Music Immersion

Little Belt Mtns ring with Montana State Old-Time Fiddling
Thursday, June 13, 2019
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From left, Instructors Quinn Bachand (guitar), Andy Reiner (fiddle) and Ross Martin (guitar) create music in a forest setting at the Montana Old-Time Fiddle Camp in Monarch, while Student Lauren Carr enjoys the tunes.

Photo by Melody Montgomery

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Following workshops, students and instructors circle round to continue working on their new skills.

Photos by Melody Montgomery

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Nick Patch of Bozeman lounges in a self-made hammock strung up between evergreens at his campsite.

Each year, during the first two weeks of June, over 200 individuals of all ages and professions gather at the St. Thomas Church Camp just outside of Monarch, Mont., and devote their time to improving their craft as musicians while having fun.

The Annual Montana State Old-Time Fiddle Camp, started by Fred Buckley, is now in its 24th year. The location is nestled on several acres in the Little Belt Mountains, tucked away off Highway 89. There is a steady sound in the air of people playing music in groups, singing, harmonizing and working individually, with Belt Creek humming in the background.

In addition to dormitories and a main lodge, St. Thomas has many spots to sleep under the stars. Attendees bring their tents and campers, and even a unicycle and hammock, in addition to their instruments. Students and instructors alike disconnect from day-to-day concerns and reconnect with their instruments, others and perhaps even with themselves.

“Time loses its meaning,” said student Darlene Schroeder.

While the camp is named for the tradition of old-time fiddling, one can also attend to learn banjo, violin, bass, guitar, cello and dance.

Ross Martin, who instructs Guitar Levels 3 and 4, said, “It’s an acoustic music gathering among your people. Here, in a beautiful spot, we are trading and learning tunes. I am so happy to be back.”

Guitarist and Banjoist Clarke Wyatt, who teaches Banjo Levels 1 and 2, added, “It’s a perfect place to come, spend a week in nature and just be.”

Fiddling and Old-Time music

People may wonder, what is a fiddle? The instrument itself has the same physical structure as a violin. The difference is in the technique or style that it is played. A fiddle can be thought of as less restrictive, and rules (and even notes) can be bent.

A fiddle, being without frets or guides, opens up possibilities to play between notes, not limited by the whole notes and half notes, major notes, sharps and flats.

There are many nuances to learn and explore.

For example, playing between the notes, or sliding, is called “glissando” in classical music, explained Lauren Carr, who is a student, and Rosie Weiss, who is a teacher at the camp. Both are professional musicians in Billings.

“We both come from the classical world, so this feels like the complete opposite. It’s super chill and nonjudgmental,” said Weiss.

Carr and Weiss added that in jazz, you slide on the beat. In bluegrass, you slide into the beat. In the Celtic tradition, the slide is called ornaments.

Fiddling also involves passing down stories through songs and interacting with others. Likewise, the mission of the Montana Old-Time Fiddlers Association is to preserve and perform traditional old-time acoustic fiddle music throughout Montana.

“‘Old-Time’ is a moving term. It doesn’t really stay put. So let’s skip the term old-time and just play fiddle tunes,” said Bill McKay at the concert on the second night of camp.

Array of attendees

Attendees represent nearly all walks of life. Some are even learning to play for the first time at the camp. During their day jobs, students might be doctors, chemists or teachers, but here they simply support each other and play together.

Darlene Schroeder, a student, said, “Research is clear that it is very good for your brain to pick up an instrument as you grow older.” Schroeder is retired and has been playing for just a few years.

“You can come at any level you’re at,” said Niki Keuch of Bozeman, who has been playing for almost two years. She found out about the camp through a recommendation from fiddle teacher Mike Parsons.

More advanced musicians benefit as well.

“The atmosphere is nonjudgmental, and there is no social hierarchy. Politics are not allowed,” said Carr. For her, the camp provides classical musicians an opportunity to merge into other forms.

Follow your ears

“The whole ambience and magic of the camp happens outside,” said Teri Keith, who heads up the fundraiser auction at the camp.

