the kids and being a part the process as they develop a song from its early stages to completion is truly amazing. I'm extremely happy to be a part of such a unique and fun program.
Chris: RealJams is the cutting edge of the Real School experience. First, we learn to play by ourselves. Then we learn to play with others, usually using other people's music as a template. Finally, if you're a hard worker with regard to your time, ears, practice and listening habits you may be lucky enough to be a creative, original musician. RealJams accelerates the process by providing instructor feedback from a producer's standpoint in a group setting to make the songwriting, arranging, and recording processes accessible, despite lacking the years spent honing the process.
I've seen young musicians totally transformed in the span of a week once they realized songwriting and creative processes were
totally separate from the this concept of "practice, practice... execution!" they have in their heads. I would recommend RealJams to any young musicians that can make it to us.
I understand that you have an intern program?
Bill: We do. We hire interns who are graduating high school with a career path in music in mind, and it’s a requirement that they are students who have already been through the RJA program. We call it the Intern-in-Training program. The interns that we’ve had for the past three years are students who have wanted to return year after year.
How has the curriculum grown over the years?
Bill: One thing that we’ve really worked on from year to year is integrating the programs more collaboratively. For example, students in the A Cappella program now have the opportunity to sing backup on recordings for the regular band tracks.
Students are very savvy with technology and we provide them an outlet to use the latest audio software. We provide the tools and teach them the terminology. In the recent years, we have moved over into using Logic and Pro Tools, which are the recording industry standards. Chad Maggs, one of our longest serving and important Real School instructors, leads the Audio Production Program.
In addition to the recording program, our A Cappella program is back by popular demand with instructor Tim Bongiovanni. The curriculum development is often lead by the interest and passion of the instructors. When an instructor is passionate about a certain style or area of focus in music, we’re more than happy to let them run with it.
What kind of feedback have you received about RealJams?
Bill: We’ve heard so many great stories over the years. A couple of years ago, a mom was in tears and told me that her son had become a bit reclusive in school and was very quiet. After seeing his performance, she said that she had never seen him let loose like he just did, that he didn’t care what anyone else thought, and he was on stage doing his thing.
Although it’s great to hear this kind of transformational feedback from parents, we see many breakthroughs and victories everyday.
How can parents learn more and sign up for the program?
Bill: Parents can learn more on the program page for kids, the programs for teens, or by contacting us at (888) 881-REAL. The full program schedule with dates is posted on the Real School site and it's easy to enroll online.
Any final thoughts?
Bill: I'd like to emphasize the potential long term impact. This program provides an outlet for students to express themselves through music unlike any other program. When our students age out of our programs on their way to college, they see the music and videos that they created like a time capsule of where they were during that time in their life.