At first I was hesitant to write about a personal experience. Posting what could be perceived as self-aggrandizement on a blog, which I’ve dedicated to fiction, seemed like a bad idea. I decided to go with the rationalization that I’d actually be writing a review of an event I attended. What I discovered was something much more and although this is perhaps the longest blog entry I’ve made, I hope my readers and followers have the patience to read it through to the end. What I’m sharing is a record of a transformational experience that can be had by anyone with an open mind and heart.
I’ll begin by admitting that I was a casualty of piano scales in my youth and just about gave up on learning to play music all together until just a few years ago when I heard Blue Grass music done right. Unable to resist, I took up Blue Grass Banjo and gave it a year before smacking into a wall that put me right back where I was as a kid, sitting on in front of a piano memorizing sheet music. I thought maybe I just needed some inspiration, such a wonderful word and concept. By happen stance, last summer I bumped into Mark Nelson, a musician who encouraged me to come to the Walker Creek Music Camp.
This was to be my first contact with any kind of encampment involving the creative arts. It was also a spendy proposition causing me to formulate expectations of what I would come away with at the end. Would I be freed from the bonds of the rut I found myself in as a fledgling banjo picker? Would I return home armed with a new fiddle tune that I could play on my banjo, or maybe another set of picking patterns to keep me busy during practice sessions?
I thought maybe yeah, this experience I was about to have might help me bust out of my comfort zone. I loved that warm cozy place where I could relax behind the anonymity of a group of other musicians in a slow jam. There I could continue to shrug off any opportunity to take a lead break. I also wondered if I’d have the courage to one day fulfill one of my bucket list dreams; playing and singing in front of other people.
When I arrived at Walker Creek, the sun was shining and the place was a buzz of activity with people of all ages. The atmosphere still had a laid back feel to it, even though everyone seemed eager to get accommodation and class assignments in order. I could already tell that the event was well organized. Weeks earlier, when I signed up on the secure website, which worked flawlessly, I plugged in my debit card info, including that three number code on the back of the card. I took a deep breath because it was a big chunk of hard earned cash that instantly vaporized from my bank account. My concerns immediately vanished when I received an email reply indicating I was registered for the beginner Old Time Banjo Class.
Silly me, even though I like the sound of Old Time Music I didn’t think I was ready to learn the claw hammer style on the banjo. I’d already invested time with the Skruggs style and as a newbie, I knew I’d only be able to learn one thing at a time. I decided to email the event coordinator, Ingrid Noyes. I explained my situation but had no idea who Ingrid was. Remember, I’m a beginner and clueless about the who’s who in the world of American Folk and Blue Grass. To my delight Ingrid emailed me back right away and we fixed my little issue with on-line registration. I thought cool, I had my ducks in a row, but I found out later I was mistaken.
For me it is difficult to articulate the emotion of happy anxiety, but that is what must have been working overtime in my cranium. It must have caused me to be somewhat disoriented that first day. As soon as I arrived, I heard the sounds of music being played on guitar, banjo, fiddle, and the sweet melodic tones from the mandolin. Voices singing in harmony tickled my senses and I wondered, how could I possibly be able to join in with all of those who were playing and singing? I thought I was in way over my head! and I was, at least at first.
On that first morning, I was so pleased to find myself in a small room with only eight other musicians. Among those present, there was a standard representation of Blue Grass instruments. Bill Evans, a world-class banjo player and teacher, led the class. His assistant, Luke Abbot from Santa Cruz was holding a stand up bass. I’d already experienced some introductory music theory from Luke the previous afternoon. In his lesson I discovered the pentatonic scale, which gave me another tool needed for playing by ear. All said, I thought I was in the right place until we started out jamming on “Soldiers Joy.” Yeah, sure I’ve heard that tune. I can play it, but just barely. It was a warm up tune for the others but for me it was a huge struggle. To my delight, Ingrid Noyes showed up at the door right about the time I was going into panic mode.
As the event coordinator, Ingrid was managing a crowd of four hundred participants, along with a large staff of music teachers, and they weren’t just ordinary music teachers either they were celebrities. Anyhow, it must have made for a pretty stressful weekend. Ingrid somehow managed to recruit some of the best Blue Grass musicians in the world to inspire all of us and teach us. Realizing this, I didn’t expect any personal attention from her. I got it though. She escorted me to the class I should have been in and made sure I was in a safe learning environment.
After Ingrid left to attend to other responsibilities, I thought, wow! In my former profession, I attended several big events and periodically had to conduct some project management. What ran through my mind was, all the planning and execution she had to put into everything from venue coordination, meal menu, housing/accommodation, curriculum and the list goes on…point being, as an accomplished musician herself, Ingrid took the time to make me feel valued as a student of music.
