The Academy of Musical Performance (AMP) Summer Camp has long been the go-to local program for young musicians who want to go from rock-star hopefuls to accomplished players.
AMP’s after-school and summer programming managed to continue throughout the pandemic. Executive director Will Sturgeon and his team are now preparing for a return to an in-person AMP Summer Camp, which will run from July 12-31. The application period for the camp, for students in grades 6-12, closes this Wednesday, May 19; visit ampcv.org for more info.
“AMP has been running as an online program since March of last year,” Sturgeon said. “We did an online summer camp last year, which was good for what it was. To take group-music-making programs online was definitely a challenge, but we had a really great time last year, and our students learned a lot about recording, making music videos, and stuff that they can do from their home safely.
“Through the fall and spring, we also ran programs like that, but a couple of months ago, AMP’s rock-band program held a limited in-person session where we were rehearsing outside. We’ve been holding rehearsals outside since about mid-March for our spring session, and that’s been a nice way of dipping our toes back into things. It’s been great to actually work in-person with people again—and play music at the same time as each other.”
Sturgeon said this will be the sixth in-person iteration of the AMP Summer Camp.
“We have a great partner in Hope Lutheran Church who lets us use their facility in Palm Desert,” he said, “We’ve got great instructors lined up, and we’ve got a bunch of good students who are signing up right now. In many ways, it’s not going to be that different from previous years; we’re just going to get back into the groove of setting everything back up again for an in-person session after two years of not doing it.”
One of the biggest changes in the AMP program is the addition of a recording curriculum.
“Recording is such a big part of being a musician these days,” Sturgeon said. “Everybody theoretically has access to the tools to be able to do it, and we’ve always tried to figure out ways to integrate that—but there’s such a threshold for recording programs that we find in universities or even in high schools, where there’s a lot of expensive equipment. … AMP is all about being affordable and accessible, so we’ve been trying to figure out ways to integrate recording into our program in a way that isn’t going to cost us or the students a whole bunch of money.
“This pandemic taught us how to use the tools that we have. We’ve found a couple of high-quality tools to record on, and figured out ways that we can do remote recording and teach recording to students using only the equipment that they have—which is essentially just a phone or a laptop. We’ve come out with a bunch of really great recordings and music videos from student bands who have essentially just recorded from their homes, using whatever tools that they have.”
Those recording tools allowed AMP students to create the first-ever AMP album. You can listen to it here.
“We put out an album, Vol. 1, in May of last year,” Sturgeon said. “There were six or seven songs from our program bands at the time, and then about 10 songs from our AMP alumni bands and different projects that they’ve put out. In the fall, we did the AMPys, which is a livestream showcase, which you can find on our YouTube channel. That features a whole bunch of the recordings from the fall band program.
“The spring bands also have a recording coming out soon, but not on an album. … We don’t have plans as of right now for AMP album Vol. 2, but I’m sure it will be coming before the end of 2021.”
While the pandemic has subsided to the point where AMP students can learn in-person again, not everything yet is back to “normal.”
“Our spring program is our first program that we’ve held in person in a year, and we had to modify it,” Sturgeon said. “We’re doing it outside at a private residence. It’s not as convenient as having our AMP studio all set up and ready to go, and we have to deal with wind and rain, but it’s been great to have a place where we can actually play music.
“Coming up to the summer, we don’t have outdoor options. We’re trying to figure out what the deal is going to be in terms of masking and social-distance protocol in July. It’s still a couple of months out. Pfizer (has) vaccines available for 12-to-15-year-olds … so we’ll see. … If we’ve got to wear masks to do it, I think that’s a compromise that everybody’s willing to make at this point. We’re a community organization, and my first priority is to keep our community safe.”
While in-person learning is back, Sturgeon said he, his team and his students learned a lot of lessons from being online—some of which are being worked into the fabric of the program.
“Right now in our spring program, we’ve got one band who is rehearsing once a week, and then meeting on Zoom another time once a week, and essentially doing a recording project together using this remote recording software,” Sturgeon said. “I’d love to be able to do more stuff like that for our more experienced campers who are looking to really dig in. We’re an afterschool program, and it takes a lot of energy for these kids to be doing two AMP things a week—learning the songs and being ready for rehearsal, and also being ready for recording and mixing. We’re trying to figure out the best balance, programming-wise, to offer that.
“One of the beautiful things about everybody getting used to being on Zoom is that we can have more flexibility with programs where we can teach the kids other stuff when they don’t have an instrument in their hands. It’s really hard to teach them anything other than music, because their passion for music is their No. 1 thing that’s driving them. Getting them into a situation where they’re not together playing music, it opens up other possibilities in terms of what middle school kids are willing to learn.”
I asked Sturgeon if he envisions a version of the camp that features more original music than cover songs, considering that more time is now being spent learning how to play and record music.
“During our summer camp, there’s so much original music written,” said Sturgeon. “During our year-round programs, because they meet once a week for two hours, there’s just a little less time to actually get together and write original music, which is why we see a lot more cover music, because that’s stuff that the kids can learn on their own time and then bring ready to rehearsal. … That’s why I encourage all the kids to go to the summer camp, because we can really get so much more done, and they can express so many more things than they can in our afterschool programs. I’m not saying anything bad about our afterschool programs; I think they’re lovely, and they’re really, really fun, but summer camp is a whole other beast.”
Speaking of whole other beasts, AMP is also planning a short summer camp for younger aspiring musicians, called preAMP.
“It’s a three-day camp in August for third- through fifth-graders,” Sturgeon said. “They can have musical experience, but they don’t need any. We teach them their favorite songs on ukulele, and they get to sing in a group. It all tops off with a public performance on Friday, Aug. 6, at Hope Center. It’s a really great program; we’ve got a fantastic ukulele teacher with a great résumé, and it’s just a really good time. We’ve got 40 slots open for that.”
The results of AMP’s presence are visible throughout the valley’s music scene.
“We’re now five or six years in, so a lot of those students who came in our first years as middle-schoolers are now either later in their high school career, or they’ve graduated from high school,” shared Sturgeon. “There are some great bands (with AMP alumni) out here like Israel’s Arcade, Pescaterritory, Lauren Varela, Brayden Davlantes, Silver Sky—all of these great original music-makers and performers are really making waves. On the other side of things, things people don’t really see, we’ve got kids who are graduating from high school and applying to universities that have really good music programs, and are getting full-ride scholarships to these music universities. … It is really heartwarming to me, and that’s why we do it.”
Sturgeon is motivated, in part, by the desire to give youngsters something he didn’t have.
“I grew up here in the Coachella Valley playing music as a songwriter,” he said. “It was my dream to play Coachella growing up here—and there just wasn’t anything like AMP. When I’m designing these AMP programs, I think of what would I have wanted and needed as a kid growing up here in the Coachella Valley. We’re a nonprofit. We don’t have to exist, so I’m really proud that we’re in our sixth year, and it’s really a unique opportunity that I hope people take advantage of. We keep our tuition costs low; we offer tuition assistance, and we try to just make it accessible and affordable to whoever wants to be a part of it.”
The application deadline for AMP Summer Camp is Wednesday, May 19. For details, visit ampcv.org.