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Bracing for Berklee: Bemidji High School graduate Camden Bunker muses on music

When Bemidji High School graduate Camden Bunker first picked up a saxophone in seventh grade, he wouldn’t expect to bebop his way to the Berklee College of Music in Boston just six years later.

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Camden Bunker will graduate as part of Bemidji High School’s class of 2022 at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 28, at the Sanford Center.
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BEMIDJI — When Bemidji High School graduate Camden Bunker first picked up a saxophone in seventh grade, he wouldn’t expect to bebop his way to the Berklee College of Music in Boston just six years later.

Describing himself as an anomaly in his family, Bunker’s musical interests started in middle school on a few different instruments before sticking with the sax.

“I took piano lessons as a kid and we had a foreign exchange student from Germany who played trumpet at the high school,” Bunker said. “When it came time for me to pick an instrument in middle school, I picked trumpet because that’s what she played.”

He became bored of the trumpet part-way through sixth grade and switched to drums for the remaining school year. Without telling his music teacher at the time, he began teaching himself how to play saxophone and made the switch once seventh grade rolled around.

A knack for sax

Being self-taught is an important part of Bunker’s love of music and consequential pursuit of music performance as a career.

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“I used to hang around with not the best kids in middle school,” Bunker said. “I couldn’t be myself around them, but music actually allowed me to be myself. Since I was doing music for me and not for anyone else, it was my own thing.”

Bunker quickly expanded his opportunities after his initial participation in Bemidji State University’s community band and the BHS jazz band, two opportunities he described as being out of his comfort zone.

“Playing at the college and having to adapt my skillset so quickly allowed me to develop into the musician that I am today,” he added.

In listing all of his current ensembles, Bunker referenced the BHS jazz band, concert band, marching band, chamber orchestra, pep band and the pit orchestra for school musicals and show choir. He even directs the school’s second jazz band.

He has also played in BSU’s saxophone quartet and has had several area gigs over the years making use of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes.

His favorite musical experience came this school year when he was one of two students in BHS’ history to get accepted to play in the Minnesota Music Educators Association All-State Jazz Band, which selects advanced high school musicians from across Minnesota to perform in various ensembles.

“It was something I always wanted to do and I didn’t think I would actually get in,” Bunker said. “The people I’ve met have been really fun along with the whole experience of playing with the best in the state.”

Bunker has since begun taking lessons and he occupies any spare time he has with practice.

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“I continuously have something going on before and after school,” he mentioned. “I’m constantly practicing around two hours a night, which my parents are fine with. I personally find it really relieving when you notice a change in your progress over a long span of time. You have to get in the mindset that practice is going to get you somewhere.”

Pandemic preparation

Aside from practice, the coronavirus pandemic also played a role in Bunker’s decision to pursue Berklee after he graduated.

As his dream school for years prior to 2020, Bunker took advantage of the pandemic placing a hiatus on many music concerts and activities while recognizing the less-than-ideal circumstances.

“Online schooling with music was terrible. There was no live music and I got up early in the morning just to play sax in my pajamas,” Bunker recalled. “I got more time to focus on practicing during COVID, but there wasn’t anything to practice for.”

Bunker took this extra time to prepare for college auditions, which for Berklee involved memorizing five minutes of a prepared piece — Bunker chose “November 15th” by Kenny Garrett — as well as improvisation, playing scales, sight-reading and sight-singing.

Bunker had previously taken part in Berklee’s five-week virtual summer camp in 2020 where he completed various college classes and earned six college credits.

He said the camp experience allowed him to forge connections — in particular, with Grammy award-nominated trombonist Steve Wiest — that he credits as an important part of being accepted into the college.

“Connections are the biggest thing in the music world,” Bunker said. “Wiest wrote me a letter of recommendation for my application to Berklee and I’m just this kid from northern Minnesota. (Berklee) is a big school for big city people and here I come just walking in. It’s like a little fish in a big pond.”

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The idea of “end goals” doesn’t appeal to Bunker, but he may pursue a music theory or pedagogy degree in his graduate years.

He hopes to continue forming strong professional relationships and experiencing all that the music world has to offer at Berklee and beyond.

“The thing about music is that it’s fluid and ever-changing. I just want to be happy with the music I’m playing,” he added. “It’s not so much an end goal, but it would be really fun to play on Broadway someday. I just don’t want (the music) to end.”

Bunker credited his parents and the broader Bemidji community for the opportunities he’s had up until graduation and after he has his high school diploma.

“My parents have made music accessible for me and I’ve been fortunate in that aspect,” he said. “I’m glad I grew up in an environment where I was able to have the opportunities that I did. The support coming from Bemidji is something that allowed me to be where I am today, which I really appreciate.”

Bemidji High School’s graduation will take place at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 28, at the Sanford Center.

Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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