Seward Bluegrass Camp a family affair

Youngsters in the 5-7 year old's 11-member ukulele class demonstrate their chord mastery. Heidi Zemach photo
Youngsters in the 5-7 year old’s 11-member ukulele class demonstrate their mastery of the F chord. Heidi Zemach photo

By Heidi Zemach for SCN –

Magic occurred here June 7-11th as Seward’s Bluegrass Camp for Kids returned for the week for the fourth summer, bringing nine accomplished young musicians to Seward to share their knowledge and love for music with 54 students and 15 adults. Enthusiastic six and seven-year-olds strummed on their ukuleles in a circle singing, “You are My Sunshine,” then danced along Fourth Avenue in a line still humming it on their way to lunch.  Youngsters just learning to play their own bluegrass instruments were accepted into their older siblings’ Snow River String Band circle and performed with them in an informal afternoon “blackboard” concert. A shy young fiddle player in pink dress, ribbon and party shoes, bravely accepted her own challenge of performing some solos at the daily blackboard concerts, and nervous though she was, pulled them off without faltering.

Marcia, a grandmother in her early 70s, visiting from Pennsylvania, accompanied her daughter Wendy and Moose Pass grandchildren daily to their camp, and just couldn’t quite bring herself to leave. She slowly re-learned some of the forgotten old guitar chord shapes, then began sharing with others the melodies she remembered from her twenties when she led “Hootenannys” (folk revival music swaps) in Lancaster-area campgrounds. This year’s camp attendance almost doubled last years, and included a new camp for 5-7 year-olds, plus four evening workshops for adults.

The camps were hosted at Seward Resurrection Lutheran Church and Seward Methodist Church, and there were concerts at the Resurrection Arts Coffee House & Gallery, UAF Marine Science Center Auditorium, and the Seward Brewing Company. A community square dance was held at the Seward Senior Center—the first local square dance that Fred Moore and Phyllis Shoemaker had attended in more than a decade.

An Anchorage fish and game employee, who camped out in a tent along the Seward waterfront so she could improve her mandolin skills and teaching techniques attended the community square dance. Her husband danced with her for the very first time since they were married 24-years ago, and to her surprise, he was a pretty good dancer.

“It is awesome, we’re having a blast,” exclaimed instructor Garren Volper, a member of the Anchorage band, “High Lonesome Sound.” “I just think that Seward has some of the best kids, they’re super into music and they make it way more worth it as their teacher because they’re so into it.”

Singer-songwriter Anna Lynch’s guitar class of 5-7 year olds learned how to strum three or four basic chords, placing their fingers on colored dots to form each chord shape. For a game, they switched chords as fast as they could, and counted the number of times that they did so as she timed them for 60-seconds. When she left them alone in the room for five minutes, they figured out how to play “Angelina Baker” from the camp song book, and bursting with pride, performed it for Lynch when she returned.

Guitar Class with Eli West
Guitar Class with Eli West


Seattle old time banjo player and instructor Eli West employed a few fun learning games of his own, such as using different words for favorite kids foods to remember various rhythms and strumming patterns, and playing hide and seek with a clothes pin as they strummed chords loudly and softly.

“I like playing the mandolin, but I also play guitar, and the fiddle,” said first year camper, Joshua DeLa Cruz. “I really enjoy Eli’s game “Hot and Cold” where you have to hide something and you play chords and if they’re cold you have to play quiet, but if they’re hot you have to play loud.”

The camps’ “busking,” tradition, where bands perform on the streets downtown and collect donations was cancelled due to a rainy downpour Thursday, but the next day, individual band members convinced their teachers to take their groups out to perform, and they returned, smiling, with fistfuls of cash.

“It’s really fun, and I like how we all get to go busking and we get concerts and everything,” said Ona Williamson, who is in her fourth year at camp. “It’s very fun and I look forward to getting better every single year.”

“I like playing the fiddle because it’s really calming,” said first-time bluegrass camper Acacia Edeluchel.

Camps like these allow traditional American tunes and cultural traditions to be preserved and passed down from one generation to the next, said Patty Hamre, camp director Kate Hamre’s mother and visiting square dance caller. Her daughter got her own start at Alaska folk music camps, and at age 14 she joined Bearfoot Bluegrass Band, and they took the band to contests across the countryside.

Patty Hamre extols the value of learning music and playing instruments at an early age. It actually forms muscle memory in the hands and body and physical/neurological connections in the brain that can be transferred from one similar instrument to another should one switch, and pathways that will quickly return when taking up an instrument later in life, she said.

“The kids are learning about rhythm and melody, which uses a lot of math, and they memorize all the rhythms and melodies. If you’ve ever made a chord on a mandolin or a guitar, it’s all cumulative. If they put their instruments down for many years, and pick it up again, it’ll come back like a lightening flash if they’ve learned it at a young age,” Hamre said.

Holland America provided seven of the 12 ukuleles bound for the Seward Schools, and three of the dozen camp scholarships. Seward Music Association also funded $500 for scholarships, and Seward Community Foundation also contributed funding for five of the ukuleles and several other instruments that will be purchased for Seward Schools. (Note: in the name of full disclosure, Heidi has been the local camp facilitator for the past four years, and thus is somewhat more than a little biased in favor of the camp.)



  1. Thanks for the great article and pictures, Heidi, as well as your help facilitating the camp. My kids definitely had a great time! We were lucky to have so many talented musicians working with the kids.

    Heather Shank

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