PEI Fiddle Camp 2011 – Sessions Galore & Ear Training

Written by Mark Douglas –

A Hammered Dulcimer playing an MSR?! –

Last year I was able to catch a quick glimpse of the 2010 PEI Fiddle Camp when the organizer, Ward MacDonald, invited me out to the final Friday night concert.  Within the first hour I was exposed to Border pipes, uilleann pipes, Scottish smallpipes, and a hammered dulcimer playing an MSR — yes, a march, strathspey, and reel!  There were some Gaelic airs on b-flat Highland chanter (I really miss that full tone) and of course tons of fiddles and fiddle styles, including Irish, Scottish, Québécois, and Acadian.  There were also mandolins, whistles, bodhrans, and accordions.  By the end of the night Ward had everyone up playing some tunes in a vast session that spanned all the ranges of instruments.  What surprised me, being so new to the smallpipe scene, was the music that oozed out of the barn that night.  There was a strong communal feeling and I knew what my next year’s plans for the end of June would be.

Discovering the Music

The ethos behind the camp is aptly described: “Music, Sharing, Discovery.”  I couldn’t agree more.   Before Camp began, Ward explained to me how the week would unfold and the importance of learning by ear.  Actually, he spoke at length about ear training and avoiding “the dots” (sheet music) as much as possible during the week.  Ear training is, admittedly, a weak area of mine – something I would certainly be discovering in the days ahead!  He also expressed the importance of patience and not trying to memorize or simply learn 15 new tunes that week.  Admittedly, this was all fairly foreign to me – I still play in a competitive pipe band and my exposure to the piping world has been through this realm.  However, I was really interested in smallpipes and everything the instrument entails.  My busy pipe band and solo competition season was just around the corner and this camp would be my opportunity to play and learn in a relaxed environment before the stress of competition took over.

The Daily Routine

Your daily program consisted of five separate classes.  I was free to choose as many or as little as I wanted – and to come and go as I pleased.  If (when!) you go to PEI Fiddle Camp, don’t worry if you aren’t sure what level you are at.  If the advanced class is too much to handle there is no pressure – you can stay and listen or move on to something else.  This relaxed approach to things was present through all aspects of the camp.  It made for a very flexible and learner-focused delivery of the classes.

Specialty Classes

Throughout the week, and amidst other classes, were specialty classes.  These were a real treat.  On top of my smallpipe and whistle classes, I took some specialty classes on Gaelic Airs for all Instruments; learning pipe tunes from a fiddler, and pipe maintenance and drone reed making (using cane!).  By the end of the week I had been exposed to a lot of instructors from various instruments.  Spending time with a fiddler like Andrea Beaton as she teaches you how to play “The Highlander’s Jig” by ear is an opportunity in and of itself.   Slowly and surely I’m picking up the process of learning by ear – good times!

Camp Tunes – A Novel Idea

Each day started off with a quick presentation of that days new camp tune.  This was probably the most refreshing aspect of the week for me as it was one of many ways the camp helped us learn to play together.  Being so new to smallpipes, I had only played with other instruments a few times and I wanted some more exposure to session playing.

The first night Tim Cummings hosted a real gem of a discussion on “Session Etiquette.”  We discussed what sessions were; how to play in them; understanding the culture; how to begin, etc.  It was a very comprehensive discussion that answered a lot my questions on the nuances of playing in a session. The idea behind each days camp tune was that we would all have at least those few tunes we could all play together (fiddles to banjos to smallpipes). Sounds basic, however considering the geographies, different instruments, and repertoires people come to camp with this proved to be a huge hit.  By Monday night I was playing “Neillie’s reel” with everyone else.  It was a pivotal moment in my development: to be playing in a session, something we just learned by ear.  I could see the opening up of a whole new world of fun.

As if Tim’s session talk wasn’t enough,  Monday continued with a concert by the instructors (each night a new concert, new instruments) followed by a dance lead by those nightly instructors.  The evening continued on until — 5 AM??  (not sure, I went to bed at 4:00 AM) in the barn with a large session.  And even though I didn’t know three quarters of the tunes I sat back and listened.  Good times.

Essentially, each day follows the same formula: camp tunes, classes, specialty classes, slow session concert, dance, late night session.  The food is ultra-healthy, delicious and served with a smile.  The coffee and tea is ALWAYS on and there’s always lots of it.  This is one of the nice treats you take for granted.  I’d find myself woofing down tea between classes and throughout the day.  Considering the weather was on the cool side this didn’t hurt to warm the bones either.

Top-Shelf Piping Instruction

I can’t offer much of an opinion on any of the other music classes –my focus was on smallpiping primarily.  I ended up ditching my whistle classes for more piping (there’s always next year D whistle!).  However, if the other classes were half as good as the pipe classes, the students would have been well served.  This is top-shelf instruction in a supportive and fun atmosphere.  With this group I felt very relaxed considering it was my first time playing without sheet music.  Learning the idiom and new ideas surrounding embellishment (when and where), vibrato, and ideas on rhythm were hugely appreciated.  We worked on tunes in a slow yet progressive manner. Sometimes I couldn’t keep up (more than often!).  However, I would simply sit back and hum the tune and try to absorb it.  Nate Banton ( spent a considerable amount of time fitting me up to his bellow pipes: cutting the connector, tweaking the fit. These were rental pipes but NOT rental quality.  It was a nice touch to have custom-sized, new, beautiful pipes to play during your week at camp.

The camp’s philosophy: Music, Sharing, Discovery is more of a mission statement.  You can tell many late nights of planning, collaboration and discussion by many people went into designing this experience.  The organizers were focused on delivering music education through a folk-oriented and active-learning approach.  Central to this process was inclusion.  To bring together various learners, instruments, and ideas into a week of music is no easy feat.  To accommodate families, singles, couples, young, old and in-between in which everyone is having a good time in a respectful yet fun experience is even more difficult.  This was all tightly-packaged into a well-run and refreshingly relaxed pace of learning on an idyllic setting overlooking the south shore beaches of PEI.

See you next year.