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August 13 - 19, 2009
Song School and Folks
Festival serenade Colorado
by Myles Hyken
It’s hard to imagine a boot camp commencing beneath the radiant sun in beatific Lyons, Colo. The St. Vrain River is alternately rushing and languid under the quiet sandstone bluffs. The 14-acre landscape is actually dotted by such landmarks as the Hummingbird Tent and the Wildflower Pavilion. There are no bunkers, screaming sergeants with veins bulging from their necks, or the requisite obstacle course. These warriors may argue, however, that writer’s block is an obstacle worth defeating. They are armed with pens, notepads, guitars, fears and expectations. Welcome to Song School 2009, a bustling and educational precursor to the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival.
Each morning of the five-day regimen begins with yoga, tai chi, stretching and breathing. Boulder resident Rob Clark is attending his third school in a row. He says that starting each morning in such a manner “scrubs away your humility and shifts you into neutral.”
“The Rocky Mountain Song School came about organically, in 1994, when Janis Ian offered to teach a songwriting class she had done before at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. In that first year, we had about 50 students,” explains Planet Bluegrass Vice-President Steve Szymanski. “We have always encouraged an educational component at all our festivals, so teaching songwriting before the Folks Festival seemed a natural fit.”
Prior to attending his first Song School in 2007, Clark was anxious. He focused on the available information beforehand: bios of the instructors, synapses of the electives, and the Festivarian Forum, where new and former students share their experiences.
“The first time, I had written about a dozen songs and was learning to express them,” Clark said. “I was a perfect diamond in the rough for these guys. All the critique is constructive. It’s an emotionally charged event when you enter this school, sort of with your boobs hanging out.”
The breadth of the curriculum is apparent. Where some schools or workshops might offer fare consisting of rehashed versions of the same class, options at Folks Festival include, to name a scant few, how to generate ideas and images and carry them through, a close examination of melody and phrasing in your own work, overcoming stage fright and developing a rapport with the audience, melodies and chord changes, learning to sing with vocal fatigue, overcoming your fear of high notes, and arranging ideas so a song gains as it moves forward.
Szymanski says, “I like offering a variety of approaches, as the songwriting process is so different for everyone. I enjoy instructors who can explain and demonstrate their process in words simply like Steve Seskin. I enjoy the way Peter Himmelman can find a topic for each student to write about that unlocks their creative juices. And I’m in awe of Darrel Scott’s mastery of guitar, voice and songs.”
In his first two years, Clark came away with more than a satchel full of practical knowledge. He credits Rebecca Folsom and Ron Browning with providing the tools that helped him improve his voice, Amy Speace with helping him create leaner, more pertinent lyrics by identifying unnecessary words, and Steve Seskin with vastly improving his mechanical sense. However, his tone changes dramatically when he recalls what he learned from Pat Pattison.
“Pat is a sincere professional. His help in two areas — dissecting phrasing, and how to open strong — are concepts I utilize everyday. His workshops are so intense, if you have never written a song, your eyes would simply gloss over.
Pattison is a permanent faculty member and a professor at the Berklee College of Music. He is often credited with being an architect of the songwriting major at the seminal institution. He and Browning are frequently involved in the Nashville music-publishing scene, as well. His presence at Song School has definitely helped it achieve greater national notoriety.
“We are sold out again,” Szymanski says. “More songwriting schools have popped up in the last decade, but we continue to expand.”
Indeed Clark recalls the variety of characters or “neighbors” he has shared this journey with. From “an obviously experienced female songwriter from Scotland, to a woman from Maui, a real administrative type, to a rough, blue-collar guy who was a really good songwriter, he might have been a truck mechanic.”
Alongside the variety of creative classes available in Lyons, valuable information on the business end of the songwriting game is also represented in the person of Terri Mazurek. Founder of Peppermint Booking and Management, this is her fourth school in a row.
The firm’s specialty is singer-songwriters, and it books many performers at folk festivals and college campuses around the country.
Szymanski states that the business classes are popular “because she approaches the subject from the inside out.” Mazurek actually began her career as a social worker. Her professional path may have led her to offer a more unique perspective on the subject as well as a sense of comfort with the teaching environment.
As for utilizing what he has learned, Clark admits that “he has a better idea of what it takes to get someone to listen. In the two bands I work with now, Steel Pennies and Windfall, I can hand out effective arrangement notes. Attending now for my third year, I have a significant body of work to improve upon that I developed in the first two.”
Szymanski says, “The biggest compliment I can possibly get is when a student says the Song School experience has changed his or her life. There is an openness during the week that I feel is aided in part by the natural environment and in part by the instructors that allows a certain vulnerability where students can dive deeper into their process and not be scared about what people are going to say.”
Clark’s final words are a little more sinister, though spoken through laughter, “These guys have been beating us over the heads with sticks all week. There is so much to learn. When the Festival finally begins, things are turned around. It’s fun. There’s a lot of ad-libbing, and we know exactly when they are doing it.”
For More Info:
The 19th Annual Folks Festival takes place Aug. 14-16 at Planet Bluegrass Ranch, on Highway 36 just northwest of the historic area of downtown Lyons, 800-624-2422, www.bluegrass.com
Folks Festival schedule:
Friday, Aug. 14: 10:30 a.m. Gates Open; 11:15-1 p.m. Songwriter Showcase; 1:15-2:15 p.m. Vance Gilbert; 2:30-3:45pm Peter Himmelman; 4 - 5:15pm Mary Gauthier; 5:30-6:45 p.m. Dougie MacLean; 7:15-8:30pm Madeleine Peyroux; 9-10:30 p.m. Rufus Wainwright
Saturday, Aug. 15: 9:30 a.m. Gates Open; 10-11 a.m. Chuck E. Costa; 11:15-12:15 p.m. Amy Speace; 12:30-1:30 p.m. Joe Pug; 2-3:15 p.m. Will Hoge; 3:45-5 p.m. JJ Grey & Mofro; 5:30-6:45 p.m. Over the Rhine; 7:15-8:30 p.m. Susan Tedeschi; 9-10:30 p.m. Don McLean
Sunday, Aug. 16: 10 a.m. Gates Open; 11-12 p.m. The Drepung Monks; 12:15-1:30 p.m. Ben Sollee; 2-3:15 p.m. Blind Pilot; 3:45-5 p.m. Mia Dyson; 5:30-6:45 p.m. M Ward (solo); 7:15-8:30 p.m. Brett Dennen; 9-10:30 p.m. Gillian Welch
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