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"It's an immersive experience" Northern Lights Bluegrass Camp 2023 classes in session

by Scott Roos

photos by Scott and Deanna Roos

*editor's note: I am speaking about the camp this time round from the standpoint of a total beginner but there are plenty of advanced and intermediate classes for the more experienced players. The camp has endless possibilities to explore as a musician when it comes to the bluegrass genre and first rate teachers to help you through that process.

The Well Drinkers banjo picker Jeremy Rilko (right) looks on as one of his banjo students practices his rolls (photo by Scott Roos)

Full disclosure: I’ve been drawn to the sound of the banjo for a long time. It’s hard to pinpoint when my appreciation for the instrument started, but it’s been there ever since I can remember. When I’m listening to music, my ears always perk up when I hear a banjo in the mix. I want to say that maybe it was Jimmy Page’s rudimentary picking in “Gallows Pole” on Led Zeppelin III which I probably heard for the first time in the early 90’s that really sealed the deal for me but I’m not too sure. Suffice to say that, my appreciation for the timbre of the instrument is strong. I'm no neophyte when it comes to my overall love of the banjo.

“I think what draws people (to the banjo) without them knowing it is the syncopation. It is like you're playing a three note pattern within phrases that are four bears long. So it's like a bit of polyrhythm going on,” Happy Trails, Prospector banjo picker Miles Zurawell had told me in telephone interview we did a few weeks back to help promote his band’s appearance at the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Camp and Festival, “The notes are falling where as a listener you’re not necessarily expecting them to sometimes and I think that really draws people's ear to it. There's also surprises going on. Good bluegrass banjo players have so much energy and momentum in their playing.”

Zurawell, far right, with his band Happy Trails, Prospector (photo by Deanna Roos)

It’s an interesting theory and it probably holds weight. I like bluegrass music a lot these days and honestly, it’s probably the twangy banjo sound that I dig about it the most. Sooooo after the 2022 Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Camp wrapped last year, I went out and bought an Epiphone banjo on P.A. Buy and Sell. Yes, I did try and figure it out periodically since then but I’ve always been a “learn by doing” sort of guy and not having someone around me to guide me through the initial process made the undertaking of learning the rudimentary aspects of the instrument to be quite daunting. For the most part, unfortunately, the instrument sat in my studio untouched collecting dust. When the opportunity presented itself for me to go to the camp again this year I knew that I’d be taking my banjo with me and that I'd be enrolling in the "all levels bluegrass banjo class". The chance to get some instruction from a quality teacher was too tempting to resist.

Zurawell had told me when playing the banjo to “think like a drummer”. It’s the drive and percussive nature of the instrument that helps propel a quality bluegrass ensemble forward. It gives the music momentum. Those words are reverberating in the back of my brain as I climb the hill on the Ness Creek grounds up to the information booth on the first day of camp. That’s where my class with Well Drinkers banjo picker Jeremy Rilko will be happening. I’m nervous and out of my comfort zone and the instructional aspect of the class hasn’t even started yet.

Good thing Rilko is a super chill dude. Turns out he grew up in Michigan and has been playing the banjo for about eight years. I’m not sure when Rilko ended up in Ric Flair country aka North Carolina but his band’s bio says they formed there in 2019. Listening to their tunes they do have a traditional element in their sound for sure but they also mix in bits and pieces of roots, Americana and borderline jam band sonics. I guess this defines them as “newgrass". Rilko’s banjo is featured prominently in everything The Well Drinkers do which is cool.

Rilko was a great teacher. He gave us some things to work on and would circulate giving each of us some valuable one on one time. We also worked together in large and small groups (photo by Scott Roos)

There’s six of us enrolled in the bluegrass banjo class and it’s evident early on that we are all at different levels of skill and ability. Rilko shows us a few basics and gives us some tablature sheets to look at that break down a few common rolls on the instrument. Rolls are basically arpeggiated picking patterns using your thumb, index and middle fingers that are essential in giving the banjo that driving sound. You pretty much have to have these rolls down without even thinking about them in order to have even the slightest margin of success. I’ve never really tried to do any kind of picking before (last year I learned guitar) let alone on a weird shaped five string instrument. So I struggle but it’s good to have some basics in front of me and with Rilko’s guidance I begin to stumble my way through it.

