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Countdown to the Grammys: Band camp - on a major scale

High-schoolers learn the ins and outs of the music business and more from seasoned pros.

February 07, 2013|By Gerrick D. Kennedy, Los Angeles Times

Staples Center is bustling with activity ahead of Sunday's Grammy Awards. Red carpets are being rolled out, producers are going over the run of the show, and chart-topping artists are polishing their performances.

Just two miles away, in USC's Grand Ballroom, another type of Grammy-related rehearsal is taking place. The music director for Latin superstar Juanes stands in the middle of a seven-piece band giving its members pointers on how to play "Me Enamora." However, the musicians intently running through the track aren't employed by the Grammy-winning singer. In fact, they haven't even graduated from high school yet.

The musicians are courtesy of Grammy Camp — Jazz Session, a program dedicated to mentoring young players and teaching them the ins and outs of the music industry. The 32 high-schoolers came from around the country last week, sponsored by the Grammy Foundation, to learn from seasoned veterans such as Juanes — and to play various shows leading up to Sunday's ceremony.

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Grammy Camp — Jazz Session is one of the handful of learning initiatives offered by the foundation. Another is Grammy in the Schools, which raises money for music education in classrooms, which increasingly has lost public funding.

The foundation was established in 1989 "to cultivate the understanding, appreciation and advancement of the contribution of recorded music to American culture," but the nonprofit hasn't been immune to criticism, especially during C. Michael Greene's controversial leadership of the Grammys from 1988 to 2002, when the way charitable funds were spent was called into question.

Today, the foundation has living proof of its work. At USC, the Grammy campers will play two shows: One for more than 800 L.A-area high school students and another with Juanes.

In between songs at the rehearsal, two lanky guitarists nervously tune their instruments, a professional background singer helps a student with enunciation of the Spanish-language lyrics while a saxophonist ogles the oversized Grammy replica that towers over one side of the stage. The music director helps a nervous drummer find the rhythm on congas.

During their 10 days in L.A., the teens will undergo more intensive music training from even more industry professionals. They'll appear on CBS' "omg! Insider," record an album that will be issued through EMI Music and, of course, attend the Grammys.

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And as with other musicians, they'll experience the joy of swag.

Shortly after their arrival Friday, Grammy campers Adrian Cota and Frederic Griggs surveyed the rows of bronze and gold-plated cymbals that lined the wall of the music company Zildjian in Burbank.

They were adding their names to a list of musicians, including multiplatinum drummers Adrian Young of No Doubt and Travis Barker of Foo Fighters, who have visited the appointment-only facility for equipment.

The two teen drummers took turns banging on the metal discs with their drumsticks, smiling wide when the crashing noises were to their liking.

With virtual carte blanche in the shop, their selections (which cost upward of $500 each) would be theirs to keep. Zildjian, one of the camp's sponsors, will also send a cymbal to each participant's school.

Griggs struggled to hide his excitement. "I've never even been out of my time zone," laughed the senior from Carlisle, Pa. He then stepped outside, where a chauffeur arrived in a black Mercedes-Benz to cart him and Cota back to their hotel.

Grammy Camp — Jazz Session started in 1993, and its alum include singer-pianist Peter Cincotti, New York Philharmonic bassist David Grossman, pianist Aaron Parks and Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Gerald Clayton. Each year, students are selected through an application process that includes uploading a video audition to YouTube.

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David Sears, executive education director for the Grammy Foundation, says the camps — there also are summer incarnations in L.A. and New York and a basic training career day — are about taking students beyond what they are exposed to in school.

"What about those students who are really serious about wanting to explore a career in music? How could we give them a leg up," Sears said. "Grammy Camp is about that next step and giving some in-depth instruction over a nine- or 10-day period.

"It's better that they find out at 16 or 17 that they don't want to pursue music than knock their head against the wall at 35 looking for a change."

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