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Meyer Music and Band of Angels Make The University of Kansas’ Midwestern Music Camp Possible for 2020

Victoria Wasylak • October 2020Retail • September 28, 2020

The University of Kansas’ Midwestern Music Camp has been a place of learning and refuge for band and orchestra students since 1936.

In 2020, for the first time in 85 years, it almost didn’t happen– almost.

As the country braced for major changes this summer due to COVID-19, Mike Meyer of Meyer Music and Band of Angels stepped in with the funds and know-how to take the camp to the virtual world this year. His generosity resulted in roughly 1,930 children from 46 states – and multiple countries – receiving three days of online classes at no cost.

“It’s the second oldest camp in the United States,” Meyer shares. “The music camp was very worried – they didn’t want to see it take a year off and break the streak.”

Little did Meyer know at the time that his efforts in the music education world had been leading up to this moment. On top of serving his family’s Missouri and Kansas-based MI shop, Meyer founded Band of Angels 10 years ago to put used instruments in the hands of underserved children who wouldn’t be able to play music otherwise. Over its decade of service, the non-profit organization has grown significantly, and began to offer scholarships to summer music programs as well. Last year alone, Band of Angels sent 103 kids to the summer music camp of their choice on full scholarships, in effect paying for $80,000 worth of registrations and tuition. The financial support comes from outpourings of donations from folks in the Kansas City area, as well as the manufacturing community in the United States. As this summer approached and it became apparent that summer music camps wouldn’t be able to occur in person, Meyer easily switched gears and began organizing a virtual camp via Zoom with the University of Kansas.

“We’ve been preparing for things like this for so long, we just didn’t even know it,” Meyer says. “I was already used to spending $60,000, $70,000, $80,000 on sending these kids to camp because we – not only as Meyer Music, but as Band of Angels – are raising money to make this happen. When it became apparent really quickly that camps aren’t going to happen, I already had the funding that I was going to spend to send kids to camps. We funneled that money into this virtual camp to make sure that we did it right.”

Meyer was able to send some children to camps that weren’t cancelled, but most of this year’s funding went to creating an all-online version The University of Kansas’ Midwestern Music Camp, which was held from June 15 to 17.

“They [the university] reached out to me first because we have developed this fantastic relationship,” Meyer says. “For the last six years, I’ve been sending 30 to 60 kids to their camp. Band of Angels has become a very big presence at that camp, sending underserved kids, financially disadvantaged kids, kids with emotional issues that needed music to this camp, and they’ve embraced that. And what’s funny is they don’t single the kids out. They don’t wear anything different than everybody else does. They don’t go to any different classes than everybody else does. They just are there.”

When the university contacted Meyer with the idea of a Zoom camp, he hopped on board immediately, offering to pay for the staff, advertising on social media, and the tuition for every student. Meyer also paid for two of the four guest artists who hosted live sessions, while Yamaha paid for the other two (more on that later).

The response to the camp’s new format was overwhelming: 900 kids signed up to participate within the first two days of registration. Meyer and the university had originally hoped for 500 to 600 children, total. By the time the camp started, nearly 1950 kids were sitting in. While Meyer reports that the “vast majority” of the students hailed from Kansas and Missouri, 40-plus states were represented in total, as well as kids from Mexico, Switzerland, Canada, Ukraine, and Hungary.

Midwestern Music Camp stepped up to plate, offering 72 virtual group sessions, and just shy of 300 individual lessons. To fully complete course, students had to tune into three sessions per day, but as Meyer and the KU staff quickly found, students stayed plugged in for the duration of the camp. “They blew that number completely away,” Meyer says. “Talk about being inspired during a crisis.”

While Meyer and Yamaha both helped to pay for guest sessions, Meyer says that his longstanding relationship with Yamaha helped to snag some top-tier talent for the camp: “We paid for two of the artists to bring nationally known people that would typically not have been able to kind of do the camp in most cases, to do it from their home.”

Over 300 students tuned into a session by Kat Rodriguez, tenure Bari Sax player for Beyoncé. George Shelby, a saxophone player who plays for the Grammy Awards and on “American Idol,” and violinist Matt Stallings also offered sessions. For a truly well-rounded experience, 19-year-old Grammy-nominated producer Imani Presley did a session on producing music, where she explained the software that she uses. To finish the camp on a social note, over 800 kids tuned into “bunker bingo” to play via Zoom.

“Because so much has been shut down nationally, giving young musicians the chance to interact with professionals unique to their instruments felt even more important this summer,” says Dr. Matt Smith, KU’s associate director of bands and Midwestern Music Camp’s director. “With the economic impact of the COVID situation, we’re seeing more events go virtual. But, I haven’t seen anything that has attempted the size and scope of our music camp this summer. Campers from 46 states and multiple countries, such as Mexico, Hungary, and Switzerland participated.”

Meyer and some of his staff were able to tune in for much of the camp, which left them equally awestruck and full of pride. Once day, Meyer asked an employee how many students were in a clarinet session, expecting about 30 kids. There were 166.

“I was like, ‘You’re kidding me. 166 clarinet players?’” Meyer recalls. “I mean, I get goosebumps thinking about it. It was so cool to see kids who during the middle of the summer, [who] could be outside doing any number of things, and they wanted to learn and sit in front of that computer with their clarinet, or their harp, or their trombone, and study music. It was just so cool.”

For children who might have missed a session they wanted to virtually “attend,” the university sent out recordings of the camp to everyone who had registered, offering another unexpected benefit to the camp’s digital format.

In fact, even when things return to “normal” and it’s safe for children to congregate for lessons and rehearsals again, Meyer hopes that the camp can still maintain a virtual element going forward. Between allowing more students to participate, and bringing a camp to students who don’t have any music camps near them, keeping Zoom in the fold for the future feels like a win for everyone.

“I don’t want to see this component of this camp go away,” he says. “We have to make sure that we keep a component of this camp that makes that available and accept everybody out there who wants to. And it doesn’t cost that much to make that available.”

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