I entered the small room where my new class was being held. Everyone was strumming on their guitar, mandolin or vamping a banjo along with our teacher, Sid Lewis. Sid was tapping out rhythm with his foot on a tambourine while strumming guitar and calling out chords. Standing next to him was his assistant Kyla Kent. With her left hand wrapped around the neck of her Bad Boy she gave me a bright smile as I took a seat. She wasn’t really strangling a Bad Boy, it is the name she gave her stand up bass. Anyway, I soon realized I’d found my home in Jamming 101. By the end of the morning I knew I’d be returning to Portland with something new and good in my musical tool kit.
After the honeymoon phase of “day one” in Sid’s class, I discovered that the instruction I was receiving was first rate. At my age, I’ve been the recipient and provider of instruction on many occasions and I know talented instruction when I’m the beneficiary of it. Sid came well prepared to provide us with the very best musical instruction possible. He reached out to each of us individually and what he offered to one student, easily rubbed off on the others. I think the big word is synergy – the whole being bigger than the sum of all parts. Oh, and by the way, this guy Sid Lewis isn’t just a first rate teacher, he’s got the credibility of being an extraordinary musician of all genre, equally proficient with guitar, mandolin, and yes, even the banjo. Why he chose Blue Grass and why the banjo as his primary instrument may remain a mystery to me. Regardless, I’m so fortunate to have been the recipient of his instruction.
After four days of immersing myself in a community of like-minded people, all presumably seeking the same thing on their musical journey, I set about trying to identify the light bulb moments and revelations that will bring me back to the Walker Creek Music Camp. A little chronology applies here:
Light bulb moment #1 – On the second morning I sat with a couple from Ashland and we chatted over breakfast. Most of our conversation revolved around where we were from and what instrument we came to camp with. Later that same evening there was a Blue Grass Karaoke. This wasn’t some honkytonk Karaoke with an old analog TV and VHS tape scrolling lyrics across a screen while cheesy audio blared from cheap speakers.
Did I mention the WORLD CLASS musicians who Ingrid invited to Walker Creek to teach us? Yeah well, they were the back up band. Names like Keith Little, Ron Thompson, Bill Evans, the Canote brothers, Sally Van Meter, Sharon Gilchrist, Heidi Clare, and Fletcher Bright, just to name a few, played as the backup band for the students brave enough to sign up for this Karaoke event. The couple from Ashland did a Mandolin-Guitar combo singing and playing a sweet love song that conjured up some undefined emotions for me and that is when it hit me. They knew this would be a chance to share the stage and perform with the world’s best musicians. They came prepared!!! They followed one of the Ten JamMandments Sid Lewis taught us in Jamming 101!
Take Away #1: If I can return to Walker Creek prepared, I too might be able to check off another box on my bucket list. When or where else might an ordinary amateur/recreational musician be able to play along side such talent?
Light bulb moment #2: The night following the Karaoke, the teaching staff gave a concert. The performances were; yes, you guessed it, WORLD CLASS. I’ll call out one performance in particular as an example. Mark Nelson played some slack key guitar with Sally Van Meter on dobro. They did a Hawaiian tune that I can’t remember the name of, but man what I saw was magic. To the accompaniment of their beautiful instrumental island sounds, I watched happiness and laughter emerge from both of them as they played. Even at their experience level, I could tell they were having the time of their lives. Along with the rest of the audience, I bore witness to a musical conversation that probably doesn’t happen all that often.
Take Away #2: I was raised in an environment where showing emotion was darn near forbidden. Later in my professional life, allowing emotion to emerge at the wrong time would have been fatal. For those reasons, I spent a lifetime learning to keep emotions in check. As a result I missed entirely too much joy and laughter. When I finally listened, saw and felt what was happening on that stage, I knew I wanted to experience that kind of joy. I realized then that the joy and happiness that comes from being able to play music with others is something that grows exponentially. I decided my chance for that kind of enjoyment can only be achieved if I practice and improve.
Light bulb moment #3: I let a couple of gals from LA talk me into attending a vocal workshop. I vaguely remember going to a house concert in Portland and recognized the names Sammy Lind and Caleb Klauder from the Fog Horn String Band. I thought, yeah I’ll go, thinking it wouldn’t mean I have to sing or anything. I’ll just hang back and blend with the others. Wrong! Sammy and Caleb sang us some Carter Family songs then demonstrated the lead and harmony parts. I somehow got swept up in the group energy and found myself singing. I even tried harmony and felt/heard for the first time the joy of using voice as an instrument.
During the workshop after we learned our parts, Caleb asked us to mingle and sing with the other students. I found a guy about my age in the back of the room by himself singing the harmony so I wandered over that way as we sang. Before we finished the song, everything in our little area of the room started to sound really good. I looked over and realized Sammy Lind was standing next to us singing. When we were done, in his most humble way, Sammy told us we sounded really good.
The vocal workshop culminated in all of us doing a kind of flash mob acapella harmony version of “Give Me The Roses While I live,” right there in the dining hall after dinner.
