By Tom Momberg
More and more children from Queens are finding their inner rocker, and with their first public debut during the fireworks event at Fort Totten on Wednesday, kids and teens enrolled in a Whitestone-based musical performance camp got a chance to show off their ever-developing skills.
MM Rock Camp as it is called, is named after its founder, Baysider Michelle Nestor, a guitarist and jazz musician. Under the artist name Michelle Marie, Nestor is a member of the Black Girls Rock House band, has played with the Beyonce Band and has accompanied artists like Mary J Blige, Patti Labelle, Erykah Badu, Missy Elliot and several others.
Nestor said she started teaching a classical guitar program at Queens College more than a few years ago, but wanted more of an ensemble program with more of a range in musical styles.
“Queens College really wanted to keep with the classical program, so I thought I would diverge, though I still teach lessons there,” she said.
Nestor started the summer performance camp privately in 2013, and many of the kids enrolled in the program were once her students for private lessons. Now, she introduces jazz, blues, funk, modern and classic rock styles to her students, and they have returned year after year.
The Bronx native said that even while she is working on her own record label, MMRecordsGroup, and performs with her own jazz trio, she enjoys working with children and teenagers just as much.
“For me not having a good teacher growing up and essentially being self taught, I just wanted to be there for kids; for them to have an outlet,” Nestor said. “I feel like I just want to share everything I have and fill in the missing links for them that I was struggling with.”
And students have responded well to Nestor’s teaching style.
Catalina Velasquez, 17, has taken piano lessons nearly her whole life, but then took private guitar lessons from Neston at Queens College for two years. After a little encouragement, she said she took to the rock camp last summer to explore her music talents through other mediums.
The recent Frank Sinatra High School of the Arts graduate took up singing, drums, guitar and keyboards through the camp.
“It was also a great experience to get out and get to know people. Everyone from last summer to this summer has already improved so much,” Velasquez said. “It’s amazing how Michelle can work with kids that are six, seven to 17. She is such a great teacher and I don’t think there is any kid that wouldn’t get along with her.”
The interactions between Nestor’s students made it apparent that the program works like several other summer day camps do: Helping kids to establish new friendships and expose them to new interests.
Antonio Zgombic, 13, who will be starting his freshman year at Archbishop Molloy High School next year, said he learns more and has more fun at rock camp than he does in school or extracurricular music programs.
Zgombic has been playing guitar for seven years. Since taking Nestor’s instruction, he has also taken up the bass, and said he and his colleagues are welcome to bring up anything they want to work on.
“I think I learn a lot more here than I did at school and compared, it’s a lot less strict; you have more freedom,” Zgombic said. “I also think it’s more one on one, and Michelle takes it more seriously than my teachers usually do.”
Jared Scott-Laroque, 13, is home schooled and has taken private music lessons for four years. But he said rock and pop styles are more fun because they call for a little improvisation.
Scott-Laroque, who plays drums, bass guitar and keyboards, said the music style is not the only thing that feels more free.
“We have more freedom and because it’s during the summer: We have more time to practice. And I like that we get to call (Michelle) by her first name instead of a teacher name,” he said.
Brandon Chaug, 12, who attends St. Andrew Avellino School in Flushing, said he joined the rock camp having previously had Nestor as a guitar instructor. He said he kept coming back for the camp because he enjoys singing, and is encouraged to take up vocal parts as much as possible.
“It’s a good way to express your feelings,” Chaug said. “When you sing you could say things that you can’t when you’re just talking or when you’re playing guitar and you’re too shy, like me.”
Chaug said he prefers to sing in a rock band setting as opposed to his school chorus, because it encourages him to break out from behind the crowd.
MM Rock Camp is up and running for its third summer in a row, and started offering a winter session this past year. The program is designed for children and teenagers from age 10 to 17 who already have a certain level of musical ability.
The program was limited to older kids and teens until Nestor came across some very talented children.
“When I met these little ones, I just had to take them on, so I opened up the age group,” Nestor said, referring to some seven year olds she took under her wing last year.
The teenagers in the program said they did not mind playing with kids for a couple hours a day, because they are actually quite talented. Zgombic said Nestor is good at working with students of varying abilities together in the same group.
Mak Desouza, 7, said he started playing on drums when he was two-years old.
“And when I was three I started learning piano, and when I was four I started with guitar,” said the Flushing resident and soon-to-be second grader at the Blue School in Manhattan.
“I really like sound and rhythm,” Desouza said. “I started rock camp when I was five and three quarters or something, and it’s the most successful band I have ever been in.”
Also enrolled in the youth camp is young Charlie Vallone, 7, who has been playing drums for four years, and started picking up guitar when he joined camp last summer.
“I like both of them about the same, because I like to learn new things,” Vallone said, when asked which was his favorite instrument to play. “I’m going to keep doing this for a few years, I think, because I want to learn another new instrument and I meet new friends sometimes.”
The camp runs over six hours a day every weekday for four weeks, which is from July 13 to August 6 this year. The summer program ends with a concert, but Nestor said she hopes the July 1 Fort Totten performance gave the kids more exposure and will provide more opportunities to perform in the future.
Nestor also has the help of a voice coach, Karen Marie, who had her off-Broadway debut in Sleep No More. Nahum Corona, who previously worked with kids through various jazz programs, also assists Nestor as a percussion instructor.
The rock camp has a rehearsal space located at 114-15 Clintonville Street in Whitestone. There is still opportunity for kids and teens ages 10 to 17 to register for this summer session for a $1,550 fee.
A young artist program is also available for students between the ages of six and 10 for two or three hours a day starting at $660 for the summer.
The rock camp has been endorsed by Gretsch Guitars, Fender Guitars, D’Addario Strings, Zoom, Reunion Blues, Eventide and artist Seymour Duncan.
Reach reporter Tom Momberg by e-mail at tmomb