Updated Feb 2, 2024
Mark O'Connor Fiddle Camp, 1994
by Ryan Thomson
Two friends and I drove 30 hours nonstop from New Hampshire to Tennessee to attend the first Mark O'Connor Fiddle Camp, located at a state park outside of Nashville. We took turns sleeping and the time went by quickly. We brought along bicycles since there were lots of small country roads to explore during free afternoon hours. We arrived a day early and attended a local bluegrass festival and contest which takes place in a large limestone cavern.
Besides the novelty of being inside a cave hearing fiddle music, the music contest was interesting. There were categories of fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and clog dancing. The interesting part was that many of the contest entrants were teenagers who each entered every category! When they weren't competing, they were playing back up accompaniment for other musicians in the contest. I've rarely seen so many kids in one place who could each play several different instruments so well, and dance too!
We arrived at the fiddle camp the next day. Montgomery Bell State Park included rustic cabins with bunk beds, separate shower and restroom facilities, and a scenic well wooded location. There was a large grassy field where the 25 or so children enjoyed baseball and other sports when not playing their fiddles. The large dining hall was also the site for evening jams, and workshops during the day.
The camp provided a number of portable tents where some campers spent the night. Large delivery trucks arrived several times a day with the catered meals which were included in the basic camp fee. The food was good and plentiful. Ticks were also plentiful, and a careful self examination each day was necessary to prevent the little blood suckers from gaining a significant mouth hold!
The hired faculty included specialists in jazz, classical, studio session playing, Celtic, Texas style contest fiddling, and of course Mark himself leading master classes. Students rotated from class to class throughout each day so that every fiddler got to spend time with each faculty member. The quality of the faculty was exceptional. The average level of the "student" fiddlers was also exceptional. Many attendees were professional fiddlers, music teachers, or fine amateur players of many years experience. I've never seen so many really good fiddlers in one place before, except perhaps at the National Fiddle Contest in Weiser, Idaho.
Throughout the week, other Nashville session players and semi-famous country music players from the Nashville area would drop by to play in evening concerts, or just jam. After the first couple of days an interesting phenomena became apparent. Here were more than a hundred fiddlers in one place, but few banjo, guitar, or other musicians to play music with!
An electric piano made an appearance at the Celtic jam area, but there were no other pianos present. The few people who thought to bring along a guitar or banjo were in great demand. Fortunately I had my accordion, and a very small battery operated keyboard which proved to be very handy in jam sessions when I wanted a break from fiddling.
This event was the first time that I actually met and spoke with Mark although I was an onlooker at many outdoor jam sessions in Weiser in the 1970's when Mark and his teacher, Benny Thomason, were making incredible music. At the 1977 National Fiddle Contest I was on stage with Mark when he received the Northwest regional fiddling award, and I received the Northeastern trophy. (Benny was one of the judges) I still have a tape of the 1977 contest that I listen to occasionally. At one point the MC describes a mosquito bite on Marks bowing arm that might potentially interfere with his playing. Of course he went on to win anyway.
Mark and I pose for a snapshot
I hope to return to this camp in the future. The camp presents an excellent opportunity to meet and learn from some of the top fiddlers in the US and Canada. The week long event is presently held twice a year due to the high demand from interested fiddlers. The 1996 dates were June 9-14, and Sept. 22-26. For more information visit the web site.
Postscript February 15, 2004 - At the present time Mark is putting on an annual fiddling event in San Diego, California, with teaching, jams, master classes, etc with well known instructors.
Written by Ryan Thomson