SCHENECTADY — “Cacophonous” would be one way to describe the sounds that came out of Schenectady’s Emmanuel-Friedens Church on Wednesday. Inside, the kids from Hamilton Hill Arts summer arts camp held brand new recorders.
Their fingers clumsily found each tone hole and their cheeks puffed as they blew into the instruments. The recorders, which ranged in color from blue to pink to yellow, squeaked and squealed as the children learned to play their first notes.
But despite the instrumental wailing, the kids were smiling, and so was Joshua Nelson, the 27-year-old saxophonist who sat in front of the group and demonstrated the beginning notes of “Hot Cross Buns.”
“I was impressed that they were so engaged and they really seemed to enjoy it,” said Rachel Conn, the executive director of the Hamilton Hill Arts Center.
Nelson grew up in Schenectady, attending Pleasant Valley Elementary and eventually graduating from Schenectady High School. After receiving his Bachelor’s degree in Jazz Studies from SUNY Purchase in 2019, he moved to New York City, where he has been playing gigs and teaching music to others since.
He has made a brief return to Schenectady this week to perform at Jazz on Jay with the Art D’echo Trio on Thursday. On Wednesday, however, he made a stop at the Hamilton Hill Arts summer arts camp, a summer camp for Schenectady youth, to play his saxophone and demonstrate the basics of the recorder — his first instrument.
Together they snapped, clapped, hummed, and sang. The children learned about improvisation, music structure, and rhythm and, by noon they not only knew how to play Hot Cross Buns but also how to take the tune and turn it into their own musical creation.
“There you go!” Nelson would cheer when a child perfected a rhythm or played a particularly controlled note. “Perfect!”
According to Conn, the camp focuses particularly on teaching the children about culture and arts from the African diaspora. Bringing in Nelson, who is Black and Puerto Rican, was a direct way for the children to see Black success in the arts.
“The reason we focus on the art and culture of the African diaspora is because our greater society tends to ignore their contributions and, of course, we want the kids to see what their heritage has offered to the world and what they also can offer to the world,” Conn said.
Nelson recalled a lack of representation in his own childhood. He grew up listening primarily to gospel and R&B but found it difficult to find not only the music of his background but also people that looked like him performing in the local community.
“I had to do a lot of searching,” Nelson said. “Even though our community is so diverse up here, it’s not reflected in the music.”
This need for Black and Brown representation in music, he says, is one of the main reasons he enjoys teaching young kids and why he jumped on the opportunity to meet with the summer camp.
“My whole reason to coming back is just, ‘look, you can do it. You can look like anything, you can come from anywhere and play this music and contribute to the music,” Nelson said. “I think that’s the most important part.”
In addition to representation, the cognitive benefits of music education alone make the job worth it for Nelson.
“Using your brain in a creative way — it helps to facilitate so many different skills, whether it’s motor skills when we’re stomping and clapping, whether it’s listening skills — listening to the group or a conductor,” Nelson said. “It’s so limitless — the benefits of learning [music].”
The summer camp was scheduled to focus on sculpture art this week but Nelson’s visit seemed to be a welcome surprise for the kids who, during clean-up, thanked him for coming.
The recorder lesson was not the first time that 14-year-old Emilio Perez had played an instrument and, at the beginning of the session, he had doubts that the lesson would be anything but boring. By the end, however, Perez says he felt inspired to play more music.
“It was really empowering to actually learn the basic steps and it was fun to see how far he’s come with it,” said Perez.
Beautiful Turner made a similar admission: previously, she had never expected to enjoy playing the recorder and was surprised when she actually had fun during a call-and-response exercise the group did with Nelson.
“When I see other people play, I don’t think I’d ever enjoy it but I actually did enjoy it,” said the 15-year-old.
At the end of the visit, the kids were allowed to keep the recorders if they wanted to. Many of them slid the instruments into their plastic pouches and carried it with them to lunch.
“I want them to know that, for one, there’s people that look like you and there’s people that don’t look like you that play this music, but there’s no limitation,” Nelson said. “If the kids can take away one thing or a couple of things, it would just be to have fun and to never give up.
Nelson will be playing with the Art D’echo Trio on Thursday on the corner of Jay Street and State Street in Schenectady. The concert will run from noon to 1:30 p.m.