Eventually, Rilko splits the group up so that he can do some more advanced concepts with the two stronger players. There’s three of us that are pretty much beginners and one student that is close to getting things down to be in the more experienced crew but is not quite there yet in terms of her confidence. She picks things up quickly, though, and sort of bounces back and forth between the groups. It goes on like this for the three days of classes that we have until our triumphant performance of “Cripple Creek” at the camp showcase event. I really enjoyed Rilko's calm demeanor in this class. He was great.

Banjo student Aurora Wolfe, who some will no doubt recognize as the frontwoman of her band Dump Babes, having a "eureka" moment. (photo by Scott Roos)

At camp you arrive on Monday afternoon and register. Your classes start on Tuesday and conclude Thursday night with a concert. You get three sessions a day up until that point so it feels like you're playing your instrument constantly. To be honest I felt like I was in over my head but, at the same time, through my beginning journey on the banjo I felt the love and support from the community of campers that were there. It’s a very supportive environment in general. Anyone that has been a part of the camp essentially echoes the same sentiment.

Later on in the week, I chatted with members of Regina bluegrass outfit Soil and Grass who were taking classes at the camp themselves. The three who did, Quinn Legare, Karley Parovsky and Nick Day are all very talented players in their own right but also fully recognize their own personal reasons for attending. It’s good to have some goals in mind before you go to camp.

For Parovsky, who is a violinist with the Regina Symphony Orchestra, playing bluegrass is relatively new to her. She relished the opportunity to study with Happy Trails Prospector’s Nathan Smith. Smith was able to guide her in the right direction to improve. He gave her a sense of accountability when it came to the concepts he introduced to his advanced fiddling class. Parovsky knows what she needs to do and the things she needs to practice but having Smith close by helped her to take those tentative steps forward. For Day and Legare, coming from a more self taught approach, the skills they learned in class helped to broaden their horizons when it came to vocal harmony.

Nathan Smith worked on improvisation with his advanced fiddle class. Parovsky is seen here intently focusing on Smith (photo by Scott Roos)

“The reason I took vocal harmony (class with Nico Humby of Happy Trails, Prospector) was because we sing in our band,” explains Day, “I sing a lot of lead but singing has always been something that I sort just do…. I didn’t necessarily understand how to choose which note I was singing or if I was singing the right note. So I thought taking this course would help break it down and improve it.”

“It gave a really nice entry point to harmony,” continues Legare who took the course alongside Day, “ It was always a daunting thing to go into but now after coming out of the class it feels like yeah maybe I can’t necessarily do it (right now) but it gives me all the building blocks to get there so it’s pretty exciting.”

I think Legare hits it on the head when it comes to the whole “class” experience at camp. Set the bar high for yourself but don’t expect miracles to happen right away if you’re a beginner. Chances are you will come out of camp with a degree of functionality when it comes to your playing or singing but you likely won’t be a virtuoso just yet. That’s not taking anything away from the camp. That is just reality. Learning a musical instrument takes time and patience - bottom line. But the immersive aspect of the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music camp is a nice little shove in the right direction.

“That’s why the camp is so good. It's an intense and immersive experience. Sometimes I think you learn some stuff that you might not even see in your playing right away but six months later it’s worked its way into your playing or your singing or whatever because (the camp is) so immersive,” Day adds.

Legare (L), Day (M) and Parovsky (R) took time out during camp week to refine their set and work on some of the concepts they learned in their classes. They would play a few tweener sets at the festival. (photo by Scott Roos)

Honestly, as a beginning level banjo player, I can now confidently say that I have the tools with me that I can work on to improve. It will come down to how much time I spend woodshedding between now and next year as to how far I will get to my goal of being a shredtastic player. If I do what needs to be done and set a reasonable practice schedule for myself, it's definitely possible to a degree.