Take Away #3: Both Caleb and Sammy have amazing voices, especially when they sing together. Both of them are humble and soft-spoken genuine people. It took my entire Fifty-three years to discover that if you are really good at something, you don’t have to talk about it. Talent will speak for itself. Guys like Sammy and Caleb are the kind of role models I want to follow and emulate. Maybe not as a vocalist, but as a gentleman like the two of them.
Light bulb moment #4: I suspect many people have experienced themselves in the midst of another person’s cliché, or at least seen one in a movie. The kind of thing I’m referring to here is the child prodigy. I was lunching out on the patio with some other students from San Francisco. One of them was a younger lady who told me she was finishing a Masters Degree in Social Work. While we were engaged in conversation, a cute little girl with a violin case walked over to her.
The younger woman with whom I was chatting had a warm magnetism that somehow attracted this little girl to set her violin case down on the bench between us. The girl maybe wanted to talk to the young woman, I’m not sure, but instead of speaking, she opened her violin case and very carefully picked up her bow and made some adjustments to it before reaching for her instrument. Then she began to play – like an angel she played with precision and passion, unfettered by the possibility of making a mistake. She didn’t though. Her pitch and intonation were both perfect. I just sat and listened closing my eyes and taking in the sound in all of its purity.
Take Away #4: All of us know kids are fearless. Why is it so hard for us adults to shed the bonds of our fear of being judged by others? This is something I will be working on and my new role model is a young girl with a fiddle who played one afternoon at Walker Creek.
Light bulb moment #5: One of my classmates in Sid’s Jamming 101 set the bar pretty high when it came to establishing musical goals. At the end of the camp, students were invited to perform in a concert. Sid encouraged us to participate and we did…with gusto. For me it was another check mark on my bucket list. I always wanted to have the courage to play and sing in front of other people.
After our group performance, the student I’m referring to, along with a few of her friends performed a song she wrote, titled “Between a Rock and a River.” The lyrics were touching. My classmate was courageously opening herself up and baring part of her soul. Had I not listened to her wonderful song, I would not have taken advantage of the ten-hour drive back to Portland to reflect on the experience I had at Walker Creek. Instead I would have plugged in an audio book to alleviate the boredom from the long drive home.
Take Away #5: I’m going to allow myself to be inspired. I’m going to learn to bare my soul so my heart will be open to what I hear. I’m going to learn how to be a better listener so I don’t miss anything.
Summing up this experience I’m reminded of something another of my classmates at Walker Creek shared with me. She’s a cancer survivor-twice over, which may explain her contagious smile. She gave me a lot to think about. She said she believed that her encounters with people and situations were not by chance, but rather by some penultimate design.
On my drive home somewhere on I-5 just north of Roseburg, nature called and I pulled into a rest stop. What could be more cliché’ than a girl with a guitar and a cloth hat on the ground beside a cardboard sign that read, “Out of Work – Anything Helps.” If I’d encountered this same situation a week ago, the outcome would have been different. After all, I live in Portland, I’m used to seeing this same thing everyday.
I passed by this young lady in a rush to take care of my business, but not before the sounds emanating from her guitar soothed my auditory receptors. On the way back to my car I decided I would stop and listen. The first thing I noticed was a capo on the third fret. My brain went into overdrive – I’m thinking hey I have a banjo in my car, do I dare? The root chord she’s playing is a D shape making the key…what was that again, up three half tones making that the key of F…”STOP, STOP!” I heard a voice in my head, it was from one of my classmates at the camp telling me not to over think the music.
I set aside my little fantasy of playing along with her – it wouldn’t have sounded good anyway. She sang her original lyrics to a good old American folk rock strum and picked out a fill or two between verses. I stopped everything I was doing and allowed myself to listen to the whole song.
I heard her sing her last line of the chorus,
“…I know you’ll find me. You’ll come and carry me home.”
After the last verse of a sad tale that may have been inspired by life’s hard knocks, She repeated this last line of the chorus and softened her volume as she came to the end. I looked at the cloth hat lying empty on the ground in front of her cardboard sign. I put some money in it. She looked up at me and smiled and asked, “Did you like it?” I couldn’t answer, I just nodded in the affirmative and tried not to break eye contact with her even though tears were streaming from both my eyes. I turned away not wanting to spoil the moment, got in my car and drove away.
When I was done imagining all the possible reasons behind that girl being there at that moment, sitting on a chair at a rest stop with a guitar, I cried a little more in the privacy of my car. A little while later, I came to my senses and realized what happened. I’d become transformed. I still don’t know all the places this transformation is going to take me, but I do know that one of those places will be Walker Creek.
For more information about Walker Creek Music Camp, visit their website at:
For information about Jamming 101, I urge musicians beginners and beyond to visit Sid Lewis’s website:
For additional musical inspiration for those who like to read, I also recommend following Sid Lewis’s blog. Among his many talents, he’s an entertaining writer: