Ready to rock

HOUGHTON – To walk into the Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts this week is to be hit from music in all directions.

A band playing The Who on the main stage. Imagine Dragons downstairs. Katy Perry in the alcove.

It’s all part of PJ Olsson’s Rock Camp, which is in its second week of practices leading up to a final show 7 p.m. Saturday at the Rozsa.

This year’s show will include 42 young musicians, including 13 newcomers to the program, playing songs spanning decades and genres.

Olsson, creative director for the camp, said the returning campers are helping push toward the goal of a great final show.

“Having the kids that have experience already know that, makes it so we can rely on them a little bit and really work with the new kids and make sure they get an understanding and getting their feet secure,” he said.

The first couple of days of Rock Camp are spent putting together groups. Musical interests, talent level, instrumentation and personality all come into play. Each band then develops three to six songs, which are then evaluated to see how they’re progressing.

Along with showcases for artists, that creates about 40 to 50 songs with potential for the two-and-a-half-hour concert. Olsson then takes a look at the material and crafts it into a narrative – starting strong, lowering the temperature with solo acoustic spots, then raising it back up.

“We’ve really got to give people an emotional ride, so that they have fun, and they have a really great experience,” said Todd Brassard, program director for Rock Camp.

Most of the campers are making a return trip. Drummer Henry Ashburn first got involved in 2010 after hearing about it from friends who had been in the previous year.

“Over the years, I’ve had more of a leadership role in the band I’m in, and I’ve become part of more and more songs on the stage, so I’ve grown more as a leader and almost as an instructor over the years,” he said.

Noah Gershenson, a guitarist now in his third year, is excited about playing with more experienced Rock Camp musicians and gelling as a band. The songs he’s on are all over the board – “everything from Ed Sheeran to Guns N’ Roses.”

“It’s the best year,” he said. “We’re playing a lot of really cool songs. I’m just excited.”

Plenty more musicians were working in smaller groups in practice rooms. Cheyenne Kaufman, a second-year camper, was working on harmonies with Aliah Tadych and Marya Julio, both in their third years.

“It’s getting harder, because we’re getting more experienced, so they’re challenging us a little bit,” Tadych said. “They put us with people that we haven’t worked with very much in the past.”

They said the rock camp has given them a better understanding of the music business. That includes how to take care of their voice – little talking, and water and tea instead of caffeine and sugar.

Coaches said they’ve continually been impressed with the level of talent on display at the camp.

“One kid’s just like, ‘Oh, I just started playing guitar last year,'” said Dan Tracey, an Alan Parsons Live Project member who heard about the camp while on the tour bus with Olsson, who sings with the band. “I told him flat-out, ‘You’re playing an introduction there that would probably take me half an hour to figure out.'”

Hannah Bethel, a Copper Country native who is now a Nashville musician, has been an instructor for every Rock Camp. Though she had adult mentors, she wishes she could have had such an opportunity for a strong art program working with other kids.

“We’ve had kids come into this program who are shy and introverted and unsure of themselves,” she said. “They go through two weeks of Rock Camp, and the next year they come back and they’ve done a complete 180. They know who they are, they know what kind of music they want to sing, they are able to communicate to a group of people what they want to achieve. It’s just incredible to see the confidence that this program gives to these kids, not only in music and performing, but in communication with people in general. It’s awesome.”

Despite the inevitable chaos that comes with new people and new combinations of bands, everyone said it’s cohering into something special.

“I think it’s going to be a great show,” Ashburn said, the sounds of “Baba O’Reilly” pounding from behind the stage door. “If you can hear it out there right now, things are pretty rocking, and it’s going to be a good one.”

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