Not Just Fiddles: Shasta Music Summit

For young musicians wielding guitars, fiddles, banjos, and other acoustic instruments, especially for those interested in traditional styles of playing, having a community of like-minded people to learn from can be both indispensable and hard to find. Although only for a week at a time a few times a year, music camps provide a temporary but lasting community that begins to seem necessary to learning music. As Simon Chrisman, hammer dulcimer player and long-time teacher at these music camps, puts it, “Going and taking a music lesson is like going to speak a language with one person – you can both speak it, and you go and speak it with them – as opposed to going to a camp which is like being dropped in the middle of where they speak that language. And you’re just like, ‘Oh shit.’”

The Shasta Music Summit, one such music camp, is a small, invitation-only “fiddle camp” that functions as a sort of silent oasis for musicians to teach, learn, collaborate and create. The oasis is conjured up in early July by the collaborative efforts of everyone present, lasts a week, and then vanishes into a humble storage locker for months, until another similar camp comes up. Although it started out as a fiddle camp, it quickly transitioned to include all sorts of acoustic instruments. These days, guitarists outnumber fiddle players.  Siblings Tristan and Tashina Clarridge started this camp in 2005, when they were 17 and 21 respectively, to realize their fantasy of creating “a place where anyone could go to be musically challenged, rather than having a certain target audience be a specific necessity.”

Tashina explains, “We were accustomed to teaching at camps, but we couldn’t find a camp where we could really go and be challenged as students in a way that didn’t really feel like a novelty. We thought, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just step past all the structural limitations that tell you that you can’t do that because nobody does that because of this and that rule? What if you could just get one or two individuals, musicians, and a small group of people, and just hire them to come and spend a week in a house together and learn everything you can from them?’ Everything we had experienced was a pretty large scale camp environment, and it was wonderful, but pretty costly, and for three teachers you would have 200 students, and you might have assistant teachers along with that, but we were envisioning something where there was a more personal relationship between all of the teachers and all of the students.”

How did the Shasta Music Summit come to be?

Tashina tells us of the unlikely genesis of the Shasta Music Summit. “My brother and I were on a late-night drive. We started out in the evening and we knew we had to drive all night, so we began to have this discussion just to keep ourselves awake, about making our own fiddle camp and how it would help musicians do things that they didn’t think that they could do but they really wanted to do. We were thinking ‘Wow wouldn’t it be cool if this could happen? This could never happen!’ And then by the time the sun was coming up and we were getting to our destination we thought, ‘Hey, let’s actually do this!’”

A few months later, their first camp was already in session. The Shasta Music Summit’s rural Northern California location – a draw in itself and perfect for creating a musical space with few distractions – came about more or less coincidentally; it happened to be the place of residence for some of the people involved in founding the camp.Over the camp’s 13 years, a strong community of acoustic musicians has formed, young musicians have grown up and evolved within this musical scene, and many lasting collaborations have been born. Harpist Maeve Gilchrist, says, in a video made about the camp a few years ago: “Shasta’s definitely a totally unique music camp experience for me, and for probably everybody here. I don’t know, for me it’s all about the details, you know like just walking by a session and hearing something so beautiful or maybe seeing a collaboration that I hadn’t seen before, and listening to two great musicians interact, perhaps musicians that have never played together, maybe musicians that have been playing together for years. …It’s this communal generous atmosphere of music, giving and taking and sharing.”

Strolling through the grounds, one thing that is immediately noticeably different about this camp is the deep sense of community. Every part of working together at camp is a musical experience in a sense: you can learn something that will make you a better musician from sitting at the table with great musicians, hiking to a lake with them, chopping carrots with them, listening to them jam and collaborate with each other, and of course, from the knowledge they share in classes. During the course of the week, most people end up finding something they never thought of before that they really want to learn or teach, and usually these requests will be reflected in the schedule before the end of the week.

Another thing that sets this musical experience apart is that, with rare exceptions, all of the 80 or 90 people in participation are musicians. Because of this, every attendee takes also turns cooking, setting up chairs for concerts, helping with meal clean-up, and so forth. Instruction works similarly: often teenage students and young professional musicians will have the opportunity to have private lessons with older instructors, and then in turn teach private lessons to the younger set of students. The line between student and instructor can be hard to draw, as almost all of the instructors are very enthusiastic as students of each other, and many of the students take on a teaching role before the week is out.

Everyone takes their turn helping in the kitchen.

What is it like for a guitar player?

