Bill Monroe in the Time of COVID – 2020 Monroe Mandolin Camp online

This report on the first ever virtual Monroe Mandolin Camp is a contribution from Theresa Seiders, a voice-over artist and audio editor in Columbus, Ohio. Oh… and a serious student and lover of the mandolin.

It’s a chilly pre-fall morning in central Ohio and the inaugural Monroe Mandolin Camp (M)Online Virtual Extravaganza is already in the past. Each year it beggars belief that the months of planning, scheduling, fundraising, managing details, overcoming last minute snafus and nerve-wracking anticipation culminating in a glorious 4-5 days of bluegrass Nirvana have melted away so quickly, leaving behind new licks and techniques to master, more tunes and songs to aspire to learn, more instructional material than most of us will be able to wade through in a lifetime, warm memories of old and new friends, and the afterglow smiles of happy campers. And that’s in a normal year when more than 100 players and instructors can descend on some hapless conference center, college, campground or retreat, drop their bags, open their cases and take over every square inch of space from pre-dawn to long after dark blazing through their own renditions of Wheel Hoss, Rawhide, and Watson’s Blues.

Typically the last cars and campers pull onto the highway, a few caring souls help pack up the left over cookies and candy and coffee and music stands and  merchandise and hey, who left this sweater here, and Camp Executive Director Heidi Herzog starts thinking about how to make it bigger and better two years from now (she’s already well into planning next year’s camp, thank you very much) and maybe a little about how she’s looking forward to her own shower and some sleep. 

But what about 2020? How on earth could an experience like MonManCamp manage in a year when people couldn’t “gather?” Reading the prevailing winds in the spring and early summer, it became clear that in-person gatherings would be highly unlikely by September, either due to local health and safety mandates, or for personal comfort levels. And yet this Camp, now in its 7th year under Heidi and Mike Compton’s leadership, is a Mecca for Bill Monroe enthusiasts of all ages and backgrounds. Many participants have attended since its first years in Kentucky, and each year the enrollment grows as instruction in all bluegrass instruments, voice, band dynamics, and even song writing are added. Folks drive and fly from all over the continental US, and many come from overseas (Uzbekistan is the farthest, I understand), to reconnect with their friends and the music at this magical gathering. Beyond the music, that personal connection is the driving force behind MMC, and so COVID be damned, Heidi was determined to re-imagine the 2020 Camp experience for this new digital era. 

Git ‘R Done

“It was an easy decision for me to make,” says Heidi. “The people of all ages who attend in-person MMCamps are our community. They are the past, present and future of this music as consumers and pickers, and enthusiasts of traditional bluegrass music. Knowing that I could facilitate a powerful and inspiring get together for learning and connection – it was an easy decision to attempt to pull it off.”

The decision to move ahead may have been easy, but the process itself presented challenges. In attempting to navigate unpredictable Tennessee state gathering mandates, international travel restrictions, and potential virus surges, making the leap from in-person to on-line wasn’t determined until around July 4 – just 2 ½ months before Camp week. The move on-line required the cooperation of instructors recording their own lessons, learning an entirely new  computer language for online course development, and redesigning the entire MMC website to support it. And with the final platform in flux until mid-August, marketing and advertising were hampered with uncertainty. A gathering that usually takes 1 ½ to 2 years to put on was now scheduled – via a novel skill set – in just a fraction of the time. 

While the instructional portion of the site was important, even more vital was the ability to connect via audio and video. Heidi quickly familiarized herself with Zoom (with which many of us have developed a love/hate relationship in the past several months) to schedule a variety of live roundtable and instructional meetings, as well as Coffee Chats and Happy Hours for campers to visit and catch up. 

After a punishing web design and revision schedule (led by Heidi, who had no previous experience in creating an on-line learning platform), starting around July 28, the first day of the (M)Online Virtual Extravaganza finally dawned at 12:01 a.m. September 19. And the people came! Amid registration and enrollment hiccups, students young and old, from 27 US states and 4 countries, logged in and welcomed world-renowned Monroe style musicians into their homes, absorbed first hand bluegrass history from Raymond Huffmaster, downloaded PDF practice resources, rewatched videos again and again, and finally at 10:00 a.m. grabbed their favorite morning (or evening, as the case may be) beverage and Zoomed in to see the smiling faces of old friends as they caught up on how everyone has been weathering the storm. They shared the music they’ve been working on, and the new instruments they’ve bought. Cats, dogs, and birds were introduced (intentionally or not). And surprisingly, even with some audio lags and video freezes, it was not terribly unlike being together in person and was extremely soul satisfying – and nobody had to wear a mask!

Throughout the 4 days of camp, there were many opportunities to get together both to visit and to learn. Intrepid instructors (mandolin) Alan Bibey, Casey Cambell, Mike Compton, John Keith, Mark Royal, Adam Tanner, (banjo) Alan O’Bryant, (fiddle) Laura Orshaw, (guitar) Robert Montgomery, (bass) Cary Black, (fiddle and banjo) Aynsley Porchak and James McDowell, (vocal) Mississippi Chris Sharp and Piper Sharp Myers, some of whom had never recorded their own teaching sessions, jumped in with both feet to create pre-recorded and live content. Raymond Huffmaster shared three story telling sessions about his personal journey with Bill and his Blue Grass Boys. Aussie luthier Paul Duff joined us live from 12 hours in the future to share his current workbench, and answer camper questions about mandolin anatomy and “chasing the tone.” Twelve live (via Zoom) broadcast instructor-led roundtables and classes explored the bridge between Monroe and modern bluegrass, comparison/contrasts of Monroe’s mandolin and Kenny Baker’s fiddle breaks, lessons in listening for nuances among banjo, fiddle and mandolin players, band dynamics, down strokes, Blue Grass Boys’ differing fiddle techniques, and those luthiering insights. 

Extra coffee and Happy Hour “chats” were scheduled by popular request, and although most Zoom sessions were meant to last an hour, they frequently went over double, or even triple, the time as folks just wanted to talk and laugh and play and share and see each others’ smiling faces. Even a “live” jam was attempted, although most participants agree it was a casualty of the available technology. But it did give everyone the chance to practice breaks with their audio muted. Special props to Laura Orshaw for tackling that new experience! (Seriously, there’s a million dollars to be made by the person who figures out how to make jamming possible online.) 

From far away we gathered together, in “comfy clothes,” and comfy chairs (with comfy beverages and comfy critters); the noodlers (you know who you are) muted their mics and picked to their hearts’ content while others sought and received in-depth explanations and demonstrations. When asked, many campers agreed that the content and community were extremely satisfying, even when the tech couldn’t keep up. In an astoundingly short time, Heidi and her team created a website platform that was easy to use (and which will be available for months). Zoom wasn’t too cumbersome. The teaching was top notch. Bill Monroe’s legacy was honored and played forward, and the priority of safely staying home may have made it different, but it did not destroy the camp experience. It was not knee to knee – but it was pretty darn good. 

The Circle is Unbroken

In future years, I think that everyone who participated in MMC 2020 will look back on this as a unique bonding experience: the determination not to let the virus stop us, to overcome the challenges, and find new ways of playing and sharing this good old music. Congratulations to Heidi Herzog, Mike Compton, and all the instructors, web designers, behind the scenes helpers, and Campers for the shared commitment of using, in Heidi’s words, “the transformative power of music to foster relationships while building community, worldwide,” not because of, but in spite of, COVID-19.