Student reviews

Sorefingers 2004 by MaryE Yeomans

Last week about 180 folks and I were fortunate to attend a 5-day music camp in the Cotswolds (a part of England known for it's loveliness). This gathering is called "Sore Fingers Summer School" and while it could be argued that it ain't summer here in the old U.K., I think maybe their definition of the season differs from that in, say, sunny Tennessee!

Imagine all the English postcards you've seen with perfect stone walls rambling on in every direction as far as one can see, stately stone homes rising up on green hillsides surrounded by oceans of vivid daffodils, hyacinths, and blooming whitethorn hedges, sheep and cattle quietly grazing in the early morning sun, and you'll have an idea of what unfolded at every turn of the lane. Pastoral bliss.

Arriving at Kingham Hill after a nice Easter pub dinner with friends Beverly Smith (old time fiddle) and Carl Jones (songwriting and guitar workshops), I fell immediately into the fond reunion atmosphere so many of us connected with this music eagerly anticipate. The first evening we all gathered in the school's pub after dinner and had a good pick/visit then an early night. Monday morning's assembly found a full house in the main hall and then we all went off to our first classes. Among the familiar faces at this year's Sore Fingers were Roland White (mandolin), Richard Bailey (banjo), Kathy Chiavola (singing), Jody Stecher (old time banjo), Beverly and Carl (above), Ron Stewart (fiddle), John Lowell (guitar -- never met him before, but what a talented guy!), Ivan Rosenberg (dobro - never met him till Sore Fingers, but that was my loss! Great teacher and School Comedian). Britain's own Steve Mazillius very capably handled the bass class (as Roland White said during a concert "He's SO good you don't even know he's there!")

Since I'm writing an article about Sore Fingers for Bluegrass Unlimited I'm not going to give away all I have to say but I must say this year's event was one of the best musical weeks of my life. From seeing several much-missed pals from America (listed above) to learning a whole lot about vocal techniques, particularly exercises and how to take care of your "singing equipment" from the wonderful Kathy Chiavola, it was a terrific week. Add in the 4.5 hours of class instruction time for 5 straight days, the hours of "scratch band" practice each afternoon and sometimes evenings (I wasn't in one of these thrown-together "bands" this year, but enjoyed hearing the others as I walked around snapping photos and interviewing folks) to the long, long nights in the pub picking, singing, and mostly listening....wow. What a week.

There were folks there from a bunch of countries, too. We all stayed in dormitories normally inhabited by middle school-aged kids which meant we had to sleep in upper bunks (over a desk) since the private rooms are snatched up quickly. But never mind. One of my dorm-mates was a woman named Barbara from Germany who has a Billie Holliday-like voice. Other mates were from London, Wales, and Herefordshire. Lots of Americans were at Sore Fingers, too.....Tom, a really good mandolin player and singer who works in London; the Musselwhite family -- a real special interest of mine -- from north Georgia. Mom Cindy and her 4 kids were real hits at Sore Fingers -- they each play a different instrument and sing those tight family harmonies. They bowled over the assembly at the beginning of Thursday night's student concert by singing an incredible "Children Go Where I Send Thee." This may carry added weight when you learn that their dad is currently on tour as an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq. Prayers for his safety. The family is stationed in Germany and they are as nice, attractive, and talented as you can possibly imagine.

Tomas Embrus (sp?) from Sweden was there, too. You may recall a few months back he was looking for a music camp to attend in America and I wrote and told him he might check out Sore Fingers. He sure did! He was everywhere. He was in John Lowell's guitar class, in a good scratch band, an affable and popular guy in the meal lines (sometimes we did have a bit of a wait, though the school staff were as speedy as possible in piling our plates full of food -- gee, we all gained at least 10 pounds last week). Tomas is a really cool guy, good singer and guitar player -- and I sure hope he'll be back at Sore Fingers next year. We had other folks from Sweden, Belgium, France, Canada, America, and a few other countries. I tried to meet them all, but probably missed a few.

