'A part of their lives'

Duane Whitcomb believes that when kids get together and turn music into a social experience in which they make friends, have fun and learn lots of songs by ear, then "music will always be a part of their lives."

Whitcomb, a music instructor, gathers students in Lithia Park each summer for a weeklong Creekside Fiddle Camp. Circled near the rose garden on 5-gallon plastic buckets Tuesday, kids from about age 6 through high school were learning such favorites as "Are You Sleeping," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Camptown Races." When they get good enough, they'll become mentors for younger musicians.

"I started this when I was 9 and now I'm 17 and I love it," says Erin Keoppen. "It's not about all the pressure of school music. It's fun, not classic and not orchestra pressure. You're playing in a social situation and everyone's at different levels, with the older kids playing the melody."

Whitcomb, who teaches most of the kids in private lessons, invites them to play with music and remember that if they can't play the harmony and rhythm of a song, they can always "chop" the strings on the off beat or "fake it."

Encouraging the 35 kids in a big circle, Whitcomb says, "Remember, if it's in D, then D will show up a lot" and they can play the open strings for those notes. (Correction: This quote has been updated to accurately reflect what Whitcomb said.)

The kids break into three groups according to skill. A riotous moment occurs when they try music "raiding" — marching into another group that is playing the lyrical, melodious "I'm Yours" by Jason Mraz and overcoming it with "Camptown Races" — until they all start playing the same song, though they try to resist.

"It's my favorite fiddle camp, definitely, and I hope to be a counselor," says violinist and eight-grader Devon Lancaster. "We all know each other and it's so nice to learn all the songs together at the same pace."

Fifth-grader and bassist Zander Huston notes, "You're free to do a lot of stuff and play around. The teaching is very creative and it's so important to have friends who are in music."

Fifth-grader Rebeccah Fellman says, "I like it a lot. It's great if you want to play violin because you want to and not because your parents want you to."

The camp focuses mainly on violins and invites a range of strings, including bass, guitar and ukelele, with drums as backup. After several days of learning, the kids are rewarded with a chance to make music and some money by opening their violin cases and performing together on the Plaza and streets of Ashland. Few passing tourists can resist a tip, says Whitcomb.

For more information about Whitcomb's camp, visit his website at www.creeksidestrings.org.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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