A Rock n' Roll Journalist in a Bluegrass Camp Part Three: Class is in session!
Updated: May 13
by Scott Roos
photos by Deanna Roos
“It was a good camp. I had a nice group.”
- Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Camp Instructor, Lucas Welsh
Welsh was responsible for working with a group of beginner old-time fiddlers that included my wife, Deanna, and my daughter, Abbey. As I mentioned in part two of this series, there were several classes that students at the The Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Camp could enroll in based on the instrument they were interested in learning more about, as well as the level of proficiency. A highly skilled fiddler in a wide variety of styles, Welsh’s calm demeanor and easy going nature was really an ideal situation for the students in his class. Well, at least one student that we know of for sure: Ms. Abbey.
Ever since we learned that we would be attending the camp and festival this year, we endeavored to practice to make sure that we were at a level of play that would allow us to have as stress free of an experience at camp as possible. There were also a few recommendations on the camp’s website of the suggested skill-set you needed to have before attending. Cobain (our son) and I would be doing beginner guitar with Eliza Doyle and Kacy Anderson. Deanna and Abbey (our daughter) would be taking a beginner fiddle class with Lucas Welsh.
The only problem was that, as the camp drew nearer, we didn’t feel like we were ready. Abbey especially was quite reluctant to attend. She was not keen on going at all. She was feeling some stress and anxiety about the vulnerability in a classroom situation when you’re just starting out on an instrument. That being said, we received several reassurances from camp director Tracy Lalonde that all would be well. Lalonde works tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure everyone has a great time. Much kudos and respect to her!
Lalonde told us that Welsh is used to handling classes with a cross section of ability levels. Her many years experience spent at the camp also enabled her to have confidence in the camp’s structure and inclusivity. She felt that Abbey would do just fine. Turns out that she was right.
“You always have a little bit of varying levels of students. Some beginners, some that have played for a bit. So you always try to teach and get stuff across in a way that everybody can take something home,” Welsh told me in a brief chat we had at the end of camp week.
“Day one is really just getting to know everybody and figuring out my teaching style for the students. Even in the afternoon already on day one everybody was starting to gel and absorb and take the information in at the same pace,” continued Welsh.
Welsh turned out to be a great teacher but it also helped that each of our kids had a parent taking the class with them. They had someone to lean on when they were struggling. Abbey also received a lot of encouragement at the jams she went to. Jams usually "officially" happen at least twice in a day. Once as a "slow pitch" jam and then later on in the evening by the fire. Although several impromptu jams happen all throughout the camp.
"The jams are a great place to put to work some of the stuff that we try and teach at these workshops and give as much opportunity as we can to play. That’s the key. You get three or four days of instruction where you’re playing for five six hours a day," said Welsh.
I’m really proud to report that, by the end of camp, Abbey had become fully immersed in camp life. She went to dances, a few of the slow pitch jams, a few of the late night jams. In short, she had a blast. Both our kids said they want to come back next year which is pretty huge. They really liked their camp experience.
"Learning how to play the fiddle was fun. I like trying new things and knowing that I did something that was scary and I made it out alive. Playing in front of people was stressful but everybody was really nice. So it made it easier."
"It was fun learning to play the guitar and the food was good. I liked the jam tunes." -Cobain
Another cool thing about the camp is its uncanny ability to be inclusive of all skill levels and abilities from a very beginning "entry level" standpoint right up to the most advanced of players. Scott Cook, who performed later on during the weekend festival was attending the camp taking advanced guitar from Five Mile Mountain Road/Price Sisters’ Conner Steven Vlietstra.
Pamela Mae, who plays upright bass alongside Cook when he performs, was also there taking clawhammer banjo class from Five Mile Mountain Road’s Brennan Ernst. She had won a songwriting contest in which the grand prize was to come to the camp workshops and play her song at the festival. Mae and Cook are two very skilled musicians but yet there they were enrolled in classes so they could learn and improve.
“The classes are rather small in a sense of ten students and under so you really get a chance to have some direct experience. You have a mentor looking at what you’re doing and helping you along that you just don’t get practicing by yourself. And there’s so much camaraderie and support and then fun in the evenings. It has all the ingredients for a really great week every time,” raved Mae.
Mae's instructor, Five Mile Mountain Road guitarist Brennan Ernst, up until this point, had never done a week long stint as a camp instructor anywhere before. He is a highly talented and versatile musician in his own right. Throughout his time at the camp and festival, Ernst frequently hopped between upright bass, guitar, piano… there was probably more. I think I saw him playing the banjo at least once? It’s all a blur for me. Just know that Ernst kicks ass in pretty much every instrument he touches.
“To put it simply, it really is the community here that is super great. The people here are very friendly and approachable and easygoing in a good way and also are very interested in what is going on here. They are willing to learn and pay close attention at the workshops and the performances. It's nice to meet so many new, fun, friendly people here,” commented Ernst. We had a quick conversation in the Cantina. The Cantina (pictured above) is a building located backstage that usually acts as the artist hangout at the camp and festival. It’s where the artists wile away the evening hours jamming with one another and let me tell you the technical voracity with which these jams are played and conducted is astounding, but that’s another story. It’s also where the artists eat, converse, and stow instruments in between sets. In short, for the artists, the Cantina is a hub for them . A chance to network to a degree, but more so a place for them to unwind a bit during the day and cut lose at night.
“I loved my time as a camp instructor. I had a great class. Everybody seemed to want to learn. I probably challenged my students a bit on purpose and they all seemed to do good with it,” chimes in Five Mile Mountain Road fiddler Billy Hurt who happens to be sitting near Ernst in the Cantina during our conversation. Hurt is a very easy going and affable guy. He taught old-time fiddle and obviously enjoyed every moment of his time at camp and the festival. He's also an incredibly talented performer. I'll talk more about in detail about him in my next installment.
“There’s been so many awesome things including seeing the northern lights and some great jams and getting to meet new people I’ve never gotten to meet before. Everything is so great (here),” Hurt said of his time at camp.
*Ernst and Hurt teaching their classes
I think one of the most special things about the camp, and I’ve probably said this already, but it bears repeating, is that the culture of the camp is very community based. For the visiting musicians from The Price Sisters and Five Mile Mountain Road in particular, I think they very much got caught up in that and, as the week progressed, became a part of that community. Even though this was my first time going, I’d venture a guess that every year is like this. It’s a group of people making music together… constantly. And in that state of constant motion - the jams, the classes, the workshops, the special concerts in the JMC, the dances, the communal meals, camping and living together - something truly unique and special each year is created.
In part four, my final installment in this little series, I’ll talk about the festival. Stay tuned!