January 5, 2019

A Fiddle Camp Primmer

There’s a fine line between fishing and standing on the shore looking like an idiot. – Steven Wright

Although I’ve played the fiddle for more years than I care to count, my decision a number of years ago to take my eight year-old daughter to a fiddle camp in Montana had as much to do with trout fishing as it did fiddling. Foolish though I was, I actually thought then that I was “too accomplished” on the fiddle to get much out of an acoustic music camp, and figured I’d leave the offered lessons to my daughter and use the down time to toss flies at fish. Now pretty much anyone who’s even remotely familiar with Montana knows that its streams in June are usually so swollen from snow-melt that, while leviathans still lurk in some deep and dark holds, at that time of year it takes a mighty experienced angler to entice them onto a hook, much less pull them up and out of a ranging torrent. Long story short, this California “rube” ended up shelving his rod and, per advice of the camp’s head honcho, Fred Buckley, participated in the intermediate/advanced fiddle class taught at the camp that year by one Calvin Vollrath. All said, while I didn’t catch any fish, I not only came away from the experience with a few new tunes, many new friends, and a humbling yet motivating, context by which to judge my abilities, I was so moved by what I – and my daughter – had experienced, that I began to develop a plan.

I returned a year later to the same camp, only this time brought both my daughters. Knowing what to expect from of the relevant rivers, I harbored no thoughts of fishing (although I still brought along some gear) and, like my kids, engaged at the outset in the instructional offerings of the camp. I also came with an agenda to learn as much as I could about the production of a fiddle camp, having clear and stated intent to develop and produce something similar in an area closer to my home in San Diego. Naturally I, as well as my daughters, returned from the camp musically and socially enriched, but given Fred Buckley’s unparalleled graciousness and candor, I also returned with important details related to creating, running and managing a fiddle camp – I felt both honored and encouraged.

The author and his two daughters — Montana 2010

My debt to Fred Buckley and the Montana (State Old-time Fiddlers Association’s) Fiddle Camp is incalculable, as is that owed to Calvin Vollrath. Fred has remained a mentor and consultant for the camp I now produce in Julian, CA, and Calvin not only served as the lead instructor for the Julian camp’s first and second year, he, like Fred, is a willing touchstone if and/or when I’ve questions related to anything having to do with fiddle camps. Indeed, in developing this piece, Calvin made a number of interesting points, and noted in particular that he believes every contemporary Canadian fiddle camp, as well as many in the US, have in some way or another, been influenced by the first fiddle camp in Canada, i.e., the Saskatchewan Cultural Exchange Society’s Emma Lake Fiddle Camp. To be specific, he said that, while the Emma Lake Fiddle

Camp was an annual affair for many years (1985 – 2008), its framework became a template that is, in some form or another, employed by every fiddle camp with which he’s personally familiar. To make his point, he referenced a number of camps, included his own in St. Edouard Alberta (Camp Calvin), explained that, prior to establishing the camp in Montana, the Buckley family had attended the camp at Emma Lake, and effectively made the case that, through extension, the Emma Lake Fiddle Camp template had similarly influenced the framework I, too, employ at the Julian Family Fiddle Camp. Challenged by this knowledge, I felt need to go to “the source”, and through Calvin, gained introduction to, and spoke at length with, Gordon Fisch, the person responsible for developing and directing the Emma Lake Fiddle Camp for the majority of its twenty three years. What follows then, is a titration of my discussions with three other fiddle camp producers, i.e., Fred Buckley, Calvin Vollrath and Gordon Fisch, and a summary of the key elements found common to all fiddle camps with which we’re individually and collectively familiar. In short, fiddle camps:

  • Rely primarily on an aural tradition of teaching and the learning of tunes. While sheet music, tablature or chord charts may be referenced and/or used, they are not core to the teaching, but a possible adjunct.
  • Are as much social events as they are instructional, i.e., one should come not only expecting, but wanting, to make new acquaintances and friends.
  • Appeal to families, young players, mid-life and older players, as well as “hot” adolescents players who are hungry to advance their high level of musicianship.
  • Appeal to adults who are in transition, e.g., newly retired, divorced or widowed.
  • Offer instruction at a variety of levels and often on other instruments.
  • Encourage attendees to study in a main group, as well as offer opportunities to attend shorter workshops and/or special-topic seminars.
  • Usually engage a few instructors who represent and/or have mastered certain styles of fiddling.
  • Particularly seek and engage instructors who are, by nature and temperament, available, receptive, and able to respond with agility, to a variety of interests and requests posed by a diverse group of camp attendees.
  • Extend over any number of days.
  • Include opportunities for student performances.
  • Are intentionally inclusive and designedly fun.

