Student reviews

"Oh bother! Where am I?" by William Clocksin

I attended my first Sore Fingers this year, and here are some of the personal highlights of the week.

Living in nearby Oxford, it was easy for my lovely wife Pam and I to make the short drive to Kingham Hill School's beautiful site, with its views over rolling Oxfordshire countryside at the edge of the Cotwolds. We learned that Kingham Hill was one of those schools founded on the principle that discomfort builds character, but we soon settled in happily and figured out how to coax hot water from the plumbing.


My first choice was to be in the Dobro class taught by Ivan Rosenberg. The Dobro (capitalised because the name is a registered trademark) is the most expressive of the bluegrass instruments, and the most capable of emulating a vocal style. It is surely also the most difficult to play. Although I had played bluegrass music on the guitar as a youngster in the USA, I had only recently started playing the Dobro after a career of playing a variety of plucked instruments in early Baroque ensembles, so I still wasn't completely comfortable with a slide and finger picks. The classes with Ivan were superb. Ivan is not only a great player but an excellent teacher. A native of California, he fits perfectly into the British scene with his zany sense of dry humour, quick wit and irony. With refreshing generosity, he imparts the technical details and tricks of the trade that can dramatically improve the playing of someone at any level. Please, please, please can Ivan be invited back to teach at Sore Fingers again soon. Pam was in the singing class taught by Kathy Chiavola, and was very happy with the teaching and the songs studied.

Scratch bands

I was looking forward to playing in a scratch band, but because I knew hardly anyone, was greatly relieved to find that there was a session for putting bands together from people who didn't already have a band. Surely some group would want a completely untested Dobro player. Nearing the end of the process reminded me of always being the last to be picked for team sport at school, but finally I found a band in which to play. My classical music colleagues had warned me that because folk music players play by ear and don't read music, they work out how to play the same piece at the same time by using a lengthy and inefficient process of emotional blackmail, manipulation, and subtle bullying. After a few hours of rehearsal with our band, I found this cruel stereotype not only to be absolutely true, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Our brave little band picked and scratched and harmonised our way through two great songs and went on to give a brilliant performance at the student concert. We even won the coveted prize for Most Improved Band. I think we deserved several other awards in categories that haven't been invented yet, such as Largest Band, and, Band With Most Eclectic Membership, and most importantly, Band That Actually Chose To Include An Autoharp. The student concert, complete with professional lighting and sound engineering, was hugely entertaining, and displayed some real talent and musicianship: a fitting tribute to the hard work of the organisers.


Having been a veteran of other (classical) music summer schools up and down the country for the past 20 years, I knew to expect poor food and not enough of it, so my resourceful and thoughtful wife packed ample tuck to last a week. In fact, the catering at Kingham was superb, and required no supplementary rations. OK, it was a school cafeteria with a lengthy queue and tightly packed tables, but the portions were generous, and the menu varied and interesting, with plenty of salad and fresh fruit on offer. There was even a tasty cooked breakfast every morning for those willing to risk alleged exposure to coronary and vascular complications later in life. If we are lucky enough to attend SF next year, we're confident that we won't need to bring the tuck box.

The week ended with a concert given by the tutors. It was great to see them in their element as performers, and not only did the concert give us some excellent bluegrass music, we got a chance to see how the tutors cope professionally with the uncertainties of live performance. The tutors were preceded by several support sets, including an up and coming new band, and a charming duet on one autoharp. After the end of an exhausting but greatly satisfying week, we arrived home several hundred pounds (in money) lighter and a few pounds (in weight) heavier, with our ears ringing with the roar of the banjo, the squeal of the fiddle, the howl of the dobro, and with those lonesome melodies on the brain. Many thanks to the organisers, helpers, and Kingham staff for a great SF 2004. Pam and I are already looking forward to next year.

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