As a writer and photographer, I was privileged to travel about and sit in on whatever classes I liked (lucky me!) so, while I was tempted to soak up every tip I could from the very capable Kathy Chiavola, I really was obliged to get out and hear what all the others had to say. After spending most of a couple of days with Kathy and the ~20 singing students, I popped in to Roland's mandolin class (~20), Ivan's reso whizzes (~20), John's guitar aces (~20), and so forth. Steve's bassists (~7, including seven year old John Musselwhite) were learning how to slap (a habit to be used sparingly, and the usual slapping jokes apply). All classes were being conducted in a serious manner with a good measure of humour interjected to keep it interesting. Ivan. Well. Ivan had a class full of nuts. There was Dave Currie from Glasgow with his infectiously-wide grin, weathered hat, and a great skill in saying "Meddy" (or however he says my name, I couldn't hear it enough) that just won me over. And a guy named Bill who was a book unto himself. Great reso player and Class Clown, apparently somewhat of a Sore Fingers legend.

The guitar class got not only wonderful guitar instruction but also the benefit of John's splendid vocals. John's a Rocky Mountain kind of guy and he's one of those folks you feel like you've lived next to all your life the first time you meet him. I could have stayed in that class all week. But I had to move on.

As if the classroom instruction wasn't enough (four and a half hours per day, pretty grueling for the tutors, I think) most students had private lessons from their tutors as well sometime during the week. Most of the students were in what are called scratch bands here in the UK -- from four to ten (or was it twelve) folks get together and go over some tunes, pick two, practice together every chance they get during the week (usually in the couple of hours free time right after lunch before afternoon class sessions) then perform during the student concert on Thursday evening. This year's concert featured nearly 20 different scratch bands with a whole lot of fine musicianship and new talents were discovered. So - do yourselves a favour and sign up for a unique bluegrass experience in the beautiful Cotswolds now -- before all the openings have been booked. Here's the Sore Fingers website (and watch for new pictures to be added within the month).

On Friday night, the last night, when we'd gotten all the classes and the student concert behind us, we had a final treat: a concert by all the class tutors. Was it terrific! The tutors got up and did about 3 hours of fantastic music to a full house. After that we all went to the school pub and partied the night away. There were some terrific jams. Lots of talking. Quite a few empty glasses. A lot of memorable video footage (LOL). Roland White was playing the banjo for awhile. You just never know what you might see at Sore Fingers! When I left the pub sometime around 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. a few of the tutors were among the last soldiers standing (though some looked like they were leaning a bit)....even though they had to catch planes pretty early the next morning. Hope they made it.

Don't believe all they say about British weather (though there are a lot of showers here) -- we had lovely days, a little coolish but sunshine and vivid blue skies painted with billowy clouds. Everything was blooming, it seemed, in the Cotswolds.

On one of the last afternoons when scratch bands were having final rehearsals and clusters of two and three and six students were on the hillside below the grand Kingham School buildings singing and playing the bluegrass music, my gaze wandered to the infield of the large running track below us. There was this folically-challenged chromatic banjoist standing there in the infield, isolated, surrounded only by swift-growing grass, staring off into the distance. I had to see what he was about. I walked over thinking about what a fine picture he'd make -- the loneliness of the banjo player -- playing the ultimately antisocial instrument.....he was nice and thought it was funny that I took photos of him there in his self-imposed isolation.

Thanks to so many of you who wrote to me off-list (and a few on-list) and requested that I finish my Sore Fingers story. Well, I've been to other bluegrass learning camps, most notably Augusta at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia, which is also a very fine learning environment. But I must say that Sore Fingers is, hands down, my favorite place to go to learn bluegrass. Maybe it's because I'm over here in Wales away from all my Nashville bluegrass pals. Maybe it's because the entire school is about bluegrass (Augusta has several programs going on simultaneously so you've got a lot more people about -- folks you never really run across again -- but that's not to knock Augusta, I've always thoroughly enjoyed their fine program, too).

Now's a good time to confess that I was one of those Americans who, for the first 40 years of my life, had very little desire to go to another country. Seemed like America's massive size coupled with the very different climates and landscapes was enough to try to see in my lifetime. Well, there's probably nothing wrong with that thinking and I did my best to get around most of America in the last 20 years or so -- but there's a lot to be gained from taking yourself out of the familiar, from removing yourself from your culture and inserting yourself into another. Seemed like the U.K. was a good, safe place, to head -- land of my ancestors, English-speaking, etc. But I had a lot to learn (and still do). Don't kid yourself. Things are plenty different here in the U.K.

