by Susan Marquez
They’re the future of bluegrass—kids from across the country who travel to the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley, California each summer for The Academy. The three-day music camp is for children ages eight to 16 that runs during the annual Father’s Day Festival.
Darby Brandli served as president of the California Bluegrass Association for 15 years and now serves as president emeritus. “We always had a children’s festival at the Father’s Day Fest, and we had Kids on Bluegrass for 30 years, which was a performance-only event. A lot of kids participated in that who went on to become the stars of bluegrass today, including Molly Tuttle.”
Darby says she wanted to create an instructional event that would make the festival more family-friendly.
“The kids really are the future of bluegrass, so we want to start them off young with a good appreciation of the music, and as possible musicians.”
The camp is limited to 50 kids. “We hire musicians as faculty,” Darby explains. “All are under 35 because we want the kids to have the experience of being taught and inspired by younger people. We also hire young teaching assistants who were, themselves, once students of The Academy. We like to keep the faculty-to-student ratio at about one per six to seven students.”
Kimber Ludiker of the all-girl group Della Mae will be the director for the second time this year. “Last year I was just soaking it all in, trying to make sense of it all,” she says. “What I saw was an amazing opportunity for kids to be exposed to bluegrass in a very unique and creative way.”
Kimber says last year the age of the campers skewed on the younger side, but Darby says that changes from year to year. “The same kids return year after year until they age out, and many of those kids come back as teaching assistants.”
There are two groups of kids at the camp. One is the beginner who has never played an instrument of any kind. The other is the intermediate player, who has some knowledge of how to play an instrument. “What we do is to allow the kids to try several different instruments,” Kimber says. “They may find that while one doesn’t work particularly well for them, another may be something that makes their heart sing.” During the camp, Kimber says she conducts an all-kazoo band. “It’s an improvisational class. All musicians are trying to play the music that’s inside of them on their chosen instruments. What the kids need to learn is that they are all better musicians than they give themselves credit for.” Darby says the kazoo exercise is a way to learn harmonization without being self-conscious. “It gives them confidence.”
Being in music classes all day every day would get boring for many of the students, so Kimber says activities such as dancing helps break up the day while also teaching an important lesson on rhythm. “Tatiana Hargreaves brought in a band last year and did a square-dancing class. It got the kids on their feet and moving, and they had lots of fun.”
Kimber says a couple of bands visited last year, including the Lonely Hearts Band.
“They are all young, and I like to get the younger folks in to play because it’s good for our students to see. Another group we bring in is North Country Blue, which is made up of teenagers. Della Mae calls them our ‘farm team.’ They are so talented.”
During the camp, Kimber stays at the campground and witnesses many impromptu jam sessions with the campers. “Seeing what Darby has created is so heartwarming. I’m so impressed by the number of young people who play at such a high level who all know the traditional bluegrass songs. Della Mae is going into our tenth year as a band and it’s amazing when teenagers know our songs and tell us they’ve listened to us since they were little. We hope more kids want to follow in our footsteps.”
Another aspect of the camp is the instrument lending library managed by the CBA. “It’s such a surprising and cool thing to me,” says Kimber. “They have a huge number of instruments that they lend to families who are members of the CBA at no charge. The students can keep the instruments until they are 18 years old.” Darby says many of the instruments are donated, and the others are bought using money donated to the Youth Programs.
For more information on the California Bluegrass Association Youth Programs and The Academy, visit CBAYouthProgram.com.