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Wednesday, June 25

A Grateful Lesson From Dark Star Orchestra's Drummer Rob Koritz

As many of you may know, Dark Star Orchestra (“DSO”) is not just any Grateful Dead cover band. DSO takes actual Grateful Dead shows and recreates the entire setlist for its fans in a live setting. The band even takes its live act to another level, adapting its equipment, and even its lineup, to further emulate the equipment and lineup used by the Grateful Dead in the era the show comes from. This kind of attention to detail involves a massive amount of practice which the band has to fit in between a touring schedule of over 150 shows per year. It is hard to believe that in between all of this, plus raising and spending time with a family, DSO drummer Rob Koritz still has time to visit his old summer camp, Camp Sabra, to teach a drumming workshop for campers. But there I was, visiting my old summer camp, and sure enough, Rob was there as well, reminiscing about his days at camp and preparing to spend an afternoon teaching samba to two different groups of campers.
I was fortunate enough to sit in on Rob’s drumming workshop, and trust me when I say that this is no ordinary drum class. Rob brings a collection of his own personal percussion instruments for the children to play, and utilizes them as mere props to teach the kids about trust, teamwork and listening. He begins the exercise by playing a track on his iPod that consists of all percussion. The track sounds very intricate and professional. He then asks the campers, “How many of you think that we can learn how to do that in the next 40 minutes?” The kids look around skeptically, while a few raise their hands. “Well, for you naysayers, I’m about to prove you wrong,” says Rob.

After a couple quick warm-up exercises, Rob splits the campers into groups and assigns each group an instrument. Every camper within each group has their own instrument. So, from my point of view, the scene looks like this: about 30 excited twelve year-olds each have a loud percussion instrument, while their counselors struggle to keep them all focused. Meanwhile, Rob runs around from group to group, showing the children how to use the instruments properly and teaching them a specific line which they are supposed to learn and play all together. He is having the time of his life, always staying positive and encouraging, never critical. Finally, Rob brings all of the campers to the middle of the room. He has a whistle hanging around his neck and carries a loud tom tom with him. Keeping tempo with the tom, Rob goes from section to section to see that each group has learned its part, before bringing all of the different parts in together. Sure enough, with the right teacher and a little bit of focus and teamwork, these kids played their parts beautifully, participating in a percussive samba jam.

Next, Rob pushed the children a little further by bringing his whistle into play. He explained to the children that they would hear three whistles and on the third, everybody stops playing immediately. After a few attempts, the kids nailed it. One step further, Rob now explained that he would point to a group of instruments and when the third whistle blew, everyone would stop except that group, kind of like a little solo section. Later on, with an older group, Rob took the workshop to one final peak and told the campers they now had 90 seconds to find a partner with a different instrument and teach each other their parts. At first, things were a little shaky, but eventually, all the kids got it right, allowing them to open up their minds, push a little out of their comfort zone and have their first jam sessions all at the same time.

Rob was nice enough to speak with me after the workshops were all done, and I was curious as to how he became involved with Camp Sabra, a sleep-away summer camp located in Rocky Mount, Missouri for children ages 8-15. As it turns out, Rob was a camper at Sabra when he was a boy, and he returned as a staff member, holding almost every position possible during his tenure there. Sabra has been such a big part of Rob’s life that he remains Chairman of Alumni and Board Member for the camp to this day. He even confided in me that if he had not gotten a call from his buddy Dino in 1999 asking him to try out for DSO, he would probably be working as a summer camp director today.

Next, I asked Rob how he got the idea to incorporate the idea of teamwork into his drum workshops. He explained to me that when he worked at Sabra, he spent most of his time working in the ropes course area. For those of you who are not camp people, ropes course incorporates teamwork in two different ways. First, there is the high ropes section, which involves activities such as climbing walls and high adventure activities. Teamwork comes into play here when campers are struggling to complete the activities and it is up to his or her fellow campers to help encourage them and accomplish their task. Second, there is the low ropes section. Low ropes activities are 100% about teamwork. These activities take place on the ground and involve leadership, listening and working together. In short, teaching teamwork is in Rob’s blood. He also told me that working in the ropes course also led him to the idea of getting the campers out of their comfort zones. Pushing campers to get over that hump and climb to the top of the wall or to think in ways they are not used to in order to complete low ropes tasks is an important aspect of a young person’s growth. Introducing the campers to a brand new instrument they have never seen before and pushing them to perfect it in 40 minutes forces the campers out of their comfort zones, and they have to adapt quickly in order to accomplish their goal.

In one last point of conversation, Rob admitted to me that he probably would not be able to survive on a tour bus had it not been for his time at Camp Sabra. “I think of a tour bus like a camp cabin on wheels,” he told me. “Twelve guys holed up in a small space living together. I wouldn’t be able to do it if I hadn’t been a camper first.”

Who knew that Rob Koritz, drummer for Dark Star Orchestra, not only attended the same summer camp as I did as a camper, but also worked there just like I did? And what are the chances that I would happen to come visit the same weekend he was leading his drumming workshop? I can’t tell you the answers to either of those questions, but I can tell you that I, along with about 100 campers, am a better person after the experience.
Interview and Words: Randy Harris
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