Author: Sargent, Geoff

Music Camp Summer 2011: A Sweet Cacophony of Bluegrass and Rap!

There’s a really stupid-funny joke that Fred Cone, the bass player in my band Old Tunnel Road, is telling: What is blue and smells like red paint? It’s blue paint! This joke is so bad it’s almost funny……..almost. I tried turning the joke around to make it fit as an introduction to this column on the Summer 2011 Music Camp but no matter how much I tried, it just never worked. There’s nothing stupid-funny about music camp, though it is so much fun it’s stupid to not attend. And this is from a volunteer and student’s point of view (read “me”); someone who has put up canopies, swept dead earthworms out of goat-scented buildings, humped innumerable chairs and tables around the fairground, led jams, taught electives, marked meal tickets, and hung around for canopy teardown at festival’s end, attended classes, jams, and concerts. To give you some perspective, this isn’t anything special, this is the experience for a typical music camp volunteer. Volunteers go into music camp knowing that there is some heavy lifting and a significant time investment involved with producing a successful music camp.
Ingrid Noyes, our intrepid camp Director, really hit her stride this year and organized an exceptional Summer 2011 Music Camp. I believe it was one of the best 5 CBA music camps I have attended as a student and volunteer, and almost certainly the smoothest run. A large part of this has to do with the volunteer crew, and I think the feeling among the volunteers is that Ingrid has recruited what is now a battle-hardened, well-lubricated, music camp machine that just gets ‘er done.

As with many close-knit groups, there are certain volunteer traditions becoming established that answer to some of the more tedious volunteer chores. For example, Roz Lorenzato has earned the title, two years running, of Chair Queen……oops, excuse me (I can feel Roz thwacking me up the side of my head with her tiara) the correct title is Chairwoman, for her exceptional talent organizing the mass chair redistributions needed to set up for the first day of class and then collecting chairs at the end of camp. Natasha Burke and Ernie Noyes have the somewhat misleading title of assistant directors, which could be translated as Ingrid’s dogsbodies. The Wikipedia description of dogsbody, also sometimes known as a dog robber in the British Royal Navy, is a junior officer, or more generally someone who does drudge work. A rough American equivalent would be a "gofer" or a "grunt”. More traditions are evolving but haven’t been bestowed on individuals yet, like the Canopy Captain, Master Meal Ticket Marker, Worm Sweeper, or maybe even Table Titan, but with time folks will step up and own those tasks. Right now, it is more of a collective group consciousness where all the volunteers, especially the experienced ones, know what to expect and just take care of it. A nice surprise this year was a big group of young volunteers. I can’t name them all but these guys absolutely rocked and helped share the load for all the schlepping as well other more fun duties. And then there are what I’ll call the “informal” volunteers, those generous folks and students that step in to help out when needed. The CBA summer music camp isn’t just a “music camp”, it’s a wonderful thriving community that transforms the Nevada county fairgrounds in Grass Valley for 5 days in June.

One of the reasons for the Camp’s exceptional success, I believe, has to do with the nonstop deluge of music; music workshops, music electives, music performances, dances, jams, more jams, the staff concert, and finally culminating in the student concert. A thunderstorm of bluegrass that washes away our daily concerns and allows us to leave behind our other lives for a few days. Let me show you what I mean and give you a rundown of a typical day in the life of a music camp student.

If your circadian clock is on a rise-with-dawn schedule, Ernie Noyes will treat you to a session of Hillbilly Yoga, at the ungodly hour of 7 AM. This early bird thing is way too much of a stretch for me, especially after a late night jamming. Breakfast is served at the relatively humane hour of 8-9 AM-ish and then it’s off to a 3-hour intensive workshop on the instrument of your choice with a professional, working, touring, nationally known, musician.

This year I had the pleasure of assisting Bill Evans’ Banjo III class, not that Bill needed much in the way of assistance, except maybe for copying of some class handouts, and my sweeping the dead earthworms out of the classroom. Now, one of the real treats of being a volunteer…….realize I’m a dobro player not a banjo picker….is getting to sit in and observe an excellent teacher at work, and also getting to understand a little bit about how banjo players approach their music. This is great for dobro because we try to steal as much as we can from other instruments, especially the banjo. I guess this makes the dobro the mockingbird of bluegrass instruments, which also makes it a more interesting beast to play. The Banjo III class was but a shout away from Chris Stuart’s Vocal Harmony class which means the banjo students had to listen to the various howls, shouts, squeals, yips, and yaps of the vocalists warming up. It’s hard to imagine anything that could annoy a banjo player, apart from another banjo, but the vocalists sure had great potential and vigorously exercised that potential to its maximum. This kicked off a series of sonic ambushes, attacks and counter attacks between the banjos and vocalists that consisted of sneaking into the other’s space and unleashing highly effective, high-volume, annoying, dissonant bombardments. Thankfully I had to survive only one or two of these skirmishes and escaped the rest due to volunteer duties taking me elsewhere.

