2016 Ozark Autoharp Festival – June 9-11
The Center is beautiful, well designed and built on a mountain top … and on several levels down the sides. There’s parking at the bottom and a shuttle to take you up, thank heavens!
My buddy, Sally Pena, and I just returned from a weeklong odyssey to Mountain View, Arkansas, to attend the Autoharp Festival at the Ozark Folk Art Center there. It’s built on a mountain top – what an amazing place! The participants were divided into four levels; Sally and I chose to be challenged and stuck ourselves in with the advanced players. As well as learning new songs and techniques, the teachers – all professional performers themselves – gave some excellent advice on performing.
It’s interesting, I think that, unlike “the olden days” when there wasn’t the convenience of recording music, people now attend musical events not to listen, but to be entertained. Cathy Britell, one of the presenters and a brilliant autoharp player, told of one of her first concerts where people actually walked out, not because the music was substandard, but because all she did was play. Today she is an energetic performer who engages the audience not only with her music but with her amazing energy and delightful personality. She advises us not only to sing, but to get the audience to sing along. She wasn’t the only one who had us singing. The other teachers, Bryan Bowers, Nancy Mueller, and Charles Whitmer, also stressed performance … and singing. Sally and I brought home sea shanties, country & western songs, and some hymns. (I’ve been trying to practice my singing, but my dog thinks I’m in pain and keeps trying to comfort me. I’ll get better …)
How many time have you heard someone say, “you need to smile when you play!”? Well, this is what the teachers at the workshop were talking about. I know I’m usually so focused on the music and “doing it right” that I forget to think about the audience. Bryan Bowers said that he never performs a piece unless he can play it through three times without a single mistake. It means practicing the music, and even memorizing it so that the tab in front of us is just a reminder. Bryan admitted he is sometimes distracted by trivial things when he’s performing, but said that it’s necessary to pull yourself back and focus on the job. And the job is to be entertaining.
Cathy performs on the autoharp with at least a bass player. And she sings although she considers her voice less than stellar, but she uses it extremely well – I have seen her move an audience to tears. With the energy she projects she puts on quite a show. Bryan will blow your socks off – literally. His 6’4” frame and booming voice demand your attention, as well as his stories and superb musicianship. He sang a piece called “When I Go,” and I could see a Viking warrior singing his death song on his flaming long boat as he rode it out to sea (I know, the Viking was supposed to be dead first, but that image just isn’t the same!). Nancy Mueller performs with other musicians – banjo, guitar, mandolin, bass. She’s an excellent performer who uses her instrument, weaving lovely textures with the band. (I bought one of her CDs.) Charles Whitmer was my favorite of the teachers. He’s very business-like (he’s a professional music teacher) and is quite adept at dissecting difficult material so that everyone can work through the hard parts and play to song. He, too, stressed music as communication … something you can’t do without engaging the audience.
The trip gave Sally and me a lot to think about and to work on, and it was well worth the time, effort, and money. The downtown area featured numerous nightly jams (wow!), as well as some interesting shops that we didn’t have time to explore. We did get to McSpadden’s to play the dulcimers, and go through the music books and other things they had for sale. We did spend money at McSpaddens — who could resist? — and we also took part in a great impromptu jam. We found a good catfish restaurant on the river, and ate very well. But one suggestion, if you go to Mountain View, take your own a supply of wine and beer. It’s a dry county!! Boy, were we surprised!
More about the trip to come: How I rescued the tortoise; how we almost rescued a dog; how we didn’t run into a herd of deer; how I rescued a kitten.