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What I’ve Learned from Music Camps

Updated: Nov 23, 2022

I owe so much of my musicianship today to the mentorship of the experienced, selfless musicians who have passed on knowledge to me.

After years of attending, I'm incredibly grateful to be in a season of my life where I can give back and teach the next generation of curious minds. n the spirit of gratitude, I thought I would share with you what I have learned at past music camps.


It’s as fun as it sounds - I’ve been to the “Old Time Rollick at The Ashokan Center twice now -

Once in 2019 and another time in 2022 - the online one in 2020 was fun too!

I thought I’d share with you some common tunes and some tips on Old-Time music today.

First and foremost, music camps in general are great ways to motivate, inspire, and guide your musicianship at any point. There are workshops for all levels on different instruments and you might even be like me and skip the workshops to jam all day!

Here are some of my thoughts on how the Old-Time Music jamming scene/expectations are different from bluegrass and country music

  • The emphasis in Old-Time jamming is tunes, not songs, so there is a lot less transposition.

  • Many jams stay in the same key for a long time- fiddles use cross tuning where they change the tuning of their instrument to AEAE, AEAC#, GDGD, or DDAD and banjos use alternate, modal tunings for certain keys.

  • Rather than solos, a tune is played over and over until you see the foot - a universal signal to end the song.

  • Jams tend to be bigger, with several concentric circles. The inner circle usually consists of stronger players who call the tunes and hold down the groove, but others are welcome to join in outer circles.

  • Old time Musicians have a HUGE repertoire of tunes, and the tunes they know are often regional or even generational. It’s a good idea to have a list of tunes you know in each key. Feel free to check out mine here: List of Tunes and Total Repertoire


Scottish String Fling Takeaways

Alasdair Fraser, Me, Angelica Jara, and Natalie Haas

Bluegrass and Old time Music has been heavily influenced by the Scottish/Irish tradition. Traditional dance tunes mixed with African and Native American rhythms to form the foundation of American Old Time and Bluegrass Music.

←- All star team of Jay Ungar, Molly Mason, Alasdair Fraser, Natalie Haas, Emerald Rae Donal Sheets (Click to listen)

Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, so loved Irish/Scottish fiddling that he penned the tune “Scotland” to capture the sounds of bagpipes and dance floor tunes.

I had the pleasure of playing this tune with Jay Ungar (most famous for his tune "Ashokan Farewell") and Molly Mason who recorded a version of the tune in their well loved "Fiddle Fever" group.

Today, both genres influence each other. I loved hearing how modern interpreters like Natalie Haas incorporate the chop and hip, syncopated, grooves to traditional and new tunes alike.

If you want to hear some truly beautiful music and some killer groove, check out their music:

Or another amazing Julliard trained string quartet that arranges traditional music in incredible ways.

Some of my key musical takeaways from this weekend

  • 3,3,2 or 3,3,3,3,4 rhythms are fundamental to creating great sounding syncopated groove in these traditions

  • Three ways of accompanying the voice on fiddle

    • Long tone Double Stops

    • Syncopated shuffles

    • Mix of Chopping and shuffling

  • Fun Arranging Ideas:

    • Switching from double time to half time feel in the B part of a tune or vice versa

    • “Stop Time” approach (Usually used for bass solos) can be applied to accompaniment as a texture to expose fiddle part - this is great for building back up to a final B part.

    • Intros/Hooks can be established through syncopation combined with groovy bass line

  • Cello can take on the role of guitar or piano (As it famously did in the super group Crooked Still)

  • Tips on Learning/memorizing tunes quickly

    • Describe the “shape” or contour of the tune in sections

    • Use chords to help outline melody or vice versa

    • Brush up” on any new learning in increments of 3-4 hours - even if just for 5 minutes

    • Connect licks and rhythms of new tunes to known tunes ie: the second lick of the A part has the same rhythm as the B part of “Stoney Lonesome”


Silver Bay Bluegrass Camp

It was here that I discovered the Bluegrass Jamming Favorites YouTube Playlist

Pete Wernick, Banjo player of Hot Rize, is a fierce advocate for getting people together to jam. He put together a free playlist of OVER 100 tunes that he believes are great for Bluegrass Jamming.

It's an incredible resource that is easy to take for granted- I'm the first to admit it! I've made my way through about 50 of them, and want to spend some time with them all.

Also the:

This playlist is a great accompaniment to the JAM Songbook by Pete Wernick and Liam Purcell which is available in print OR PDF. The book is chock full of easy 2 and 3 chord songs that are labeled by the Number System so that they can be easily transposed.

A common pitfall of many song books is that the songs are written in specific keys- often they way they were recorded (by high male tenor voices) This makes it harder to sing if you don’t fit that voice type (low/middle ranged male voice or middle/high range female voice).

The JAM Songbook is a finely-tuned resource for any bluegrass education program, and our bulk pricing ($5/copy for orders of 5 or more books) makes it cost-effective for them, especially compared to the effort and expense of developing and printing their own handouts.

  • Along with 39 bluegrass songs in the largest possible print, there’s useful instructional material (chord diagrams for all instruments, jamming guidance, an explanation of the number system, and a simple transposing chart.

  • Online playlists for all songs in the book (live video and audio), allow students to learn the songs by ear – a rare and helpful feature. No music reading needed to learn the songs!

  • Chords are shown in numbers only, allowing students to choose their best singing key and to get familiar with the number system.

  • Photos of kids in the JAM program jamming are seen throughout the book.

  • My co-writer Liam Purcell, from Deep Gap, NC, got his musical start in the JAM program at age 6, and is now a bandleader and multi-instrumentalist on scholarship at Berklee College of Music – and a recent winner of IBMA Momentum awards!

  • The book contains plugs and descriptions of both JAM and the Wernick Method. The book’s circulation helps publicize both programs.


Ashokan Western and Swing Week

Reporting from Ashokan’s Western and Swing Week! I wanted to share a bit of what I’ve learned here over the years of attending events like this.

Use “Stop Time” when accompanying bass or percussion solos

Stop Time - "A rhythmic device in which the accompanying instruments play a few notes of the rhythm with especially sharp accents, exaggerating the rhythm which, despite its name, does not stop."

The chord progression in this video:

C / / / G / / / D / / / G / / /

C / / / G / / / D / D / G / / /

Accompaniment in a Swing Style - Use Power Chords and color notes like the sixth and the flat seven in your accompaniment so that you soloists and singers can interpret the melodies in their improvisation as either major or minor. This is fundamental to the blues.

Western and Swing Call and Response Practice - Absorb some of the language with me in this quick demonstration of Western and Swing improvisation.

Learn a Swing Standard - “Lady Be Good” is an easy first tune that’s worth learning if you’d like to play this music with others.


Bluegrass Camp

Spending a weekend diving deep into bluegrass music was one of the best decisions I could have made to jump start my now lifelong love for the music.

Staff Included:

This was one of my first deep dives into bluegrass music. I remember that it was here that I learned that "The Bluegrass Album Band" Volumes were "like the bible of bluegrass"

One of the staff members also put together this Ashokan Bluegrass Listening Guide

I’ve also found my archived, freeform notes from last attending this camp- Feel free to check those out! It looks like it was here that I learned Bluegrass instrumental standards like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (Earl Scruggs) and “Clinch Mountain Backstep” (Ralph Stanley), classic kick offs like “Your Love is Like a Flower” (Lester Flatt) and Bury Me Beneath the Willow (Carter Family)

There were some FANTASTIC resources that were shared at this camp. Check them out below

Verse-Chorus-Solo Sandwich
Download PDF • 159KB

Vocal Class
Download PDF • 2.17MB

Songs that Begin with a Chorus
Download PDF • 102KB

Jam Assumptions
Download PDF • 84KB


Notes from Past Camps

I’ve hyperlinked my free form notes from other events in case you want to get a sense of what it's like to learn at a camp.

Notes from a Great faculty- Alex Hargreaves, Robert Anderson, Jason Anick, Nicole Yarling

Andy Reiner shares that Chords in bluegrass are open (so thirds can be either minor or major)

He also recommends improvisation practice where you switch back and forth between Melody and two measures of improvisation

Jeremy Kittel recommends

- Isolate fiddle specific bowings and drill them as you would any lick/scale you are trying to incorporate.

-Reharmonize the i chord with bVI for cool sound

-Chopping and singing is a legitimate solo option

Martha Mooke recommends…

-"Shimmer" effect pedal recreates contemporary pad synth church sound effectively.

-You can use GarageBand, logic, or mainstage to replace pedal boards- go directly from audio interface to computer- computer to amp

-Expression pedals are useful for changing parameters of effects with foot

-Line 6 wireless transmitter is the way to go, freedom to move about the room beats cables any day

Dave Eggar recommends….

-Communicate to singer songwriters, visual, or dance artists with EMOTIONS, not techniques (they don't know what most classical terms mean)

-Fiddle tunes sound great with drums, expand your opportunities as a musician this way

-Pull influences from a variety of genre sources by naming specifically what it is you like about a performance/technique

-Imitate singers with the bow and adjust bow speed to breath

Regina Carter recommends…

-Sing more, include singing along to solos with passive listening (while doing dishes, laundry, etc)

-It is possible to improvise in a harmonically complex situation by singing first - then playing (ear is ahead of instrument)

-Play hard in the string, slightly more loose bow hair, imitate voice

-When working on blues with students, be conversational (practice talking/singing and bowing at the same time. Play like you talk)

-Improvising words and melody to the blues is an excellent comprehensive creative practice.

Christian Howes recommends that you “Record yourself and make judgements about your musical ideas, separate from your execution of them”

Bluegrass jamming with Tony Watt and Laura Orshaw

  1. Solos often start to left of whoever kicks the song off

  2. Everyone gets one song-

  3. Talk to person next to you about not wanting to solo

  4. Kick off person often gets 2 solos

  5. Orphan chorus- chorus without a verse indicates end of song

  6. Lead singer looks up at end of every chorus

  7. Repeat last two lines

Andy Reiner recommends that you learn solos from people who don’t play your instrument

Rob Flax recommends the Primacy of the Ear book

Darol Anger recommends learning melody -> Harmonize it -> Follow it loosely

Double stops on the chords

  • Bottom two strings

  • Middle strings

  • Top Strings

Christian Howes recommends Harmonize chords to simple tunes without looking them up

Also, there are two blues scales

  • Major and minor pentatonic ->

  • Major and minor blues scale

Jeremy Kittel on the Blues: Blues notes are behind b7 and b3 slow slide

Train Sounds with Pattie Hopkins Kinlaw 5th and 7th, or 3rd and fifth, or seventh and 4th

Single shuffle = *low low high high

Double shuffle =*low low high low low high low low high low low high low

Jeremy Kittel on Playing over Changes

Switch to blues scale over V

For half diminished, play DOM a major third below

E Harmonic minor over B7

GYPSY JAZZ with Dwayne Padilla

String based approach to American Jazz

Reimagined american Jazz with string instruments because Django and Stephane

Learning Rock Solos with David Wallace

Transcription under slow speeds is king

Learn the top ten rock solos of all time

Billy Contreras and Jason Anick talk the history of jazz and swing…

It Started with the Blues…

Mix of African rhythm, 20th century harmony

Swing- bepob - modern….

Swing era guitar would comp four to a bar

Bass more linear, less arpeggiated

Added chords

Common chord progression IV V I became ii V I

3 and 7 comp and are guide tone

Long tune, short solo section

Bebop era 40-50s

Things got faster

Dance music---> listening, musicians music

More virtuosity

Band would play same stuff during day and bebop in night

Trading started here

Short head and most of the tune improv

Celtic Martin Hayes and Jeremy Kittel

“Feel is so much more important than anything else in this music” It cannot be notated

Singing tunes makes playing them more organic and solidifies them in memory

In Ireland, people didn't have recordings, they had to vocalize them!

Also, people used to have music as a hobby, they would sing them at work

Casey Driessen

Chopping is 50-60 years old

Richard Greene bluegrass fiddle player played with Bill Monroe started chopping

  • Started from him being lazy and throwing down bow to wait for chord

  • Darol Anger learned next

  • Turtle Island String Quartet

To chop

  • Bottom four inches make sure rosined

  • Take good bow hold and then turn hair away

  • Gravity take bow

  • Don't press on bow

  • Violin gets in way of bow

  • Pinky on top of bow

  • Wrist and arm rather than

  • Pivot from forearm and pinky to pivot balance point and push out

  • Playing notes means straight now/chop

Three places to chop

  1. Toward Bridge tighter

  2. Middle

  3. TowardFingerboard


  • bow drags straight toward bridge

  • add a little weight just to get it skipping

  • Flat hair

Bruce Molsky talks the history of old time music

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