The Sisters Folk Festival gets underway tonight in Central Oregon. Organizers are expecting more than 45 artists to take the stage between now and Sunday. But many of those artists have been in town all week to take part in the Americana Song and Arts Academy. ‘Song Camp,’ as it’s called, gives songwriters of all ages the chance to hone their craft with professional musicians.
Megan Elsworth was barely out of diapers when the first Song Camp was held here at the Caldera Arts Center back in 2002. Now 15, Elsworth takes the stage to perform an original composition while campers and instructors look on.
The Americana project is a collaboration between the Sisters Folk Festival and the Sisters School District that teaches music instruction and the history of American music to middle and high school students.
This camp was originally thought of as a master class for experienced Americana students as well as others in the community.
Today there are more than 100 campers of all ages. Many are older, but a few, like Elsworth, are high schoolers. She says what really makes the experience special are the instructors.
“There’s some awesome musicians here. And it’s a little intimidating when you get up on the stage and perform. But it’s also really reassuring because you know if you do mess up, they can help you,” says Elsworth.
The campers’ days here are filled with classes on things like singing, songwriting and improvisation.
About two dozen people pack into a crowded A-frame building for a guitar fingerpicking lesson by Northwest singer/songwriter Nathaniel Talbot. While this year will mark Talbot’s third appearance at the festival, it’s the first time he’s ever taught a class. And like 15-year-old Megan Elsworth, he too was a bit nervous.
“It was actually a little intimidating to me when they asked me to do that,” says Talbot. “I didn’t know exactly how I’d approach that, but it’s really fun and I’m finding once I get going I actually have things to say and teach to people, even though I never really approached it in that way before.”
While many of the classes here are designed to help musicians sharpen their skills, organizers say Song Camp is about more than just technical proficiency.
“I think our goal is to inspire and empower people, not necessarily teach technique,” says Brad Tisdel, executive and artistic director of the Sisters Folk Festival and the founder of the Americana Song and Arts Academy.
Tisdel says for the first time this year, the Academy is offering classes in the visual arts as well. He says the most important thing is to provide a venue and a forum for people to express themselves and be creative.
“Whether or not people write songs or make a painting at camp or finish a painting at camp is less important than the inspiration behind it, so they can be empowered to do it when they leave camp,” Tisdel says.
For some of the campers, this is their first year. Others, like Kathy Marshall, have been coming back for many years. Marshall says she had always written songs, but before coming to camp, she lacked confidence and kept her passion hidden from the world. That is until, a friend convinced her to enroll here eight years ago.
“It was a deep transforming experience for me,” says Marshall. “I realized that I had just squelched that part of me, that creative side. And it just opened up so many things. I started writing again. I started performing. Eventually, I put my first CD together and now I’m working on my second CD. So it’s really changed my life.”
Nashville-based singer/songwriter Amy Speace is making her first appearance at the festival, but she’s been teaching music at workshops for years.
“Songwriting is a really, really vulnerable act, you know, because you’re laying your soul bare,” says Speace. She says, like many people here, she loves songwriting, she loves songs and she loves talking about songs. She says like everybody else, artists have a deep need to connect with others.
“There’s that fallacy that we all work by ourselves in our rooms late at night, but it doesn’t become the thing it is until it’s shared with somebody else,” Speace says.
Speace will play her first set Friday, September 6 at 8:00 pm. The Sisters Folk Festival runs through Sunday, September 8.