Something Cool is Happening
in the Ontario Highlands
by Kara M. Bachman
The Old School Bluegrass Camp
Learning, Jamming, Mentoring
small and intimate
When Jenny Whiteley started the Old School Bluegrass Camp – which included summertime learning sessions, mentorship and camaraderie for musically-inclined adults – she had no idea it would take off as it has over the past seven years. Back then, there wasn’t much available in her region of Ontario, Canada, and a fiddler or guitarist who wanted to engage with a bluegrass program had to travel far to find a setting for learning, jamming, and mentorship.
Whiteley had a goal of keeping it all “small and intimate.”
“I thought I’d try and get maybe ten people per instrument,” she said. “The first year, we had about 40 campers.”
Since then, she’s put limits on growth, and today, there’s still a maximum of 50 campers per session. This is all by choice; there are waiting lists for specific instruments in many instances.
“After that first year, the decision I made was that I don’t want to get bigger,” Whiteley admitted.
At first, the camps happened on a decommissioned public school property. Then, two years ago, Whitely relocated and enhanced the experience by making it even more rural.
“We relocated it to our home in eastern Ontario,” she said. “It’s farmlands in the highlands of Ontario.” There’s a pavilion near a smoking campfire, where slow jams happen. The camp utilizes a nearby church hall for meals, and there’s an outdoor stage where the instructors put on nightly performances after the day of learning. “That’s a real bonus for people,” she said, “that they get these exclusive daily shows.”
Whiteley is less interested in growth than creating an optimal experience for campers. It means keeping the instructors accessible and keeping the overall number of participants to personal levels. Since the camp is a 4-night sleep-away experience, the environment was based on research where environments allow groups to thrive best.
“Including all the instructors, staff, and volunteers, we have about 80 people,” she said. “That’s the number of people [in research studies] who stick together and are cohesive.”
The size limitations on the camp experience – and the expectations of staff involvement – are what Whiteley feels sets the Old School Bluegrass Camp apart from other options.
“They were really there at the dinners, bonfires, and the special events,” she said. The teachers aren’t just hit-and-run instructors; they become a part of the experience.
The camp includes not just classes but sessions devoted to the individual.
“Everybody is able to have private lessons,” Whiteley said.
The 7th Annual Camp
Connect with your community!
where students make real music together!
Another feature she is proud of is the Band Lab, where students pair with others to make real music – despite skill level – by the end of the camp.
“You are put in a band with other learning musicians,” Whiteley explained. “It’s a transformative feeling when suddenly you’re making music with other people…and it’s such a loving and supportive situation.”
The Toronto native understands the performer’s emotions; the guitarist/bassist and vocalist has been in the business since childhood. She grew up in a family band; played bass in a group she started called Heartbreak Hill, which lasted several years and earned a Juno award nomination from what’s essentially the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys. Today, this performer and songwriter has attained what she refers to as “a fairly successful” solo folk and bluegrass career involving multiple record releases, live performances, and two solo Juno Award wins.
It’s been a long time since Whiteley was in student mode – and even longer since her first live performance – but she understands the sensitivity of a fledgling performer’s first live show and loves giving some campers this experience.
Whiteley said the camp is open to all adults, and the skill level and demographics of who signs up vary. The age range spans from people in their 30s to those in their 70s. There are, at times, some interesting outliers.
“One year, we had a 19-year-old who came with his dad,” she reminisced. “He was the youngest student. That year, the eldest camper was about 86. That was an extreme range.”
Whiteley is delighted by diversity amongst the campers and strives for an experience that welcomes all abilities and people. She does provide options, however, for accommodations. Campers can pitch a tent or park an RV primitive-style (no hookups); rent a “glamping” tent; or spend the nights off-site, staying in local accommodations. This way, people can choose what is most comfortable.
Whiteley said that whatever they decide so far, her campers are pleased, and many return for the following years. It seems she’s made good on her original thought: “I know we can do something cool in Ontario.”