John and Moira Wirtz are the kind of people who get things done.
ukbluegrass got in touch with the idea of running an article, and when they rang back we had to apologise – “Sorry, our car is very unwell at the moment and we’ll be unable to meet up for another week or two.” Within minutes we’d had a call from a banjo player called Simon offering us a lift to and from Wirtz Heights to get the interview done.
And that’s exactly the kind of management skills you need to get a dozen or so top American bluegrass musicians together for a week at a public school in the Cotswolds to teach nearly 300 eager students about their art.
The quirkily named Sore Fingers Week has been held annually since 1996, with John and Moira involved from the beginning and running the event for the past 4 years.
Sore Fingers was born out of a desire to run a home grown bluegrass camp along the lines of those that had existed in America for a number of years. The aim was always to run a high-quality event to equal those camps, with tutors brought across the Atlantic. The first event in 1996 had 3 courses and played host to 50 banjo, mandolin and guitar students. In 2007, 18 individual courses are available, covering the full range of bluegrass and old-time instruments, plus song-writing and singing. Separate courses are available for beginners looking for a gentler introduction.
The event is the biggest of its kind outside of the States and its appeal goes far beyond British shores. Students regularly travel from all parts of Europe, as far afield as Australia and tellingly, America itself. Close to 300 students are expected to attend this time.
The school may be in England, but that doesn’t deter the big names of bluegrass. Past tutors include Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, Tony Trishka, Mark Schatz, Rob Ickes and Stuart Duncan. “It’s very important to have the best American tutors,” says John. “People trust the likes of John Moore and Barry Mitterhoff to know what they’re talking about.” These high standards mean the camp’s reputation has spread to the States. “When we ring potential tutors to ask if they’re interested in coming over, they’ve almost always heard of us,” John proudly claims.
This level of quality can also be seen in the students. Abilities cover the full range – complete novices, professional musicians, long-time band members looking for inspiration, and even the occasional rock legend. “The standard of student here is just as high as in the States,” adds John. “It proves the quality of the product that these incredible musicians come along to learn or just for the inspiration. That means a lot to us.” Ivan Rosenberg who taught dobro in 2004 has even admitted that his students taught him a new trick or two!
About four hours a day are spent in the classroom. Tutors can cover all sorts of material during the week, and are also asked to present one-hour workshops in the evenings for students from other subject areas. All this coupled with the wide range of abilities and backgrounds amongst the students means that even the most experienced player is bound to learn something new during the week. According to John, “You are just as likely to learn from a fellow student as you are from your tutor.”
Kingham Hill School has played host to Sore Fingers since its inception, where students and tutors alike get to sample the full public school lifestyle. Accommodation is provided in the student dorms and a big part of the day is spent queueing for meals in the school’s refectory. “One or two people opt to stay in local B&Bs,” says Moira, but in the main everybody mucks in together and it’s not uncommon for students to find themselves chatting with a tutor over lunch without realising who they are. This relaxed atmosphere lends a unique character and charm to the event. Perhaps surprisingly for a school, Kingham has a bar, which becomes the focus for socialising and numerous jam sessions into the early hours each night.
“The event is up there with any other camp,” says John, “but it’s uniquely British in the social aspect and the humour.” Most of the tutors get stuck in to the socialising without difficulty, mingling in the bar and taking part in the sessions. “I love seeing the kids jamming with the tutors,” says John.
Whilst not specifically aimed at children, Sore Fingers Week has seen a number of highly talented youngsters come back year after year and noticeably grow in confidence and ability. “The future is bright,” says John. “The event motivates people to become better players and better band members. Bluegrass is not in danger of dying out.”
All elements of musicianship are covered. Students are encouraged, if they wish, to form scratch-bands and perform in the student concert on the penultimate night of the week. The concert is “a hilarious evening laden with the goodwill of comradeship built over the preceding days”. But, Moira insists, “the standard of the student concert increases every year. In the early years it was seen as a bit of fun, but students take it much more seriously these days.” On the final night the tutors get together for a showcase concert of their own. They have minimal time to rehearse and may have never played together before, but the results are always nothing short of stunning.
It’s as much about networking as working on individual skills says John, and a number of gigging bands have formed from students who met during the week. “You’re not left alone like at a festival, and it lends you a far quicker entry into the bluegrass scene,” points out the self-styled Captain. “Before Sore Fingers, your only contact with other bluegrass musicians may have been one festival a year. It was impossible to get to know people properly. At Sore Fingers, everyone is together for five days, and there is plenty going on besides the picking. You really get the chance to meet and bond with fellow musicians.”
“The beauty of bluegrass music is you can be part of the scene very quickly”, says Moira. “You don’t need to read music and you don’t need to study for years to become technically proficient on your instrument. Even beginners can add something to a jam session.” It’s this friendly, encouraging environment that sees students return year after year. “A typical student will return three times on average,” John tells us, “and a few have even been to every event.”
The Captain moniker suits John. He plays the headmaster in the infamous morning assemblies, but says that his role is to “soften everything and make people comfortable.” It’s really a team effort, with Moira handling all the student bookings and accommodation issues and a team of staff and helpers during the week itself, without which things couldn’t work.
There are a few rules at Sore Fingers Week, but they’re there to smooth the running of things and maintain the good relationship with the school. In 2006, John and Moira launched Sore Fingers October Weekend, a miniature version of the event designed for those who can’t get to the full week or who think one week is simply not enough. Kingham Hill School seems happy with the arrangement. “They’re looking for us to sign up for another 5 years,” says Moira.
It looks like Sore Fingers is here to stay.
For further details about the courses offered by Sore Fingers Summer Schools, please visit the camp’s website.