Building Bluegrass Community
Music camps and workshops provide students with an opportunity to interact with, and learn directly from, professional musicians and music heroes. While at camp, students also have the opportunity to make new friends who share common interests and, of course, there is the jamming. It is learning via the total immersion method. There are well-known and popular music camps happening in many parts of the country. The camp or workshop duration ranges from one day up to a full week with many “campers” returning year after year to the same event.
The Monroe Mandolin Camp held each year in Tennessee is one such event and the directors and administrators of this event (Mike Compton and his partner Heidi Herzog) go above and beyond the call of duty to make this event memorable. One of the distinguishing elements of this camp is that the instruction and the connections made at the camp reach beyond the opportunities provided during the camp week. Mike and Heidi work hard to help the participants, or “alumni,” extend their camp experience so it lasts throughout the year.
If you ask Monroe style mandolin master Mike Compton about his role, he will tell you that Heidi is the brains and energy behind the camp and he is just the “eye candy.” But, his good looks and vintage ties aside, Mike has been involved with this program from its inception in 2006 and his expertise in playing Monroe style music is one of the big draws of the camp. As masterful as Mike is at playing his mandolin, Heidi is equally skilled at organization, administration, music education, creative thinking and social interaction. A trained opera singer and musician, Heidi is a talented music teacher and has incorporated many of her creative and innovative ideas about music education into the Monroe Mandolin Camp program.
The camp started in 2006 and was held at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky. The original administrator Gabrielle Gray—who was the museum director at that time—called it the “Monroe-Style Mandolin Camp” and hired Mike Compton to be one of the instructors. Two years later Mike became the camp’s director.
From 2006 to 2013 the camp focused on Monroe-style mandolin until Gray decided to change the format to modern and progressive mandolin styles for the 2014 camp (also changing the name to “International Bluegrass Music Museum Mandolin Camp”). The Monroe-Style Mandolin Camp was no more. Students approached Mike and Heidi Herzog saying that Monroe’s original bluegrass music was too important to not have this type of camp, and would they do something about it. Heidi looked at Mike and said, “How difficult could it be to create and run a camp?” And they never looked back. The “Monroe Mandolin Camp” in Tennessee was formed, and the inaugural camp was held September 2014.
Since then, the camp has continually grown in scope and size. Each year they have added new classes. The camp now includes instruction for mandolin, guitar, banjo, bass, banjo, songwriting, and singing. Students do not have to commit to one instrument or topic. They are free to take any class offered. Additionally, special instructional sessions are included each year covering a wide range of topics including instrument repair and set up, vintage instruments, tonewoods, clogging, and one called “the roots of the ancient tones.” The instructors are all top-notch and the camp does their best to bring in former Blue Grass Boys to teach.
The camp activities start on Tuesday evening with an optional concert at Nashville’s Station Inn titled “A Night of Bill Monroe’s Music Classics.” The instructors, and many special guests, perform at this kick-off event. On Wednesday there is a meet-and-greet at the camp location. Formal classes begin on Thursday. Thursday through Saturday there are three class periods per day given by each of the 10 instructors. Added to that are the special instruction sessions and a “knee-to-knee” program whereby each attendee can spend up to 20-minutes of private time with the instructor of their choice. Organized jam sessions are also on the schedule. On Saturday evening there is an instructor concert. On Sunday after the camp is finished there is often an optional educational concert at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
If you have been to any music camp in the past, you might be thinking, “Yeah, that sounds about like what you get at music camp.” I’ve been to many music camps, I’ve taught at music camps, and I’ve hosted music camps. Before I spoke extensively with Mike and Heidi about their camp, I thought the same. Now I know different. Let me tell you about the “above and beyond” part.
Students who have attended any camp are usually given a handout that includes written material. Typically, these handouts range from a few pages up to 40 or 50 pages. When I conducted this interview with Mike and Heidi over Zoom, Heidi held up a “handout” from a previous Monroe Mandolin Camp…450 pages! This massive camp manual not only includes all of the written material from each of the camps 10 instructors, it includes the camp schedule and a lot of other material ranging from topics about how to use a capo, the Nashville number system, circle of fifths, chord charts for each instrument, suggested reading lists, and much more. Additionally, there are links to audio tracks and videos that the instructors have prepared and students can download. A massive amount of written, audio, and video material is included—enough to keep campers busy for a full year.
Heidi has designed the curriculum to be very inclusive for students of all levels and learning styles. As a music educator, she knows that some students learn better by listening, some by watching, and some by doing. She can tell you about seven different teaching styles, each adapted to a different way that individuals learn. She incorporates all of these styles into every class and the associated supplemental material.
If all that wasn’t enough, the Monroe Mandolin Camp continues to provide its alumni with additional material throughout the year. There is a private YouTube channel and private Facebook page that is accessible to camp alumni. There is a monthly free Zoom gathering of alumni and new students who have signed up for this year’s camp. Each month a new topic is covered. There is the Monroe Gazette newsletter that is sent to camp alumni and includes a new monthly lesson, articles about campers and instructors, links to the monthly Zoom meeting and more. There are also “Mini-Mon” two-day camps at various locations around the country throughout the year. Heidi said, “We like to keep the community engaged. This camp is about education, community and connection.”
In addition to teaching people how to play the music and mandolin style of Bill Monroe, building community is exactly what the Monroe Mandolin Camp is all about. If I had more room in this article, I would love to also tell you about their youth programs, scholarship programs, ambassador (camp buddy) program, apprentice program, their efforts relating to diversity and inclusion (43 percent of the camp attendees are now women), the pig roast, firepit jams, daily yoga, Pilates for pickers, and more. You can find out about all of these programs and activities, and get details about the 2021 camp, on their website: