Music Camps Coast to Coast: Combining Music & Nature

Every year thousands of musicians of all types, levels, and ages head to one of hundreds of music camps held nationwide, and in Canada. This spring Making Music uncovered what the experience is like for campers at Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camp near Woodstock, New York, and California Coast Music Camp in Placer County, California.

Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camp

“People that play music at home, or even in a small band are a little bit isolated in a sense,” says Jay Ungar, Ashokan Camp founder and co-director. “Camp is a chance to come to a week-long event where there are 150 people who are into some of the same things. We live together, have meals together, jam together; it’s almost a mini utopia for that period of time—and it feels like the way life should be.”

“It’s an amazing thing to be there for six days and hear music all the time, from the moment you wake until moments beyond when you go to sleep,” adds Molly Mason, camp co-director. “Hearing music everywhere, all day, it comes into your brain in a completely different way.”

Aside from all the music, Ashokan is a place of beauty. Ungar wrote the tune “Ashokan Farewell” as a tribute to the 374-acre nature preserve, complete with trails, a gorge, waterfalls, gardens, forests, and streams. The catchy song actually helped him to build support for the Ashokan Foundation, which was set up to preserve the land forever.

All levels of learners are accepted at Ashokan. “We make it a real point to celebrate new people and beginners,” says Ungar. New arrivals participate in exercises geared toward bringing them together and familiarizing them with each other.

Music-camps-2“People don’t sign up for classes in advance, they can kind of move around and find their level,” he explains. “You might find someone who is a pretty proficient fiddle player, and they will decide to try beginning banjo.” In fact, it’s common for someone to announce that they’d like to borrow an instrument because they want to try something new.

“I’ve played violin since I was seven years old,” says Carla Rupp, 64, who’s attended Ashokan camps 10 times. “I also play piano, flute, saxophone, and clarinet, and I once took a ukulele class and a guitar class.”

“I like the casual atmosphere at Ashokan Fiddle & Dance, the acceptance, and feeling of unconditional love everyone has for each other,” adds Rupp, who lives in New York City. “It’s unlike any other place on earth.”

Forty-nine-year-old actor Tim Guinee attended Ashokan for the first time last summer, a true newbie he’d never attended any music camp before. “It’s funny going to camp for the first time reminded me of going to high school on the first day—will I fit in? will I play well enough?” he recalls asking himself, all for naught. “Ashokan is a welcoming experience for people of all levels.”

“There is a great sweetness in taking the time out and participating in something like this. My work life means that I’m on the television in front of millions of folks every week—so I have absolutely no need or desire to perform,” says Guinee, who is a regular on the NBC series Revolution. “For me the experience was about taking a week out of my life to swim in the beauty of music.”

Patrick McIntyre, a former stockbroker from New York City, was also somewhat reluctant as he drove up to his first Western & Swing camp week at age 40. “My main thoughts revolved around visions of tree-hugging hippies and the soundtrack to the movie Deliverance,” he recalls. “I could not get those dueling banjos out of my head. I made sure the car was fully gassed up and easily accessible in case I needed to escape.” Luckily that wasn’t the case. He’s returned to camp 13 times over the last 15 years.

California Coast Music Camp

California Coast Music Camp, near Auburn, California, strives to provide instruction in as many styles of music as possible during week-long sessions that are open to acoustic players of all levels.
California Coast Music Camp, near Auburn, California, strives to provide instruction in as many styles of music as possible during week-long sessions that are open to acoustic players of all levels.

“What I really love is watching people find the creativity within themselves,” says Janet Peterson, director of California Coast Music Camp (CCMC). “Camp provides the time and space for people to actually discover the joy of making and creating music, being supported, and finding other people that are interested in similar things.”

A cellist, Peterson first became involved with Puget Sound Guitar Workshop as a camper, and then as its director. She helped start CCMC in 1992. It is located on a wooded ridge overlooking a river canyon in Placer County, California.

Most CCMC attendees are from California, but Peterson has had people from as far away as Australia, American Samoa, France, and Germany attend the camp. Many of the campers are beginners, or what she calls “perennial beginners,” and they come from many different backgrounds. There are always lots of guitarists, she says, “But also voice, songwriting, mandolin, bass, dobro, banjo—any sort of acoustic instrument.”