For me, lunch at music camp comes with mixed feelings. On one hand, by this time I’ve had a full 3 hour course of music and am satiated or even bloated with all the information and picking. On the other hand, I’m a glutton at heart and would gladly keep sucking it all in. So lunch is an enforced break….if for nothing else but to cleanse the musical palate and prepare a bit for more courses later in the day. But the music doesn’t stop for lunch…no-sireee. Chris Stuart has promoted what I think is a great music camp tradition with lunchtime serenades by his vocal class. I don’t know if Chris was the first to do this, but he’s now done it at several CBA music camps and I hope it becomes a regular feature. There have been guitar marches, mandolin promenades, and banjo sorties, but the lunchtime serenades, for me, hit the sweet spot while standing in line to get my food.

Frankly, I think that Ingrid has an evil, demented side to her that is revealed only in the afternoon electives schedule. Consider it this way, it’s like being presented with 15 of your most favorite desserts (or in my case, beers, wines, or whiskies) all at once, and you can have only one, and only once this year! What torture! Now the sheer diabolical, evil-genius of Ingrid is that she does this mental musical torture twice a day for three days running, and each set of electives is (mostly) different. To confound the students even more, instructor office hours are also scheduled during electives so not only do you have to choose between that delectable elective but you also have to chose whether or not to get some quality one on one time with an instructor. Ingrid’s evil genius even schedules the ice cream break between early afternoon and late afternoon electives, I am sure to give students and volunteers alike a few minutes to cool down their feverish heads before being confronted with the painful decision of which late afternoon elective to attend and the abrupt realization that you cannot attend all! This torture shows up with obvious symptoms of mental exhaustion that include uncontrollable laughter, panicked ice cream truck stampedes, frenzied students walking with multiple music cases searching for the ultimate elective, and students that can’t cope just huddling together to share their solace in a jam. All fun and jokes aside, the point is that the menu of electives is almost more awesome than the morning classes.

Nap time, oh yes there is a scheduled nap time before supper, which is strictly enforced to allow students time to relax and recharge before having their senses overwhelmed, yet again, by the evening activities.

Speaking of evening activities, the pace doesn’t slow down with sunset, but it changes a bit….rather than the afternoon’s fastball schedule the pace becomes more like curve balls, sliders, and changeups with a few knuckleballs for good measure. Most evenings, starting Sunday, feature a concert. Sometimes the “bands” are improvised like the Sunday evening instructor jam where Ingrid calls what seems to be random instructors to the floor to play, there’s the staff concert where volunteers and instructors perform for the camp, there’s the student concert where all the students (sometimes with not so anonymous ringers sitting in) get to show their stuff, and finally the last evening features a touring band whose members are teaching at the camp. This year’s closing band was the Foghorn Trio String Band with Alice Gerrard and Mike Compton.

One of the more interesting performances happened during the staff concert where a group of the young volunteers (I don’t remember the full stage lineup so I’ll just point out that they are the usual suspects), with the help of an “unwilling” (which I don’t believe for a minute) Sid Lewis pulled off a rap-grass piece complete with multiple key changes, tempo shifts, and the rest of the kitchen sink. It was wild, it was groovy, it was scary and edgy, and I sure don’t want to follow those guys on stage.

Now that we’re slowing down a bit and exhaustion is setting in, there are still more workshops, Contra dancing, and jams left to fill out the evening. If there is one thing that we do as a community that defines the CBA it is jam. Did I say jams? There is a music camp jam to fit just about everyone whether a beginner or lifelong picker. You have your Bill Monroe songs jam, your slow jam, fast jam, old time jam, slow old time jam, your fast jam in the Key of F, Jimmy Martin songs jam, bluegrass fiddle tunes jam, Carter family songs jam, Kenny Hall songs jam, vocal duets and trios jam, and for the truly rookie, newbie, jamophobe, introverted shy jammer there is the infamous Sid Lewis Jamming 101 jam. Sid will definitely take you out of your skin and put you on the path to acquiring those jam chops that you wish you had. But a word of caution! Once you have that jam monkey on your back there’s no way to go but jamward, in search of that ultimate in-the-moment break, that exists only in the perfectly tuned jam. I’m outta here….gotta find a jam.
Posted:  7/17/2011

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