Thursday, July 21, 2011

This one time, at band camp...

That line from American Pie has always made me laugh. I actually went to band camp once as a kid - the summer after Grade 8. My best friend and I went together and I remember that we had a giggly, silly week, just as one would expect from a couple of young-for-our-age 14-year-old sci-fi-obsessed band geeks. I don't remember anything that I learned that week about how to play the clarinet. I do remember an awkward, crushy bout of hand-holding with the son of my orthodontist (of all people). And that it didn't end well.

By the next summer, my best friend had moved away and instead of summer camp, I had a summer job. Twenty-six years later, I have two full-time jobs, but I somehow managed to finally make it back to music camp. This time, it was the Road to Stanfest Songwriters' Workshop in Sherbrooke Village. It takes place every year in the week leading up to Stanfest and I had heard about it for the first time three years ago from Susan Crowe while we were preparing for a benefit for the Writer's Federation of Nova Scotia. This year, I heard about it again from my friend, Dolores Dagenais, when she announced she was going and urged me to come, too. And then I heard about it yet again, talking with Clary Croft after his show at the Desbrisay Museum this spring.

Susan and Clary are what you might call Resident Instructors at the camp and this year they were joined by Craig Werth, David Francey and James Keelaghan. I looked at this roster, and then at the enrolment fees and then at the roster and then at the enrolment fees and then at my bank balance and then at the roster and then I said, "What the hell," and called up to enrol, even though it was an unwise decision from a financial perspective. It was also a last-minute decision, a snap decision and without question the best decision I've made so far this year.

For a songwriter and musician, there can be little better than having four days almost entirely devoted to making music, with a group of people who passionately love singing, playing and writing songs. Add in that some of those people happened the be among the best singer-songwriters alive today, who brought hearts full of encouragement and kindness, and it was a recipe for a week that was fully-alive, delightful and jam-packed with opportunities to learn, to write and to celebrate.

I learned so much. I wrote new songs and re-wrote old ones. I learned a few tricks and practiced making them work. Each instructor brought different knowledge and experiences. Clary's sessions called on me to remember my roots and use the music I grew up with (traditional folk and Broadway) as object lessons in how to create strong songs. Susan underscored the importance of being meticulous with words, of working hard to make sure they're right. Susan and Craig both inspired me to work harder on my guitar-playing, to use instrumentation to enhance the impact of my songs. James' lessons revolutionized my understanding of song structure and gave me a whole new framework for how to write. He also set a high standard for professionalism in performance. David encouraged me to trust my intuition and my muse and reminded me of the importance of simplicity and clarity when creating lyrics and melodies. And Craig reinforced for me the importance of holding an open and lively heart and of writing and performing songs that have meaning—both personally and in broader contexts.

And those were just some of the formal lessons—there were also song circles every night when participants and instructors alike shone through their songs and after-hours jam sessions that were just plain fun. The energy raised up by people singing together is one of the great gifts of our human experience. And singing with people who understand that, people who love and live music, who love to sing, who love songs, well, that is an inspiration as well as a treat.

Those four days pretty much had it all: an interesting setting, kind and enthusiastic staff throughout Sherbrooke Village, amazing instructors, fun and interesting colleagues—and Dolores' wicked homemade wine. I'm looking forward to sharing the songs I wrote and re-wrote. You will hear some of them at the Growing Green Sustainability Festival this Saturday and more when I play at the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival on Friday, August 5. (And, as soon as I have time I'll post some on my YouTube channel).

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