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” says Tom Goering, a 55-year-old technical writer from Sunnyvale, California, about the first time he went to CCMC. “I was coaxed to go by some friends, and thought that a week of playing music in the woods couldn’t be too bad. I learned more and had more fun than I could have imagined. It was just an incredible blend of campout, jam, party, and serious instruction.”

Goering, who is an advanced guitarist, intermediate pianist, and beginning accordionist, recounts how much he enjoys socializing with the other musicians and instructors in what he calls a “musical and social milieu that you can’t get anywhere else.”

“I love that there is music everywhere, and that people are so friendly and welcoming,” says Bonnie Schulkin, 38, a software engineer from Berkeley, California. “The classes were also great—high quality instruction and new things for me to think about.”

“It’s a wonderfully supportive atmosphere, which makes it easy to take risks and grow musically,” says Schulkin who sings and plays ukulele and percussion. “It gives me a chance to perform. Last year I performed with a crazy ensemble—banjo, guitar, tuba, slide guitar, and trumpet, with me and two others on backup vocals.”

“One thing that gives me great joy is watching the relationships develop out of these camps,” says Peterson. “Friends find each other and keep in contact throughout the year.”

For Schulkin that was another bonus. “I didn’t expect to meet people I would see outside of camp to make and listen to music with on a regular basis—that’s been one of the most valuable parts of camp for me,” she says.

The Details

Ashokan and CCMC differ in a couple of basic ways. Ashokan offers additional instruction in dance, and weeks that focus on specific genres or instruments—Western & Swing Week, Northern Week, Southern Week, Guitar Week, Ukulele Week, and so forth.

CCMC takes a different approach. “Part of the philosophy is to be able to cover as many styles of music in any given week as possible,” says Peterson. Both camps welcome a variety of acoustic instruments, and musicians of all levels.

At Ashokan, adults are welcome to bring children of any age, and they are integrated into the various classes. “There’s something really great about someone 65, sitting next to a six-year-old in class,” says Ungar, explaining that they plan to launch a family week.

CCMC welcomes teens aged 14 and older, accompanied by adults. Those 18 and older can attend camp on their own.

Both camps provide excellent home cooked meals, where campers and teachers dine together in a social setting. There is a variety of sleeping arrangements available, from DIY camping to communal bunkhouses, and cabins.

“When people are worrying about their sleeping situations, I often say, ‘You are probably not going to be sleeping a whole lot; there’s too much to do,” laughs Peterson.

Choosing a Camp

Can’t decide which camp to go to? Here’s a list of considerations to help you narrow the choices:

  • Location, location. You will most likely be traveling with your instrument, so finding a camp you can drive to is a huge advantage.
  • Are you interested in only your primary instrument, or would you like to be able to play with other instruments and/or learn a new one?
  • What about genres? Are you eager to focus on a new one, learn more about your favorite, or explore diverse genres during your camp stay?
  • Do you want singing and dance to be part of your experience?
  • Check who is teaching. Many camp websites list teachers and their qualifications. Who knows, you may find a camp where one of your favorite guitar players is giving lessons.
  • Most camps welcome all levels of players, but double check that you find a camp that offers you challenges without being over your head.
  • Is there flexibility to change classes once the camp begins, in case the class you signed up for is not what you thought it would be?
  • Is the scheduling flexible enough to be relaxing for you? Is there enough free time built into the day?
  • Are you an outdoorsy person who enjoys hiking and singing around the campfire? If not, you may want to look for a camp that’s located at a university or music school, where you will have mainly indoor activities and stay in dorm rooms.
  • What kind of sleeping arrangements are you most comfortable with? Camps with private rooms may cost slightly more. Bringing your own tent or camper may be a cost effective solution, if the facility allows it.
  • Is your whole family musically inclined? You may want to look into a family camp or one that integrates children into its programs, and make it a family vacation.

Cherie Yurco is a former editor at Making Music and has worked as a freelance editor and writer for over 20 years.

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