String-based folk music festival launches in North Egremont


NORTH EGREMONT -- They play with easy confidence, handing the lead back and forth, flipping from one tune to another with a nod, telling jokes through the music and letting it build.

Fiddle and cello blend in an original song in the voice of a woman sailing from Poland to Chicago at the turn of the century.

The mandolin player sings countermelody over a driving tune that has the room clapping the beat.

A fiddler keeps time with his feet to a Canadian reel, guitar rollicking with him.

This is the feeling of Maine Fiddle Camp in Montville, Maine, or the Ashokan Festival over the border in New York. And this week it has come to the Berkshires. This week, in Egremont, string teacher Erika Ludwig is planting the seeds of a new music festival and transplanting them from Downeast.

Five young musicians have traveled to South County to teach a week of music camp for children and to lead a series of jams and workshops for adults in the evening. The children's camp has filled up, Ludwig said, but all are welcome at the adult workshops and at a contra dance tonight, Thursday, July 17, at Dewey Hall in Sheffield.

She wants to give people the confidence to relax into music together.

Ludwig has taught violin and viola since 1994, and she has taught them at the Rudolph Steiner School in Great Barrington since 1998. As a Waldorf teacher, she often starts beginner students with tunes they have learned to sing in their singing classes, she said -- so in the beginning, they learn by ear. They hold onto the energy of learning to make a sound, she said.

For many years, she moved the older children on to note reading and classical music.

But two years ago, her first adult music student -- with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren -- took Ludwig to Maine Fiddle Camp.

Ludwig spent a week learning music by ear from instructors who never used sheet music. She sat under the pine trees with small groups of musicians, taking in music phrase by phrase. In the afternoons, people formed spontaneous jam sessions wherever one person sat down to play a tune and someone else joined in.

"I hadn't learned music by ear since I was a child," Ludwig said, "and I was envious of the kids and adults who had these tunes as their friends. I wanted a friend I could play any time."

That experience has changed the way she teaches her older students, she said. She studied mandolin with Jeff Lewis at the camp, and she met Mia and Ariel Friedman -- sisters, musicians and teachers, Mia on fiddle and Ari on cello.

All three have come to teach music in the Berkshires, along with Aldo Lavaggi, a composer, performer and fiddle instructor from the Hudson Valley, who has started a regular contra dance in Chatham, N.Y., and Jordan Tice on guitar, a flatpicker and composer from New York.

"I brought them here to inspire and ramp up the local fiddle community," Ludwig said.

Lavaggi has performed internationally and studied with Jay Ungar, the upstate New York fiddler who, with his wife, Molly Mason, founded the Ashokan Folk Festival.

Tice has performed across the country and played the music of Steve Martin commissioned for Shakespeare in the Park in New York. Ari and Mia tour together and on their own -- Ari performs with the group Childsplay, and Mia performs solo and composes folk music from her new home base in the Pioneer Valley. Lewis performs with his band, the Sun Parade, in Northampton.

They are looking forward to working with new students and spending time with each other, Ari said. And they are looking forward to coming back here again.

"I'm looking forward to the first time of something that grows more and more each year with the family flavor of Fiddle Camp," Lavaggi said.

The Maine camp too started with a musician and fiddle teacher, Greg Boardman, and his friends and longtime fellow band members wanting a place for a younger generation of musicians to play together. Some of the first generation of campers now teach there. And it continues to expand rapidly, Lewis said.

So Berkshire Summer Strings may put down deep roots.

"It's exciting to be part of the first new group here," Mia said.

"We're making something new together," Tice agreed.

Lewis built on their enthusiasm, taking off.

"We're the astronauts," he said.


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