The Sore Fingers Experience

The concept of Music Camps is well established in North America and has only slowly been exported to other parts of the world. There are few such events outside of that continent. Sore Fingers Week was set up to fill that gap for Bluegrass and Old Time musicians in the UK. Since its inception in 1996, the event has accommodated several thousand students from the UK and Europe who've attended the Easter week, the October weekend or both!

On the face of it, one could perceive these camps as stodgy residential Summer Schools with teachers force feeding the finer points of music theory to a contingent of bored students! "Back to school" comes to mind! Well, let's re-assure you, it's nothing like that! Happily, things are not that rigid and though the quality of classroom tuition is important, it's the global experience which distinguishes these events from formal music schools. There are no entry requirements - i.e. you don't have to be able to read music for instance - no proficiency tests at the end, you learn at your own pace.

This page is dedicated to telling you about that wider experience.

You will spend about six hours a day in class with your chosen tutor learning and enhancing your instrumental or vocal skills. There are meal breaks, coffee/tea breaks when you can socialize with your fellow students and make life-long friends. And of course, in the evenings there are lots of sessions all around the school.

That still leaves plenty of time for extra-curricular activities.

Tutor Showcases

On the first three evenings, we stage tutor showcases which bring together various and unique combinations of tutors to perform short sets for an appreciative audience. Some of these showcases have been absolutely outstanding and have been talked about for several years afterwards. You will see some of the best performers from the US and the UK rubbing shoulders on stage and just about anything can happen like Dirk Powell turning the atmosphere in the Main Hall at Kingham Hill School into a Texan low bar! More recently, we witnessed a revival of the famous British Band the Daily Planet lead by UK tutors Jason Titley and Leon Hunt playing some of their hits backed up by Rob Ickes, Matt Flinner and Ben Somers or Tyler Grant and Chris "Critter" Eldrige going off on an improvisation for several minutes. The student audience was on the edge of their seats!

I could give you plenty of other instances and fill many pages, but suffice to say you just will not see this sort of thing anywhere else.

Electives

Everyday, a series of electives are programmed and these are usually an hour long and are workshops covering a variety of subjects related to playing music. There is one regular elective, Music Theory which runs every year over three sessions and taught by Peter Earle who developed this module. As previously stated, you don't need to be able to read music to enjoy Sore Fingers Week or play Bluegrass and Old Time for that matter. But, many have seen the advantage in gaining a basic understanding of the theory that lies behind what we do with our banjos!

Over the years, many subjects have been offered from instrument care and maintenance to how to communicate with the sound engineer to set up an effective monitor mix or making band work.

In recent years, we have held electives in the following subjects:

  • Stage craft
  • Arranging songs and tunes
  • Swing Chords for Bluegrass guitar
  • Recording a demo
  • Mic technique
  • Understanding the sound system
  • Listening sessions
  • Song-writing
  • Improvisation: An introduction
  • Harmony Singing
  • These are normally held in the early evening before the tutor showcases, and are a great way to look at topics outside the daytime classroom sessions. The sessions are often run by students themselves who may have an interest in a particular topic - for example, one year a student ran a very successful session on Shape Note Singing. If you are coming to Sore Fingers this year, and have some expertise or knowledge of a topic that you think would make a good elective let us know - you might find yourself with a class!

    Open Sessions

    One can well imagine that with around 250 musicians in a confined space, as soon as there is free time, sessions will start. Indeed, they do and there are just about as many types of session as you could wish for: slow ones, noisy ones in the bar, quiet ones in classrooms, singing sessions... There's a session for every taste and level of ability. The only common element is the smiling faces!

    Scratch Bands

    Bluegrass and Old Time Music is meant to be played in ensembles of probably three or more people - not a strict rule, but this music is seldom performed by solo musicians. Whilst the main activity at Sore Fingers is based around individual instrumental classroom tuition, the skills you learn there are applicable to playing with others and learning to interact with several band members. We believe Sore Fingers Week is unique in offering structured band tuition and we are known to run one of the most spectacular Student Concerts in the business!

    These activities are optional and there no obligation to join a scratch band if don't wish to. There are two streams: those bands which go forward to perform in the Student Concert and the non-performing scratch bands for those students who don't yet feel ready to step up to the stage and perhaps need a little help to get up to speed. On arrival, once you have registered with main reception, our scratch band tutors are ready to recruit you and place you in suitable line-ups for which ever stream you prefer.

    Let's start with the bands who choose to take part in the concert... here are some quotes from students:

    "I can't believe what I've achieved, it's given me so much confidence."

