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Every summer, learners of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels gather at the Hill Country Acoustic Music Camp to pluck away on fiddles, banjos, and dulcimers. This year's camp takes place the week of June 25. Photo by Phil Houseal

Bob Miller, in partnership with the Texas State Arts and Crafts Fair, puts on the 4th Annual Hill Country Acoustic Music Camp on June 25-29 at the Schreiner University campus in Kerrville. There is still time to sign up. For information visit www.hcamp.org.

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Nothing but music

by Phil Houseal
May 28, 2008

Is there anyone who didn't dread piano lessons as a kid, and who would try any trick to get out of practicing scales? Why, then, would adults sign up to spend five days doing nothing but taking music lessons?

Bob Miller will host more than 60 grownups doing just that at his 4th Annual Hill Country Acoustic Music Camp on June 25-29 at the Schreiner University campus in Kerrville.

They come from all over the country to learn to play fiddle, guitar, dulcimer, banjo, mandolin... even standup bass and harmonica this year. What draws these people - who average in their late 50s and come from all walks of life - to this experience?

The camp slogan says it all: Five days of nothing but you and your music.

Our deal is that you immerse yourself in your music for five days," Miller said. "A lot of these camps are called sore-finger camps, because you play all day, then you play all night until you can't stand it."

Participants take two instrument classes each day, one in the morning, another in the afternoon. Then come "structured jams," where the students learn to play with each other. The camp ends with a Sunday concert by the students.

"In the first year, students go from 'I don't want to get up and play in front of others' to getting together in groups and begging to play," Miller said. The talent level of students is all over the musical scale, from raw beginners to accomplished performers honing their licks.

On Saturday night, the public is invited to hear a concert by the camp instructors. What a talented bunch they are.

Miller calls them "the absolute best in the nation." They include the likes of Alan Munde, a master of Scruggs-style banjo; Dale Morris, a state and world champion fiddler; Steve James, who has performed on "A Prairie Home Companion" and has published many instruction books and videos on guitar and mandolin; and Karen Ashbrook, who has traveled the globe fine tuning her expertise in Irish hammered dulcimer, wooden flute, and pennywhistle.

In the end, talent is less a factor than the friendships that are forged. Miller distributes everyone's email and address so participants can stay in touch throughout the year. "They all seem to make really good friends," he said. "I've even had two bands form up out of this."

At times, the camp takes on more the flavor of a festival than endless lessons. Many participants bring spouses, who stay in local parks or bed and breakfasts. Dorm accommodations are available, and there are optional meal plans so the dedicated pickers don't have to leave campus to eat. There's even a wine and cheese social (Who knows - we might have been more dedicated learners if our piano teacher had served chardonnay).

In the end, it's all about getting better, no matter where you begin.

"At the student concert last year, a beginning fiddle student got up by himself and played," Miller said. "At times you could barely pick out the tune, but he was just as proud as punch that he was that far along. He got as much applause as the most advanced player at that concert. Hey... making music is fun!"