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The Beautiful Trees rehearses at Pathway Community Church.

Guitarist Jacob Fry, 13, tunes his instrument during the worship music day camp, which about 20 people attended.

Teaching joyful noises

Local day camp encourages youth to play at worship

Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
The Beautiful Trees play “Lead Me to the Cross” during the Rock4theRock music camp at Pathway Community Church.

It’s a little after 1 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, and eight musicians ages 9 to 15 are sitting in a circle in a classroom at Pathway Community Church.

Three have acoustic guitars on their laps, and their instructor, Steve Willhoff, has one slung around his neck. Though the 53-year-old is part of a praise and worship team at Broadway Christian Church downtown, he’s urging the students to sin boldly.

“If you’re gonna make a mistake, make it loud. Make it with confidence. Own it,” he says with an easy laugh that several of his students join. “Say, ‘This is my mistake, and I’m proud.’ ”

After all, he can’t fix what he can’t hear. And, hey, as he’ll repeat several times during the session, it’s just practice.

The students are among 20 area young people who have turned out for Rock4theRock, a worship music day camp that took place July 8 to 12 – an event organizers say is a first for Fort Wayne.

As more churches turn from choirs and organs to contemporary Christian music played by praise bands with electric guitars, keyboards and drums, developing church musicians with those skills – especially from the younger generation – has become a priority.

“We’ve been praying and talking about doing this for about three years,” says one camp organizer, Holly Parks of Fort Wayne, recently named worship pastor at First Church of God in Columbia City.

“We saw similar things, and we wondered why weren’t we doing this with our kids.”

Parks says she and her friend and co-organizer Lindsey Helmer Kraner, owner of Vocal Power Academy in Fort Wayne and a Pathway member, noticed there were lots of talented area young people who had an interest in learning Christian music or playing or singing in church.

But while they might be taking voice or instrumental lessons, they weren’t getting much opportunity to work together in a group, she says.

More importantly, Parks adds, they might never learn the difference between performing and leading worship.

Being aware of and focused on the presence of God “is more important than cool guitar riffs and more important than how great your voice is,” she told attendees during a devotional lesson featuring appropriate Scriptures on the second day of camp.

Aleix Locke, 14, a seasoned performer who plays guitar and sings mostly country music, says she’s just starting to get the difference.

She recently performed at a festival and a community event in Michigan, where she lives with her mom. She says she’s “used to singing in front of a lot of people” and has her eye on a professional career.

“I made $75 in tips the other day playing for 45 minutes. That was awesome,” she says.

But she also wants to develop the Christian side of her music. Call it an alternative career track, or just an expression of her faith.

“Performing is really fun – people come up to you afterwards and say, ‘You’re so great,’ and stuff like that, and that’s nice. But when you’re actually singing for God, it’s different,” Locke says.

“You can feel his presence. I mean, I know whenever I sing, He’s with me, and I know He’s listening, but … I always get chills when I sing for worship.”

Still, musical technique, from dynamics to timing to harmony, wasn’t slighted during the camp.

Aaron Straessle, 15, of Fort Wayne has been playing guitar for more than three years and attends a performing arts academy for music performance. As the worked on the worship song “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord),” Willhoff showed him how to add a blue note to a chord just by moving his little finger – something he had never done before.

“Ever since I went to this camp, I feel I learned a lot more. … I think I’ve learned as much as in three years of taking lessons,” says Straessle, who says it’s fun having other players teach him things and playing together with them.

“It inspires me to play more,” he says.

Several students, including Marisa Featherstone, 13, of Fort Wayne, said they hoped the camp would give them confidence and help them get over stage fright.

“I want to learn not to be so scared to get on stage and sing in front of people,” says the 13-year-old school show choir member who attends County Line Church of God, Auburn.

“My voice gets so shaky, and then I start shaking all over,” she says. “At my church we have a worship band, and I’m thinking I want to do that when I get older.”

Two students, Braydon Hathaway and Ryan Volk, both of Fort Wayne, said they were trying to start a youth praise band at their church, Emmanuel Community Church in southwest Fort Wayne.

Leaders there said they would give the go-ahead depending on how the camp went, the students said.

Camp leaders said they hope to inspire students through an evening praise concert on the last day of camp when they can put their week of learning into practice. The two bands each presented three songs.

Kraner, 31, who also has a praise band, 490 Live, which plays at Christian coffeehouses and other venues, says she’d like the camp to become an annual event.

“And we definitely don’t want this to stop in Fort Wayne,” she says, adding that she would like to take the concept to other cities.

“Going into this for the first year, we really had no idea what to expect. We just opened the doors and let whoever could come, come,” Kraner says, “but I and the other instructors were just blown away by the talent, and not just by that but by the dedication these kids are showing.

“What they’re learning is what 20- or 25-year-olds might learn when they’re in (college or ministerial) school, or step into a worship band the first time,” she adds.

“It’s been amazing.”