    "Playing with others on stage is an awesome experience"

    And here's a comment from an American Tutor:

    "This is a unique part of the course. Students putting into practice what they've learned from us. We don't have this at American band camps"

    The Student Concert

    The now famous Student Scratch Band concert takes place on Thursday evening. The opportunity to play and sing with others on stage may seem a bit daunting, but we know, without doubt, that the experience has often rewarded students by boosting their confidence as well as providing a safe context in which to enjoy performing... possibly for the first time! Several previous participants have gone forward from these concerts to form bands and subsequently perform at Bluegrass and Old Time Festivals festivals across the UK and abroad. Once the student bands are formed, the Scratch Band tutors will ask you to prepare two numbers, one of which has to be a vocal number and allocate you your own practice area.

    Bands are supported by a dedicated team of Scratch Band Tutors all of whom have played in professional or semi-professionals bands on the British scene. They will help you work up your songs/tunes to performance standards. They will also help you fine-tune your delivery and get you through any difficult bits you might experience as part of band - especially if it's your first time!

    Your experience on stage will be nothing short of what a pro band would get playing in an Arts Centre with a fully equipped sound system and stage lighting. And you needn't worry about the audience, they will love you - your fellow students are the most supportive! There are special sessions for those who haven't ever worked on a professional stage including help with subjects such as mic technique.

    We encourage you to take part in this activity especially if you haven't played in such an environment before - it's an unforgettable moment! And since it's a special occasion, you might bring something nice to wear on stage... appearances count. We actively encourage a spirit of togetherness and often, experienced performers volunteer to join a student band to give the "newbies" the benefit of their experience.

    Non-Performing Scratch bands

    The second stream is aimed at those who haven't played in bands before and wish to learn the skills required to play with other musicians in a way that works.

    There are some basic principles applicable to being part of a band and just as the Concert Bands are mentored by a dedicated team, so will the non-performing scratch bands. The only difference is that you are not committed to performing in the concert on Thursday night, so there is no pressure... all the fun without the nerves!

    The emphasis is to get you started and you will be provided with sample material, lyrics, chords, audio files and you will be set the task - with the help of your band mentor - of learning the material, arranging the tune/song effectively - e.g. intros and outros; order of solos - and bringing it up to performance level. You will also be allocated your dedicated practice area for the duration. Unlike a slow jam, you will be in total control and able to learn at your own pace with the support of scratch band tutors to help when/if you hit the wall and find it difficult to progress to the next stage. By the end of the week, you should be far better prepared to join your local session, learn to practice with a band and perhaps join the Concert Stream at the next Sore Fingers Week. A couple of years down the line and you could be on stage at a festival!

    The Tutor Concert

    The last event of Sore Fingers Week is the Friday night tutor concert, during which all the tutors and some of the talented SFSS staff are featured in various, completely impromptu line-ups. As with the tutor showcases earlier in the week, this show is unique, creating exciting, new combinations of musicians who don't usually perform together... the mix can produce explosive moments of fabulously creative interaction with sparks flying and always totally unpredictable... in a wonderful way! While such seemingly random combinations may sound a little haphazard and uncoordinated, it is quite the opposite and this is where you come to appreciate how professional these individuals are. In just a few days they work up amazing arrangements of songs and tunes using, to their collective advantage, all the available talent.

    The result? Astounding and possibly the best Bluegrass/Old Time concert you might see in any given year. You are privileged - only people who sign up to Sore Fingers get to see this show!

    The Social and Human Angle

    A few years ago, a Radio 4 producer, having found out about Sore Fingers Week from some interviews she had conducted for "Woman's Hour", decided this event was worth a closer look. As it was Radio 4, it wasn't going to be a show about banjos and fiddles. Producer Lindsay Leonard and her team investigated the social angle, the human stories and revealed why Sore Fingers Week is such a great place to come. Rather than expand on this, the programme, originally broadcast in 2011, is still available to hear on the BBC Radio 4 I-Player. This is the link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b011jvys It's 30 minutes long and a great listen. It probably says it all.

    Sore Fingers Week is a fantastic place to make friends. The music is the common interest and the common language. But it's more than that: you will make friends for life.

    We've watched young people develop their life skills, we've attended marriages that have their roots at Sore Fingers Week and know groups of individuals who first met here who now spend their annual holidays together. Back in the good old days, it could take you three or four festival attendances to meet a small amount of people and integrate into this wonderful social scene. At Sore Fingers, you are likely to do all that in five days!

    And what if I want some peace and quiet?

    There's no doubt Sore Fingers Week is an intensive event and you might well begin to feel overloaded with the sound of banjos, guitars, mandolins, dobros and fiddles.

    Kingham Hill School is located in the heart of the rural Cotswolds' and the grounds are surrounded by peaceful countryside. You can easily find solace within the school boundaries and there are wooded areas and short walks close-by. At the height of activity when most of the students are in the school or the bar, the boarding houses are restful and you can grab a quick break in one of the pleasant sitting rooms and get away from it all. Though, it's unlikely you'll want to for too long...