by Scott Roos
photos by Deanna Roos
It’s 4 pm in the afternoon on a Tuesday. It’s essentially hotter than hell out and I’m sitting on a picnic bench, in a shaded, wooded area, acoustic guitar on my lap. There’s a gentle breeze that occasionally pokes its way through the trees but it’s only providing a little bit of reprieve from the heat.
There’s strength in numbers, though, as I sit and listen to a group of people urgently strumming and bowing bluegrass tunes from the coiled book in front of each of them. There's a fire pit in the centre of everything, a set of bleachers and several picnic tables. There are people sitting around with guitars like me, there’s mandolin people, a few stand-up bass players and a handful of banjos.
The cocktail of skill levels in this group, made up of people of all ages, is at times more of a “joyful noise” than something “performance worthy” but the musicians huddled around don’t seem to mind. After all, it’s the “slow pitch” jam. It’s supposed to be about learning and not about being able to play at blazing speeds like Bill Munroe or Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. It’s been less than a day at the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Camp, but many of us are still just learning, trying to get better and most of all simply having fun. I'll get to more of a full explanation of this later. I promise I will.
But, I suppose before I delve any further into this that I should probably tell you a little bit about myself. I’m not doing this to metaphorically toot my own journalistic horn, though. It’s more so you can understand my background coming into a music camp based around a genre that, to be completely honest, I know very little about or have even cared very much about in the past. For the better part of ten years, I’ve considered myself mostly a rock n roll journalist. That's full disclosure right there.
So… Since 2012, I’ve interviewed, over the phone, many of my musical idols from bands like Judas Priest, KISS, Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, Skid Row (I grew up in the 80’s. Please don’t judge. haha)... That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy all different types of music because I’ve always felt, no matter the genre, that if the music is well performed live or well produced on disc or streaming or however the heck you consume your recorded music these days, that it’s good music and worthy of a listen at least once and, bare minimum, worthy of my respect (and I admit after immersing myself in bluegrass and old-time music over the last few months that I have come to thoroughly enjoy it). But anyways, I just felt it was important up front to let you know where my music tastes and background was from.
I’m also a music teacher in the real world. Since the 1998/1999 school year I’ve been mostly directing middle school and high school bands depending on the teaching load and school. Lately, since moving to Prince Albert in 2018, I’ve been teaching a lot of elementary classroom music too. I dig it. It’s a different perspective when you teach the little ones and it helps you, as an educator, to break music down into small chunks which, in turn, helps a lot when you teach the older kids too. In short, teaching the little ones has made my whole approach to teaching better but, I digress.
My main instrument is the trumpet. I graduated with a music education degree from the University of Regina in 1996. I do not regret going there and getting a music degree but I will say that being a “trained” musician sort of makes you hyper critical of your own skills and abilities as a musician. You're sort of taught to zero in on your weaknesses as a player and do things to help over come them but, in that cerebral space, you often become fearful of being musically vulnerable in front of other people unless you can do something to complete perfection which, because we are all human, we can never really truly attain anyway. We sure as hell think we can or at least we can try and striving towards perfection is certainly admirable but sometimes that can lead to not taking risks and seizing the day when the day comes and you should be commencing to seize it. You just stand (or sit?) and watch other people do it and wish you had the guts to do it yourself.
So now I’ve come full circle sitting here on a picnic table at a bluegrass camp on a Tuesday with an instrument on my lap that has always historically intimidated me to learn. Full disclosure, I have taught guitar before but on a very basic level. I know my way around the fretboard and can pick a few very simple tunes and know where to put my fingers to form a C, G and D chord on a very rudimentary level. I can sort of strum but not really all the great. So I wasn't coming into a music camp completely cold but pretty close to it. I’m eager to learn. I want to get better but just don’t know where to start. That’s where this camp comes in. That’s what this camp does best and, as the week wears on, I will become more and more captivated by the community created here on the hallowed, magical, Ness Creek grounds.