Indeed, music permeates the forest setting.

“Follow your ears,” said Montana Old-Time Fiddlers Association President Isaac Callender.

Callender has been a member of the Montana Old-Time Fiddlers Association since he was seven or eight years old. When just 11 years old, he formed a new district in Great Falls.

One student, John Parker of Missoula, who is a musician and retired schoolteacher, said, “A thing like this can change your life. Look at Isaac and how it’s changed his life.”

Parker also donates money each year to pay the tuition for two students to attend the camp.

“People come back every summer. [The camp organizers] go out of their way to accommodate families and kids,” said Parker. “What a great investment.”

Full camp

Students come from all around the state of Montana as well as across the United States, including Calif., Conn., Texas, Ark., Tenn., Neb., Minn., Idaho and Wash.

Registration opens online annually in January and usually closes by March. This year, the camp was full by the beginning of May, with plenty of people on the waiting list, said Keith.

The size constraints involve the campground capacity at St. Thomas, tent space, trailers, bunks and food.

“You used to be able to walk onto camp,” said Keith, who herself walked on over a decade ago in 2006. “But I like that it is limited by size. You get to sit down for breakfast with internationally known celebrities.”

Katelyn Buckley, whose father Fred founded the camp, said, “The smallness of it is definitely part of the atmosphere. So many of us grew up with each other.”

Katelyn has been attending camps since she was three years old. She now instructs some years, as well as cooks.

“It is a food camp with music,” joked a student.

Along with being a great cook, Katelyn is a multi-instrumentalist. She plays the fiddle, upright bass, guitar, mandolin and sings.

Disconnecting and reconnecting

At the annual fiddle camp, there is little-to-no cell service. Wireless Internet is available, but limited to certain times during the day. People can disconnect from technology and connect with acoustic tunes.

“Everyone is so nice here. It just feels comfortable,” said student Nick Patch of Bozeman, while lounging in a self-made hammock he had strung up between evergreens at his campsite.

Similarly, John Marchwick of Laramie, Wyo., who is in his fourth year attending the camp, said “It feels like one of my home getaways, isolated from the outside world and where you can forget about problems in your life for a little while”

Sheldon Williams of Bozeman added, “Everyone is so welcoming and nice, really inviting.” This is Williams’ first year at the camp. Because Williams plays classical music, he said he was a little nervous at first, but he quickly overcame that through the supportive atmosphere.

Student Molly Wilson teaches music professionally, but at St. Thomas, she is here to learn. She brought her daughter Salem, who is just learning.

“For me, it’s really relaxing because you’re away from everything else and focus on music all week. I also get to spend time with Salem,” said Wilson. “She is just starting, and I get to see her enthusiasm after playing for just a couple days. I thought classes would wear her out, but instead, in between classes, she says, “Lets practice mom!’”

Una Taylor, a student who came from Chadron, Neb., said, “Making music with people is a beautiful thing. I need the immersion to spur me and allow me to progress, which I couldn’t on my own.”

Nightly Concerts

During camp, the group puts on concerts nightly. The last concert is this evening, Thursday June 13, where students will perform. All are welcome. Through this, people in the region are given the opportunity to take in the magic of the camp, followed by a dance.

During the second concert of the camp, they played “Montana Waltz” while couples in the audience danced in the aisle.

Dorothy (Dot) Kent teaches dance. She calls the contra dances, and people end up dancing with everybody in the room.

“The dances that go with the fiddle music are traditional and playful,” said long-time attendee Keith.

There is also an auction item where they write a song for the recipient. This year the song performed was written for Jill Flikkema about her grandfather Shorty Phelps.

“He clearly had a big impact on her father and her,” said Bill McKay, adding that Flikkema wrote a letter explaining memories of dad and granddad playing together, highlighting his kindness and temperament.

“He surprised her with the vigor which he could dispatch a snake that was annoying his granddaughter,” said McKay.

For more information on the Montana Old-Time Fiddle Camp, visit

Save the Date

The 2019 Montana State Fiddle Contest will be August 23 – 25 in Lincoln, Mont.