Author: Sargent, Geoff

A Beautiful Life

If you google “A Beautiful Life” a pretty diverse list of websites falls out, including a site for cosmetics and several hits for a movie directed by Alejandro Chomski…but not the gospel song done by Bill Monroe. For that you have to include an additional term like “lyrics” or “bluegrass”. Maybe you’ve heard the song, even though it doesn't seem to be performed much, or heard some of the arrangements that have a great bass vocal part I’m itching to sing. But that’s not the reason why I used the song title here. Actually the title and the lyrics are a fair description for our music camps……a beautiful musical life even if only for a few days.

The second annual CBA winter music camp kicked off on Thursday February 24th 2011 at the beautiful Walker Creek Ranch, set in a hidden valley, under rainy skies with premonitions of snow. Strange weather to be sure but the winter camp has a different kind of energy, maybe even weather changing energy, because by Saturday the sun was out, and by Sunday the frogs were practicing harmonies.
I’ve had the privilege now of volunteering for three CBA music camps and can honestly say that each one becomes more and more special. And for each camp it’s usually something a little different that makes it stand out and this one was no different. The tone for this winter camp began on the drive out. Walker Creek Ranch seems waaaay out in the Marin hinterlands. To get there you have to drive down narrow 2-lane roads for the better part of 30-40 minutes and it feels more like driving down country lanes in Ireland. The only things missing were pubs and a few horse carts, but like they say in Ireland there was lots of good craic waiting. The cloudy, cold, wet weather sure reinforced the whole Irish atmosphere, but eventually a handmade CBA sign on the roadside appeared beside a nondescript driveway that led me down to the conference center.

By definition, winter camp is an indoor affair and while it has the same familiar form as the summer camp, the close quarters help to create a different dynamic. Even before registration began there were at least two jams running in the dining hall, (cool the campers couldn’t wait) and as more campers arrived, more jams appeared. This was a very neat beginning! The buzz kept going and followed me to my dorm where there was a curious sign posted on the door that read “Please close the doors after you, otherwise the wildlife will become party animals”. I figured it was meant to warn us that the raccoons, possums, skunks, and fox might come in to borrow our instruments for a late night jam, but then again it could have been warning us that Bruno might secretly abandon Camp Spam for warmer climes to escape the inclement weather. Thankfully neither happened. Besides, the instruments were too hot to touch after the jams quieted down.

Ingrid Noyes and the CBA are setting insanely high standards with the winter and summer music camps. This includes everything from the exceptional instruction to the incredible camp venues to the hard working staff, with Ingrid leading the charge, furiously peddling her faithful steed to keep it all in motion. Mix in the morning classes, the overwhelming schedule of electives, the organized, unorganized, disorganized, spontaneous, and self-combusting jams and what you get is four days of blissful, hectic, sleep depriving, total immersion in bluegrass, old time music, and every now and then even a sea shanty or two. Whew…can I fit in any more adjectives and run on sentences? Oh yeah…It was a dark and stormy night…the first couple of nights!

Now, I don’t want to mislead you in this column. My motives for volunteering at the music camps are purely selfish and I’m going public, coming out of the gig bag so to speak. I confess that I take a huge pleasure in standing in the middle of the dining hall during a meal, surrounding myself with the camp, watching all the folks gather, and eat, and talk, quietly listening to the commotion…sometimes a vocals class breaks out in song, Ingrid is usually running around with a microphone in hand, kids are doing what kids do…..ditching parents, the parents are ditching right back, and there is lots of laughter. Lots of laughter. It feels good being a part of this gathering and for me the work involved as a volunteer is insignificant compared to what I get out of it….so yes if it is selfish to want to share in being a part of this grand accomplishment, then I’m guilty and hope to wallow in my guilt many more times.

You know, the setting and weather and wildlife made the camp interesting but what made it truly special was the people. It’s easy to say, but impossible to describe, and until you get to walk around and experience the joy everyone is having……campers, instructors, and staff, you will never really understand. (So you gotta get your tushies in gear and get those applications in for the next music camp.) Being a dobro player, to some degree I’m the odd man out, instrumentally speaking of course, so I get to a bit of jack-of-all trades at camp. I arrived to discover that I had been given the honorable title of Head Gofer (Assistant Director) and my fellow volunteers being the gracious, though subtly sarcastic, friends and colleagues that they are, made sure to let me know just what was expected of me……..I still can’t figure out what why they were giggling so much.

In the end, I got to be the teaching assistant for Banjo I, taught by Nick Hornbuckle. This wasn’t my first time being a teaching assistant but is probably one of the best experiences helping teach a class. Nick is the banjo player for John Reichmann and the Jaybirds, and is a phenomenal teacher. Here’s a guy who is a working musician, been playing most of his life, developed a unique style for banjo, and still has a real interest in teaching the beginning students. Nick ran the class with an interesting mix of serious and playful, delighting even the grumpiest student, and made practicing banjo rolls a zen-like, meditative experience. And it gets better. Each instructor has office hours at least once during camp. After Nick’s office hour was up, he just kept going and probably spent another hour or so with one of the beginning students. This is what music camp is about….getting to spend up close, one on one time learning from the pros, the best in the world. At my first CBA music camp, when I took beginning dobro, some beginning students and I were jamming in camp when this wild-man, bearded, banjo player showed up and asked to play in. I don’t think any of us knew who it was at the time… was Nick roaming around, seeding music.

Traditionally, camp ends with the student concert. Staff aren’t supposed to play, but can sit in if some of the student bands run short. I was walking around looking for Ingrid, when Lisa Burns, who taught Bass I, quietly snuck up and asks “hey Geoff…whatcha doing?” She had a look on her face that reminded me of hunters focusing on their prey and as Lisa later put it, “my tranquilizer dart caught the dobro player”. It turns out that Lisa’s sister, Shelley, flew out from Virginia to attend camp and wanted to sing with Lisa on stage…in fact, the first time they sang together in public. It was one of those “awww gee” moments that touched everyone in the audience and what a great way for me to close out my winter camp experience by being on stage with them. I have my own hunter/prey admission to make as well. About 30 minutes before we went on stage, we found out our guitar player had to leave. I pulled a friend of mine, Ken Bellingham, out of the audience and asked if he would sub in……but I didn’t exactly explain he needed to work up a break until after he agreed to play. After the shock wore off Ken’s face, and we cut the zip ties off his arms and legs, he pulled together a great break on short notice. For that I owe him thanks and a beer.

The night before camp closed I was out walking the jams in the evening chill and looked up. The sky was pitch dark, decorated by a beautiful display of constellations and stars from horizon to horizon. I wondered, with all the music we were playing and all the songs we were singing, if it occurred to anyone else to look up……and ask if the stars above could really compete with the music below.
Posted:  3/20/2011

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