Thinking about Fiddle Camp?

 By Anya Sturm

fiddle-camp275When you think of a YMCA camp, music or fiddling isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. More like boy scouts playing in the forest. But some of my most amazing summer experiences have been at a YMCA camp: Camp Campbell near Santa Cruz, where the annual Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School is held. Run by Alasdair Fraser, with regular instructors, faculty, 2 guest artists, and about 200 campers, Valley of the Moon (VOM) it is the preeminent Scottish fiddle camp in the world and has been the blueprint for other music camps, such as the Rocky Mountain Fiddle Camp.

Every year, Alasdair brings in two major guest fiddlers who represent a particular style of fiddling and a bunch of other instructors (guitar, cello, piano, dance, singing) who come to work and jam with the 200 campers. There are classes for everybody whether you play guitar or fiddle. No matter if you’re a total beginner or have been playing all your life (and there are many fantastic musicians among the students), Valley of the Moon has something new to teach you!

There are three main fiddle classes; moderate, fast up, and fast down. Alasdair and the two guest artists will rotate through these classes every day. This year, the main guest instructors were Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, singer, fiddler, and founder of the Irish band Altan  and André Brunet, a fiddler from Quebec. Other classes include cello, dance, guitar, percussion, singing, as well as a slower fiddle class and a beginner fiddle class. Several of those teachers have been coming to Valley of the Moon since they were kids and now are established musicians in their own right: Natalie Haas, Hanneke Cassel, or 5-time Weiser Grand champion Tristan Clarridge. Lots of other good musicians are just participants, including Mike Block (a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble), Brittany Haas, or Tashina Clarridge, also a Weiser Grand Champion. They drive a lot of the vibe at Valley of the Moon.

Part of what makes Valley of the Moon such a unique camp is that it mixes music from different traditional cultures with partying and dancing. André brought his band, De Temps Antan, a trio, which adds percussion with their feet. Aside from the fiddle class, he did a workshop on the foot-tapping. I’m still working on the foot-tapping while playing fiddle, but am getting the hang. Pierre Luc Dupuis, the harmonica and accordion player in De Temps Antan, taught us some classic party songs in French. Now people know something to join in with in Quebec. Not exactly a party song, but this is one of my favorite things I learned from them this year: 

While many people turn in to bed at “normal” hours, some even before 10:00pm, many stay up most of the night. You may be missing great music if you sleep too much, and there were some terrific Irish sessions lead by Mairead this year that got going after midnight. By the end of the camp, there are people who have been running on 5 hours of sleep the entire week. There always is music going on in some part of the camp at any time of night or day, whether at 2:00pm or at 3:00am. There are also organized activities and most nights have dancing. Here’s a clip from a dance and how it looks when the little kids are still out (that was 5 years ago, I was 7 then, I’m the little girl with pig tails on the left:

Family Dance at Boulder Creek

I couldn’t tell much about the dance band then other than that my brother played guitar with them, but it was a great group, including Bruce Molsky on fiddle. A fun event is a Ceilidh, something like a talent show, where various people come onto stage to perform a tune, a skit, or any thing else they would want to do.

A peculiar VOM tradition is “raiding”. If you to bed early, don’t be surprised to be woken up by people who sneak around the camp at 2 in the morning, looking for sleeping cabins. When they find one, they open the door and start jamming their hearts out in the cabin. Generally though, you don’t mind it because they will often play a good tune, or a really beautiful tune that puts to back into your own world again. Here is a crack of dawn one with a huge group, most of them hadn’t gone to bed yet:

Valley of the Moon Camp Morning Raid

The last 24 hours of camp become particularly busy. On the last day of camp, there aren’t any classes, but there is an all-morning rehearsal to prepare for the end-of-camp concert in Santa Cruz’ Civic Auditorium. Everyone’s a bit groggy after the rehearsal (and a long week), but you still got to get all your things pack up before you leave. Then, everybody drives to Santa Cruz (which is a long drive from the camp on windy mountain roads). People walk around town for a few hours, maybe do some busking or jam downtown, and have an early dinner. By 5:00pm, the sound check starts at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, which is a big hall. We go through the concert, making sure the mikes are all placed properly and turned on.

At last it’s time for the concert! Everybody’s excited, and the energy level is very high. The concert takes roughly three hours, so it would get tedious if the energy was lower. The concert ends with a glimpse of what camp free time is: jamming on the front lawn of the auditorium. After the concert’s over, everyone heads back to Camp Cambell, for midnight lasagna. The last night (or morning, I should say) of camp is a big party. Everyone’s energy level is still running high from the concert; the giddy feeling doesn’t go away until you leave camp, although then there is a big crash. But it is the summer activity that both my brother and I look forward to every year.

Anya Sturm is a middle school student in Santa Monica and likes playing music almost as much as playing soccer. She started playing fiddle at age 3 and has since won first place on fiddle, guitar, and mandolin at the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest, the Goleta Old-Time Fiddlers Convention, the California State Old Time Fiddlers Association, and the Seaside Scottish Fiddle Contest.