Anyway, I think one of the benefits of Sore Fingers for American people -- or people from countries other than the U.K. -- is that you get to step out of your culture yet have the great opportunity to bond with folks from around the world in your mutual passion: bluegrass. Strong friendships are formed at Sore Fingers and I found that my first year (2003) there, it was an invaluable way to get acquainted with some of the movers and shakers, pickers and singers, in bluegrass and old time music in the U.K. Whenever I attended a festival last summer I always ran into several folks I'd met at Sore Fingers, so there was always someone to pick with, talk to....a very comforting feeling indeed.

In America perhaps we are so zealous in our pursuit of the music we forget to laugh. NOT at Sore Fingers! About 9 a.m. (far too early, I must say) there's a gathering of all the students and tutors and there are always pranks, shenanigans, gutsy belly laughs and all kinds of silliness to be had. This is a priceless touch, I think.

This year's Sore Fingers was special in that SO many more kids were part of the program. Sometimes bluegrass feels a bit like most churches -- look around you and you see a bunch of folks on the far side of retirement (nothing wrong with that, but...) -- so it's wonderful to see kids 7, 12, lots of 13 and 14 year olds accompanied by their parents, quite a few in the 16-24 age group and then on up.

One thing both Roland White and Stuart Duncan (one of last year's tutors) commented on early in the week was their amazement that folks over here in the U.K. seem to be drawn to traditional bluegrass -- 1940s and 1950s stuff -- over the more progressive styles. While that's a generalization, it does seem true. Even a lot of the young teens are going back to the originals and playing the Monroe and Stanley versions of their favorite songs, a fact that sends my heart skipping joyfully.

If you haven't checked it out, the website for Sore Fingers is: www.sorefingers.co.uk Pictures from 2004 should be up in about a month, I hope. So if you're feeling like you want to step away from the familiar and do a week of bluegrass in merry olde England, I strongly encourage you to come next year to the 10th Sore Fingers. There are going to be some fantastic tutors there -- nothing definite yet, but folks like Alice Gerrard, Brad Leftwich, Tim O'Brien, Darrell Scott, and people of that calibre are being courted for the tutor slots. For the first time (and I pat myself on the back for this) there will be a week-long Songwriting course. It's about time. For the first time ever I talked Wirtzy into having Carl Jones do a songwriting dip-in (hour-long workshop) and it was a great success (in fact it went on for nearly 2 hours). So next year folks so inclined can stay on a gorgeous campus that would make Ivy League schools eat their hearts out, gain 10 pounds on cafeteria food, learn to the point of exhaustion, stay up too late, drink too many pints of bitter, and have one of the best times of your life. What a great vacation idea, no?

Sorry I can't share more about why the youngsters at Sore Fingers made the week unforgettable for me, but you'll just have to read my article in B.U. The kids were great; they made all those short nights of sleep worthwhile. They ARE the future of bluegrass, and it's great to be in a place where they relish the PAST of bluegrass so very much -- revere the legends, learn about them, try to sing and play in their styles....this gives me great hope that there may be bluegrass music in the coming decades that I'll want to buy and hear live.

Worn to a frazzle, ready to be home though sad to leave, I rode in a Land Rover (farm vehicle used to transport feed and sheep) with friends Christine and Tony back into Wales through the sunny Saturday morning sleepy Cotswolds, passing six foot high perfect masterpiece stone walls that went on for miles, majestic homes bedecked at every turn and sill with cascading flowers, past garden after garden spilling with quantities of every size, shape and colour of fabulous flowers. I found myself thinking back over the wonderful week, all I'd learned, the great jams, memorable concerts, inspiring kids, and just feeling so thankful that places like Sore Fingers exist for folks like me who love being with other folks who love this music. Thanks for listening. And check out some of my pictures of this wonderful land at: kmo.smugmug.com It's a wonderful place to be.

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