Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop 2018 — Summer Camp for Grown Ups

Steve Schaefer
Jul 5, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo by Hubert Pralitz

The Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop is an incredible experience. If you’re a classical musician who can sight-read reasonably well and enjoys playing with others, a week at Humboldt is about as much enjoyment as a person can have.

I just came home from my third year, and it was as fantastic as when I attended in 2010 and 2012. You enjoy five uninterrupted days of rehearsing, performing, and socializing, utterly free from the normal cares of work and the crazy world we live in. Through the entire week, I did not check Facebook, answer emails, or take a phone call. Other than a couple of texts a day with my wife, I was off the grid. I didn’t see the news. Bliss.

It all started on Sunday, when I drove a 2018 Ford EcoSport the 300 miles from the San Francisco Bay Area north to Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. I listened to music and looked at the landscape. I took the side route through the stunning Avenue of the Giants. Before I knew it, I was driving through the campus gates and checking in.

I met up with this guy at a rest stop

The workshop is celebrating its 61st anniversary this year, so they have the recipe for success down. To attend, you must apply in advance and be accepted, based on your ability and your history.

I was green lighted because of my proven veteran status but also because I play the upright bass, which puts me in a special category. In fact, I am generally the only bassist out of 50 to 60 participants, who play the smaller members of the string family — violins, violas, or cellos — or wind instruments, including clarinets, oboes, bassoons, flutes, or French horns. The chamber music oeuvre for bass is a small subset of the catalog, which means that most of the other musicians seek me out to play with them. They want to work on pieces that they normally don’t get to play.

The workshop schedules three consecutive weeks each summer, when the students are not on campus. The entire workshop takes place there, with rooms and meals available in the student dorm and cafeteria in a preset package. To me, this is the only way to go, because it’s so convenient, and you can stay there and concentrate entirely on music. Also, you run into many fellow musicians in the hallways or when you’re sitting down to the three meals in the Jolly Giant dining hall. These informal, shifting groups create a sense of togetherness, strongly enhanced by spending the day playing music with your group.

Dorms aren’t fancy but are perfectly located

Every morning at 9 a.m., the daily assignments are posted. You are placed based on instrument, level of ability, and the strategy of the highly experienced staff. This way, you play with different people and instruments each day. Sometimes, you receive multiple assignments to choose from, and can run through them quickly to see which one most appeals to the group.

You assemble with your group in the assigned room and get started. There are short breaks in midmorning and midafternoon and longer lunch and dinner breaks. Professional musicians serve as coaches, visiting your group a couple of times a day to help you make the most of the material.

You work on your assignment during the day, until the midafternoon break at 3:30 p.m. At 4 p.m., each group performs a five-minute selection that they have focused on and prepared during the day. Everyone performs and everyone listens, so it’s a give and take. However, we are all urged to remember that this is a workshop, and we are looking for an enjoyable and educational experience, not concert perfection.

Time that is not filled with rehearsing or eating is available for “freelancing,” using your own music from home or borrowed from the workshop’s extensive library. Simply reserve a room and go to town. I prefer to freelance after dinner, leaving some open time during the day to just stroll under the redwood trees on campus or chat.

Lots of natural beauty on campus

Wednesday is a short day, with everything, including the performances, done by 4 p.m., so you either can freelance longer or take off to nearby communities for a nice dinner out. This time, a small group of us found a good seafood restaurant, Salt Fish House, in downtown Arcata; we ran into some other musicians there, too.

Working on a piece of chamber music can be challenging, but you always come up with something playable, and it can be extremely gratifying to perform something at 4:45 p.m. that was a mystery to you at 9 a.m. I find that as the week progresses I get better and faster, so it’s good if Friday contains your hardest work.

One of the greatest and most popular pieces for bass is Schubert’s Trout Quintet, with violin, viola, cello, and piano joining the bass in a beautiful collaboration. I assumed I’d play it a couple times at least, but it turned out that I did it four times — including my Monday assignment and three freelance dates. To commemorate this, I had a delicious trout for dinner at Salt’s on Wednesday night.

In honor of my four performances of Schubert’s work

Who attends the Humboldt workshop? Well, they are classical music players, and most of them are not young. In this first (of three) weeks at the university, I saw only a couple of young folks. Several participants were in their active 80’s! I truly believe that playing music like this helps prevent brain degenerative diseases. We’ll see.

I quickly made friends as I played, ate, and socialized. By midweek, I recognized friends on stage playing while I sat in the audience, listening. By the end of the week, I felt like I was with my best friends. That’s what keeps people coming back again and again — often to the same week to renew acquaintances. In my case, there was a gap of 6 years since last time, and Alan Geier, the warm, friendly director, asked me to come to Week 1. I gladly said, “Yes,” knowing there would be new friends to make.

What the Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop all adds up to, for me, a music-loving extrovert, is fun fun fun. I meet dozens of people and get to play music all day. It really doesn’t get any better than this.

Mugging it up for the camera. This is a Trout configuration. Photo by Hubert Pralitz.

Steve Schaefer

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I write and blog about electric cars and other green topics. I play bass in a Blues Band and in informal chamber music groups.