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They've got the world on a string

Fiddlers at an annual gathering hone Indian, Irish and rock skills.

July 28, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Is there is a sound more joyous than 200 string players promiscuously fiddling? Maybe. But if you're on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University this week, you won't hear it, what with all the slashing bows, trembling strings, classical themes, jazz melodies and bluegrass harmonies.

"Talking about violin. Thinking about violin. Playing violin," said Mysore M. Manjunath, a classical performer and PhD from southern India, outlining his agenda for the week. Just outside his door, a breeze carried the strains of "Sweet Georgia Brown" from someplace unseen.

This is the annual Mark O'Connor San Diego Strings Conference, a sort of "Brigadoon" with tuning pegs and tailpieces. Among the 195 students and 34 teachers who will be here through Friday, this gathering is a rare chance to not only hone skills and make friends but also to meander among genres and across generations.

And its demographics might surprise some people. After all these centuries, it seems, the violin is not only alive and well but also maybe even cool in certain high school circles.

Half of the students here are teenagers, and in the last decade more than a dozen camps like this have sprung up across the country. Fiddler Magazine's most recent listing included more than 50, at venues from Alaska to Wallowa, Ore., not to mention the dozens of old-time fiddling competitions that have endured for decades.

In one sense, San Diego's O'Connor camp is just one corner of that wider fiddling landscape. But it's unusual for its insistence on cross-disciplinary exposure.

While Manjunath explained Indian classical violin traditions to a dozen players on Tuesday afternoon, another dozen huddled amid the Greek columns of the campus amphitheater, working on an old two-chord folk tune called "Angeline the Baker." Not far from there, before another dozen fiddlers, stood Celtic fiddler Kevin Burke, explaining the difference between a reel and a jig.

Meanwhile in the rock room, Mark Wood held an electric violin at his shoulder -- near the intersection of his long black hair and sleeveless black T-shirt -- and demonstrated riffs over a blues tune in E.

"We are not frozen statues," he said. "Place your right foot in front of you. Like it's a gas pedal."

During the traditional school year, this is a campus where dancing is risky. But for this week, this is a den of musical experimentation, its occupants ages 8 to 80, from beginners to some of the country's top instrumentalists.

"You learn unbelievable amounts," said John Abrams, 15, a fiddler and mandolin player from Kingston, Ontario, who performs professionally with his 13-year-old brother, Jim.

This year's students -- who pay $750 for the week, plus hotel costs -- came from across the U.S. and Canada, along with a few from Japan and South Korea. The majority play violin, but they are joined by about three dozen cellists, bassists and viola players, along with several guitar-playing dads and siblings. The players sort themselves into 10 categories of skill and specialty and spend the first two days sampling all the instructors.

The idea, said O'Connor, the violinist and composer who founded the camp and continues to teach most days, is that "people can learn a jazz tune or a bluegrass tune, and it won't hurt their Celtic playing. It might even create some sort of the new idea. And that's what music is all about."

Beyond that, O'Connor said, "the learning atmosphere increases exponentially with different levels. People learn how to deal with other human beings that way. The danger of [conventional] music training is the tendency toward being insular.... Think about a classical violinist learning how to jam. Could that really happen if everybody here was a prodigy?"

O'Connor, 44, has built his career on defiance of boundaries between genres. Embracing classical, jazz and bluegrass alike, he has made more than two dozen albums since 1975 and played as a sideman on hundreds more. He started his first camp in Nashville a dozen years ago, when he lived there. Then he moved in 1998 to San Diego, where he added a second camp. Last year, he moved again, this time to New York, where he expects to eventually open a summer camp.

"Not all of my ideas have worked," he said, "but this one has."

Not that it's all fun and fiddle games. One afternoon on campus, bass instructor Kyle Kegerreis was watching a student carefully.

"Are you going to use your third finger?" he asked. "Ever?"

Instructor Jesus Florido was questioning his class too, after two rounds of an improvisation drill.

His question: "Why did you play better the second time than the first time?"

Answer from the front row: "You yelled at us."

The instruction and faculty concerts are one part of the package. But for many, the defining moments come in the nightly jam sessions back at the conference hotel. This year, it was the Dana resort at the edge of Mission Bay.

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