Grant Gordy speaks of the experience of being at the Shasta Music Summit and how it differs from the experience of being at other similar camps:

“I haven’t been to Shasta in several years now, and I am sure that it has evolved in many respects over that time. Surely, though, it retains some of the core aspects that make it really different and special from other camps. For one thing, it is literally a camp, so you are actually sleeping in a sleeping bag in a tent on-site, and there is a very communal spirit to the endeavor that feels unique to Shasta. There is very little social barrier or stratification between the students and the instructors (if any, really), because everybody is there together, and the instructors are usually taking others’ classes too, when they’re not teaching. Vegetarian food is served during mealtimes, and everybody pitches in in the food prep and cleanup.

“Living conditions aside, another aspect that makes it so special is just the depth to which everybody is living in the music for that week. Many of the students are often professional musicians themselves, and the level of discourse and study is very high. In a given day you might get a 2-hour interactive lecture on North Indian rhythmic syllables, learn a Clifford Brown tune or a Swedish tune or a gospel song, and that’s all before the nighttime concerts and jam sessions. The breadth of material can be pretty staggering, and everybody is up for the challenge the day might bring, because that’s what they’re there for. Even if one’s instrument is not fiddle (I think of Shasta as primarily conceived as a fiddle camp), you just jump in and keep your ears and mind open to new information. And the hang side of it is very important too. The social ties happen for people in any camp or festival environment to be sure, but this one’s dear to my heart; some of the deepest friendships in my life have been cultivated at Shasta.”

What kind of a guitar should you bring to a fiddle camp?

“I’d say any kind of acoustic guitar that you are comfortable putting lots of hours per day into works great,” Gordy says. “Don’t count on being able to always find a convenient place to plug your amp in! The years I attended were before I came across my ’44 Martin ooo-18, and during that time I was playing a big dreadnought acoustic, the standard bluegrass style guitar. But a bluegrass axe is not required!”

Back in 2005, the camp started out with the ubiquitous music camp class format of having all the students sorted into four or five different levels, and having instructors, or pairs or groups of instructors, rotate. As time passed and everyone matured musically, it became clear that what was needed to take each musician to the next level was something so personal that the general classes sorted by level were no longer an effective means of satisfying those needs. The system that replaced the standard one was unique, to say the least, and probably impossible anywhere but at Shasta. Now, all the students and teachers send recordings of themselves to show what they have been working on recently, along with a list of things they are hoping to learn or excited to share, and then Tashina organizes people into small classes or ensembles based on what each person needs and is looking for. This process, in the modern age of finely crafted music, happens on a magnetic board with each person’s name taped to a small movable magnet, and usually takes all night.

With the transition from the more traditional fiddle camp-y class level structure to the personalized hand-crafted instruction, something else in the defining structure of the camp seems to have morphed. What started out as fiddle camp, geared towards teaching people to play their instruments, has undeniably become a music camp, geared towards teaching people to make music. “We realized that fiddles weren’t the most important instrument!” Tashina jokes, “Like a guitar camp or a harp camp or a banjo camp, a fiddle camp is not a very congruent representation of music in general.” This is reflected in the spread of instruments, where, in 2017, guitars outnumbered fiddles (in order of number of players, we had: guitars, fiddles, basses – 10 upright bassists actually, voices, mandolins, banjos, cellos, harps, saxophones, bouzoukis, accordions, and drums.)By this point, the concept at play in the week-long Shasta Music Summit is one that is visited throughout the year as often as is possible, through the avenue of another similar, slightly smaller, week-long camp in April, and various pop-up gatherings and small house camps – that is, scaled down versions of the music camp, featuring many of the same people, hosted by someone in their house, usually for a weekend or so. “Traditionally, maybe you would be 15 or 16 years old and you would be apprenticed someplace to learn some trade. You’d go and live with those people and work with those people. Camp is the closest thing to that that we have.” It is a self-sustaining cycle of students and teachers helping each other come to fill both roles.

In the middle of the week of music making, all of the instructors and many of the students bring their collaborations to the stage of a nearby theatre for a legendary concert of epic proportions. The Summer String Summit Concert in Weed, California is famous for consisting of three or four hours of music from an unheard-of lineup of musicians, and for some of the more dedicated audience members calls for a three or four hour drive from their hometown. There are the hard core fans who stay until midnight to savour every moment, the parents of young children who come in for an hour to catch what they can, and everyone in between also exists. After camp ends, many of the instructors and students head down to Berkeley, California for another concert, the Shasta String Celebration, at the Freight and Salvage. If you happen to live somewhere near the north of Northern California, or the middle of Northern California, check it out. There are lots of guitars.