But, the class is just one aspect of your week at the bluegrass camp. There’s workshops, fireside jams, slow pitch jams if you're a beginner, dances and plenty of free time to either practice your instrument/singing or to explore the local flora and fauna of the area around the Ness Creek site. For the little ones, from age five to nine, there's "fungrass" which provides some interesting music education options. The food from Third and Main (the caterer for the event), if you’ve signed on for a meal plan, is fantastic. There’s plenty of gorgeous spots on site for camping too.

It’s positive vibes all round from the start of the experience to the very end. Kudos to Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Society for putting on a another banner year of events. My family and I had a great time once again and it's all thanks to the hard work of many many people to make it all happen.

Steph Cameron was this year's "Fungrass" instructor. It looked like she had a lot of fun with the kids! (photo by Scott Roos)

Jams happen nightly by the fire. They are very inclusive of all skill levels but jams at a more leisurely pace called "slow pitch" happen in the afternoon (photo by Deanna Roos)

Dances happen during camp week but also nightly during the festival. If you are unfamiliar with the dance steps there's also a workshop to help you along(photo by Deanna Roos)

Noteworthy quotables:

"It was a really fun and high energy week. I always loved this camp because of the way the community is just so solid and supportive of each other and that was certainly true of this past week. I had a great class and everybody was comfortable taking risks and playing and celebrating music together." -Nathan Smith (intermediate/advanced bluegrass fiddle instructor)

"It’s inspiring to be here around so many amazing musicians. It’s makes you want to get better and better. It’s a very welcoming community where everybody seems happy to have you no matter what kind of level you are." -Adam Robert (Five Guys Named Dave)

"It’s just such an inviting and safe community to try stuff out and play with other musicians."

- Holly Gilroy (Gil and Wil)

"My class was my favourite class I’ve ever taught. I had a great time." -Nico Humby (vocal harmony instructor)

"Things went well. I mean it was definitely reliant on the students being patient and forgiving of myself as a teacher. I prepped for the vocal harmony class and had to change it up and teach dobro and with teaching it’s never a matter of not knowing what to teach. It’s a matter of knowing how to teach it in a class with multiple levels. It went really well. They were all really thankful to have a dobro class to begin with and they are all great learners better than I could have hoped." -Miles Zurawell (dobro instructor. Note: Zurawell was a last minute addition to this class as the scheduled instructor was unable to attend)

"I really liked camp. I liked that I was able to play with and have access to professional musicians. It was fun learning guitar with other people." - Cobain Roos (beginner guitar student)

"The instructors were really good this year. From a student point of view they were all really friendly and approachable and really knowledgeable and patient. Trying to learn some of the crazy licks and runs of an intermediate/advanced guitarist was a little intimidating at the beginning but by the end of the week I’m rip roaring away doing the jams playing the stuff I learned. I’m feeling really motivated to take what I learned and apply it my own playing and our own gigs." - Rebecca Hammel (Five Guys Named Dave)

"My class was challenging but fun. Nathan (Smith) encouraged us to put ourselves out there without fear in a safe space. He gave us some foundational learning specific to bluegrass fiddle that we can take away with us into our future musical endeavors. It was such a rewarding experience and I can't wait for next year." - Deanna Roos (intermediate/advanced bluegrass fiddle student)

"I thought that this year was really good in terms of accessibility for the beginners.... It was fun to watch them going from not knowing a ton of stuff to actively participating and dancing and getting out there....There was a thirst for people learning stuff here this year which was cool." -Michael Taylor (beginner mandolin instructor)

Here's a slide show of some more class pictures:

*Here's a few pics of some of the classes that I went around to on the last day of camp. I didn't have the time to make it out to all of them.

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