RICHMOND — Every summer, hundreds of young musicians throughout the United States gather on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University to hone their skills at the nation’s second-oldest music camp.
For the 82nd year, a distant chorus of music and voices is echoing through the halls of the EKU’s Foster Music Building and across the sleepy summer landscape of the campus.
Founded in the midst of the Great Depression, the Stephen Collins Foster Music Camp has grown significantly throughout the years, and this summer boasted a record enrollment of more than 700.
Only the famous Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan has a longer history of offering students a chance to improve their musical skills.
Thanks in part to its long history, the Foster camp boasts a list of impressive alumni, with many campers the second and, sometimes, third generations in their families to attend.
For Megan Gentry, 19, the Foster camp feels like a home away from home for a seventh year.
Like many campers, Gentry started attending the Foster camp while a middle schooler in Estill County. Now, the rising sophomore and music education major at EKU is serving as a camp counselor.
“I couldn’t leave it,” Gentry said. “I wanted to stay involved, so I jumped at the chance to be a camp counselor. I wanted to be able to help others and make the experience special.”
The counselor said she loves to see the look on campers’ faces when the “light bulb goes off” and they become more atuned to their instruments.
“It’s very rewarding and interesting to see the other side of the camp,” Gentry said. “As a camper, I was focused on doing my best and having fun. Now it’s up to me to help guide and teach others.”
Gentry said she feels a close bond to the camp that helped shape her future.
An oboeist, Gentry said the camp helped her learn more about her instrument and pushed her to work harder as a musician.
“The camp made me want to discover what I could do on my instrument, and my time here made me focus on my music and work harder and practice more,” Gentry said.
The counselor said she feels fortunate to have had an in-depth music camp like Foster in her back yard.
“It’s an amazing camp,” she said. “I was very lucky to have the opportunity to go to Foster and learn from some fabulous musicians and faculty at EKU. It’s great that we have this here in Kentucky. Without Foster, I would’ve had to travel pretty far to go to a similar camp.”
Gentry said her experience at the camp prompted her to take lessons at the college and apply to the music program.
“My time at the camp helped prepare me for college,” Gentry said. “I already knew what it was like to share a dorm with a roommate, eat in the cafeteria, get around the campus and I even knew quite a few of the professors.”
Gentry said she had forged such a close tie to the university that choosing to pursue her education at EKU was a no-brainer.
Ben Walker, director of the Foster camp, has a similar story and understands how the camp can create a lasting impression on students.
“It did for me,” Walker said. “I’m in my ninth year as director for the camp, but really I’ve had 17 years (of involvement) overall.”
Walker said one of the unique things about the camp that contributes to its popularity is the immersive experience.
“For three weeks, our campers get to concentrate on their music almost 24/7,” Walker said. “Not only that, but they also get to perform in large ensembles, which some students don’t get the opportunity to do until college.”
The camp also offers students the opportunity to learn from EKU professors and receive training specific to their instrument or voice part.
“A lot of students really appreciate that aspect of the camp,” Walker said.
“Unless you take private lessons, sometimes it’s hard to receive specific instruction on your particular instrument. In middle and high school, you are usually part of a large class and there simply isn’t enough time for a teacher or band director to offer that kind of instruction.”
Another aspect of the camp that makes it so popular, Walker said, is no audition is required to attend.
“That is one of things I like most about our camp,” he said. “We welcome all talent levels. Our goal is to help foster a deeper love of music and help students become better musicians. It can get competitive here, but it is more about learning how to get better and hone your skills.”
Gentry said another highlight for campers at the camp is the opportunity to perform in front of a larger audience.
The camp concludes with a large concert finale at the EKU Center for the Arts featuring performances by band, orchestra and vocal students.
This year’s concert will be at 6 p.m. Friday.
Throughout the camp, students also perform in several free concerts open to the public.
“We always encourage the community to come see our campers’ hard work and enjoy a free performance. For 82 years, the performances in the Ravine and other areas on campus have been a tradition at EKU,” Walker said. “In fact, it is what the Ravine was built for, initially.”
On Tuesday, a solo/honors recital will be at 6 p.m. in Gifford Theatre, and on Wednesday and Thursday, like-instrument and vocal solo recitals will be at 6:30 p.m. in Brock Auditorium and Gifford Theatre.