Tension fills the air. Instrumentalists with drums of every color and size straighten their backs as the instructor raises his hands. Simultaneous deep breaths are taken. The instructor begins the “tic tic tic” of his drumsticks, marking the beat for 25 ambitious students. A hushed “one, two, three” is spoken before a euphonious blast of sound fills the crisp morning air, creating a gust that shakes the leaves on the trees surrounding them.
At the Music For All Summer Symposium, held on Ball State’s campus June 24 through July 1, there’s a team of people called SWAGs behind every practice session, every fun activity, or even group transportation around campus.
“The term SWAG dates all the way back to when the team was created in the 1980s. It’s an abbreviation for something, but it’s a heavily protected secret that only those who have been on the team know,” said Heather Springer, a 14-year SWAG veteran.
Although SWAGs may not be all in on the music action, they are vital to camp, and to the campers.
“I take care of the kids and make sure the staff members have everything they need,” said SWAG Maddie Cain.
A clarinet player for 13 years, Cain decided to continue her music career by giving back at Music For All. Cain’s interest in music comes from her family — her mom is an orchestra teacher and her grandpa is a choir teacher.
She said she wanted to become a SWAG after having a “life changing” experience at the camp when she was a high school student. It all started with a simple conversation.
“I remember I had a SWAG one day who pulled me aside and said ‘You seem like you’d be really good at this job, you should apply after you graduate.’”
Cain took that to heart, and that encounter, along with a week of feeling seen and empowered, led her back to the camp after she graduated.
“I was in their shoes five or six years ago, and I just remember getting so much out of it that I felt like I needed to give back,” she said.
Being a SWAG includes a 6:30 a.m. wake up and an 11 p.m. bedtime, with classes, concerts, and an overall packed schedule in between. But Cain doesn’t let that deter her from enjoying her seasonal occupation.
“I find that I’m a lot happier when I’m busy and the kids love it because sessions and what they’re learning is so powerful and so good. A lot of times they dont want to go to bed at night, they want to stay up and talk about the things that they’ve learned,” she said..
Not only does Cain create relationships with the students, but she also has made lifelong friendships with the other SWAG and staff at Music For All.
“When I come here I feel like I can be more myself because I’m around really positive people who are here for me, and they know I’m also here for them. ” Cain said. She has a support system built on trust with her coworkers that makes working just that much better.
Cain strives to spread the kindness her SWAGs showed to her, by caring for her campers. One way she does this is by encouraging them to come back as SWAGs in the future
“Maddie has a really unique way of reaching a wide variety of kids … she’s getting that whole spectrum of awesome kids, down to the kids that are like ‘I don’t know if I really want to be here,’” said fellow SWAG Springer. “She really focuses on building relationships first, getting to know the kid, getting to know what makes them want to be here, or not want to be here, so that she can connect with them before she tries to teach.”
Spring said her route to becoming a SWAG was somewhat similar to Cain’s.
“I struggled a lot with my mental health as a teenager, feeling like nothing was ever going to go right and that I didn’t really want to be in the world, so coming here gave me hope that it would be okay,” Springer said.
Music For All gave her a new outlook on life, she said.
“It was just getting that experience that there's a wider world outside of my high school experience, seeing that there are people out there that are kind, loving, and empathetic. And getting to realize that it wouldn’t be the way it was forever,” Springer said about her time at Music For All in Louisville where it used to take place. Despite Springer living in Kansas, she followed the Music For All camp even after she graduated, and came to Ball State to become a Swag shortly after.
Despite the fact that Springer is a journalism teacher at Olathe South High School back home, Music For All impacts her year round. “It just gives me a whole refresh for the next school year,” she said. Music For All gives Springer a different perspective on teaching during the summer, and helps her grow during the school year when she leaves camp to continue her full time job.
Whether it's a student, a Swag, or a staff at Music For All camp, everyone leaves with a positive outlook on life and music. According to bsu.edu, “Music For All has been providing positively life-changing experiences at its summer camp for over 40 years.” This couldn’t be more true after seeing the generational impact the camp has on everyone. Attendees always leave feeling like new people, including Cain, Springer, and even Vetrivel, whose Music For All story is still being unraveled. Although the camp experience has ended for all three of these past and present students, they will carry the lessons and memories they made along the way forever.