Fletcher has been wanting to go to fiddle camp for a while now. Ok, maybe I planted the seed a year or so ago, but that seed has been quietly growing in his mind along with his love of the violin. And it just so happens that the most amazing violin player in America, Mark O’Connor, has a kids violin camp right up the road from us in Charleston, South Carolina. We couldn’t not go, right?
Our week in Charleston was intense to say the least. I knew Fletcher would do great, though he struggled a bit the first few days with being a little fish in a crazy talented pond. He said to me, after that first day of camp, that in Savannah he was one of the best violin players he knows . . . but in Charleston he thought he was one of the worst. Worst is never a word I would use to describe that kid – especially when it comes to violin. He did start at a bit of a disadvantage since he had less experience with the songs in the O’Connor Method book, but he made up for that pretty quickly, learning a half dozen new songs in less than 4 days time!
For Lola Gray, things were a bit harder. Prior to camp she had only had 3 fifteen minute lessons, so the whole violin thing is still really new for her! We assumed her classmates would be brand new beginners as well, but though all of the children were between the ages of 5 and 7, all save Lola and one other had been playing for at least a year or more. Her group teacher did a great job of balancing such a varied skill set, but Lo was frustrated that she couldn’t keep up with the other kids. I was really worried that it was all just too much for her, but on the last day of camp, after the incredible final concert, Lola burst into tears and said she didn’t want camp to be over and couldn’t we please just stay and do it all again!
Each of the kids had a 1 hour group lesson each day as well as a 1 hour Master class. Lola also had a class called Music & Movement, which was by far her favorite part of the day and Fletcher had 2 electives, mandolin and ‘write your own tune.’ The electives didn’t work out so well – I think he was just totally overloaded trying to keep up and honestly, I was too. Next year we will have a better idea of which electives to pick and things will go more smoothly.
The video above is the kids playing Appalachia Waltz on the street in downtown Charleston. The one below is them playing Amazing Grace in the Charleston church where it was first performed in the 1700s.
Being surrounded by so many incredible musicians was incredibly inspiring, but incredibly exhausting! After each full day of classes there were nightly ‘recitals’ where anyone who wanted could sign up to play on stage. One thing that I really love about the camp, and about the O’Connor Method, is that they encourage collaboration and creativity even at the earliest levels. They talked to the kids a lot about learning the music and then finding ways to make it their own, and all week long kids were making little ‘bands’ and performing their own arrangements on stage in front of an audience. Fletcher performed one night with his new friend Van (and Van’s dad) and Lola Gray performed a solo another night! I was soooooooo proud of them for getting up on that stage in front of all those people (probably 100 each night.)
After the recitals there was a nightly jam session, where the instructors and students all sat around just playing. Sadly, we never made it to a jam session though. After all that music what the kids really wanted (and needed) was to blow off steam in the hotel pool!
The biggest success of the week, in my opinion, was the relationship Fletcher formed with his incredible Master Class teacher, Ellen Lee. Miss Ellen just seemed to get Fletcher. She knew how to speak his language and she could see through the fidgety, crazy 8 year old boy-ness that frustrates so many teachers. She focused on helping him refine his ear, playing without use of the book which was uncomfortable for him. Early in the week she talked to him about improvising and putting his own twist on the songs, and he told her flat out that he would never do that – he likes to play the notes that are printed in the book. Fine. No problem. But then on the last day of class while the 2 of them were playing Old Joe Clark together, Fletcher started to improvise! I think it caught everyone totally off guard! Both of them were nearly giddy when the song was over!
The crazy thing is that while the whole week not a single person said a thing to him about his form, it has noticeably improved. He stands up straighter, he holds the violin better, he plays with more confidence, and he is having more fun with the music. Honestly, I could not have asked for more. Ellen told Fletcher she thinks he is going to be a famous musician one day. That alone made the crazy hectic week worth it all.
On the last night of camp the kids played a concert with Mark O’Connor himself. Incredible. First he played, which had everyone on the edge of their seats, then each class played a song in turn. At the end, there was an all-camp play-down where they went through the songs in the O’Connor Method books from hardest to easiest, and as they reached a song anyone who knew how to play it came up front and joined in. By the end there were 100 students plus all the teachers playing Boil ‘Em Cabbage Down, and the experience was unbelievably powerful. I was so proud of Fletcher and Lola, and so proud of the American musical tradition they are becoming a part of.
At the end of the concert, Mark gave every student 3 CDs and stuck around to meet everyone and sign autographs! It was a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful week – we are all ready to do it again next summer!