Calvin Vollrath instructing at the Emma Lake Fiddle Camp, Saskatchewan, CAN – 1988

While there are common elements to most fiddle camps, there are many things unique to individual camps. In particular, fiddle camps:

  • Can vary greatly in length
  • Can focus on one or many musical genres and/or styles
  • May – or may not – offer a variety of accommodations
  • May – or may not – offer board
  • May – or may not – offer other, non-music related activities
  • Are held in a variety of different settings and locations
  • Can be found any time of year in one location or another
  • Vary greatly in price

May – or may not – offer opportunities for scholarships (full or partial) and/or

“work/study” discounts

With the above serving as a starting place for those considering attendance at a fiddle camp, the truth is, there’s “good” news and “bad” news. The “good” news is that there’s over one hundred fiddle camps and workshops noted in Fiddler Magazine’s on-line listing for the US and Canada alone. The “bad” news is … there’s over one hundred fiddle camps and workshops noted in Fiddler Magazine’s on-line listing for the US and Canada. Yes, from one fiddle camp started in 1985, there are now over a hundred and, while sorting through them might seem daunting, you can bet you will find one that will suit your time-frame, interests and needs.

As for suiting interests and needs, it’s not only important to know what you’re looking for, it’s wise to learn what others who’ve attended a particular camp (or camps) have to say about their experiences. The internet obviously makes this easy today, but for further context, it’s also recommended that one speak directly to whoever is responsible for developing and directing a particular camp. To embellish this point, I’m compelled to reference a conversation I had awhile back with Bruce Molsky. In short, Bruce was performing in my area, so I arranged to join him for a post-performance dinner, with intent on talking with him about fiddle camps and his experiences as a camp instructor. I broached the subject by asking if, as a result of his teaching for so many years at so many different camps, fiddle camps didn’t all start to become a bit of a “blur”. Surprisingly, Bruce humbly yet distinctly disagreed, stating that it was particularly striking to him just how much the camps actually differed. He said that while there were clear structural elements most of the camps shared, each tended to distinguish itself by reflecting the personality and values of the person – or persons – responsible for their development and production. The conversation was (at least from my point of view …) quite interesting, but the brilliance of his aikido-like response was that it innocuously yet effectively redirected my query and, in essence, required that I clarify to him my motives and goals for developing a camp.

Thus, as I was required to express to Bruce, I feel obliged to express here that, from all I’ve come to see and learn, the production of a fiddle camp is, first and foremost, – a labor of love (Yes, this is, amongst other things, a euphemism for … it doesn’t pay very well). That said, it demands a clear vision of – and devotion to – what one seeks to achieve, combined with dedication not only to administrative detail, but sensitivity and responsiveness to the interests and needs of well-vetted instructors, all camp attendees (and their accompanying family members), and the community and/or site where the camp is held. One must work hard to attend to, and navigate, the various interests, and while financial elements are certainly significant, sights must remain on the primary goal. While I can’t profess to voice the goals of other fiddle camps, in the case of the one I produce in Julian, CA, the Camp’s success is measured in part by the ledger sheet, in part by the quality of the experience people have at the camp itself, and primarily by whether or not camp attendees seek to play more music after the camp than they did prior to camp attendance. In other words, the Camp must inspire.

A final thought. While attendance at a fiddle camp should, in my view, inspire one to play more music, in all honesty, my own attendance at fiddle camps didn’t have this effect. After all, I did – and do – play a lot of music. What fiddle camp attendance did do, however, is show me, i.e., a guy in his late fifties who is a father of three and a person who has enjoyed playing music in some form or another since the age of six, that there are ways to engage youth and adults alike in the activity of making music that are immediate, personal, social, independent of drugs or alcohol, and – believe it or not – do not require the use of modern electronic devices. Ultimately, until experiencing a fiddle camp, I knew of no approach or framework that so effectively inspired people of all ages to stretch their musical abilities, and do so in a way that was so authentic, so deeply human, and so much darn fun.

Adults and kids fiddling and dancing at the Julian Family Fiddle Camp

I am truly honored to have earned the candor and friendship of so many people that have, and do, support the development and production of a fiddle camp, and encourage any and all to participate in and enjoy what fiddle camps have to offer. Yes, there’s much to assessing one’s fit with a particular camp, and there’s certainly wisdom not only in seeking and/or knowing what others who’ve attended a camp have to say about it, but also in gaining a sense as to what motivates those behind a particular camp’s production. No doubt, location, reputation, types of accommodation, meals, dates and student demographics are important parts of the fiddle camp equation, but on a particularly personal note, I can only add that, it also helps if the nearby stream runs easy, and the fish are willing.


Written by camp founder, Avery Ellisman.

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