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A Songwriter's Summer Vacation!
By Severin Browne
January 2002

Last August (2001) in the Catskills of New York, I had the pleasure of joining 60-plus songwriting students for a week of heaven (or close to it). The camp known as SummerSongs was billed as a "Songwriter's Summercamp" and that's exactly what it was, offering camping, hiking, swimming, boating, song circles around a campfire, and classes in songwriting, singing, guitar, piano, and the music business.

The classes were all taught by pro songwriters and performers in many genres, all with credits ranging from Grammy nominations and million-selling pop tunes to cult hero status. These teachers were there for the whole week to help students hone their skills in whatever aspect of songwriting and performance they wanted to work on. Some of the students were also pros, there to get the inspiration and encouragement that flows so abundantly, while others were at the very beginning of learning to write or play a song. Most, though, were somewhere in between. Yet they all came together to support and encourage each other, making for an unforgettable week.

The setting was the Ashokan Fields campus of the University of New York near Woodstock, where the students lived and breathed their music for the whole week. This beautiful campground is a conference center with cabins, a small lake (with boats!), a stream, and forestland with paths for walking and watching the wildlife. The food was very good too, with either vegetarian or meat dishes at each meal prepared by a chef who is also an accomplished singer! Beginning on Sunday with student arrivals, dinner and a staff concert, the students were able to plan their week of classes, performances and songwriting. The classes were scheduled Monday through Friday, with many class choices in each time slot depending on the student's priorities.

Classes were led by Penny Nichols, who has recorded and toured with people like Jimmy Buffett and Arlo Guthrie (with whom she was nominated for a Grammy), Jason Blume, who has had million-selling hits by the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and Colin Ray, Bob Franke, who has become a legend in folk music circles for his beautiful anthems, David Roth, whose songs are so heart-warming and true that one cannot help but be touched, Tom Prasada-Rao, who plays and sings with such soul that he taught a class on writing from that soulful place, Sloan Wainwright, a wonderfully expressive singer who taught a very popular class on collaboration, Artie Traum, a spectacular guitarist whose guitar teaching tapes are big sellers nationwide, Vinnie Martucci, a monster Grammy-nominated pianist/composer and college music professor, and Freebo, bassist for Bonnie Raitt for the first 15 years of her career, and now a great songwriter too. Freebo ran the demo studio all week with Michael Sansonia, a fine keyboardist and engineer. Many songs were demoed that week with Freebo on bass and Michael on keys!!! (Wow!) And last but not least, I was on staff as a "songbudsman". I didn't teach a class, but coached students one-on-one with their songs, offering tips and suggestions.

As for the classes, there were sometimes too many choices! There were songwriting classes, both beginning and more advanced, led by masters like Jason Blume, Bob Franke and David Roth. There was an incredible performance class led by David and Freebo. There were guitar classes by Artie Traum and Tom Prasada-Rao, and piano classes by Vinnie Martucci. And there were vocal classes by the Grand Poobah herself, Penny Nichols! And Sloan Wainwright's class on collaboration yielded some remarkable results! By the end of the week, many new songs had been born. And we were treated to the student performances of those new creations on Thursday and Friday nights, with many of the pro players in the camp helping out.

A major hurtle for some songwriters is gaining the confidence to risk singing in front of others. Every night after the scheduled show or song circle, there was "Coffeehouse!" This was where everybody had the chance to play a song in a setting similar to the coffeehouses in their home town. And this was also where a few who swore they would never perform... did. To overwhelming applause and recognition and acceptance. And it changed their lives. Paul H. (from Maryland) said he had played a lot before attending SummerSongs, but had written only a couple songs, and never sang in front of others. At the camp, he felt so encouraged that not only did he sing there, but he's continued singing in coffeehouses back home, too.

SummerSongs is the brainchild of Penny Nichols who got the idea after teaching at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop in the early 90's. Her original vision was to create a community of songwriters who support each other in creating and performing music. I think she has succeeded in a spectacular way. "Songwriting tends to be a very solitary pursuit," she says. "Songwriters need community; they need to support one another and be supported by each other. That takes many forms: networking, learning to play songs together, (having) an appreciative audience, learning to be good listeners as well as good performers. Out of experiences like these, the possibility of caring about one another grows and that rare quality of seeing one's connection to a larger community and a larger vision of one's impact on friends, family and our world has a chance to manifest."

Asked about her plans for SummerSongs' future, Penny said: "My goals right now are to start WinterSongs for the first time this February 15th to 18th [2001] and have it be a more mellow, reflective kind of retreat for a smaller group. Then SummerSongs 2002 is shaping up into a dynamic, exciting camp with teachers like Freebo, Cosy Sheridan, Bob Franke, David Roth, Severin Browne, Sloan Wainwright, Artie Traum and me. Then if all goes well, in 2003 I plan to start the first California SummerSongs. By 2005 I would like to have a SummerSongs and WinterSongs on each coast and be starting to look for another location for a 3rd week of camp."

To me, though, the very best part of SummerSongs 2001 was the connections I made with other songwriters. With a whole week of relaxation and inspiration and writing together, strong bonds develop. Here are some random comments by students of SummerSongs 2001:

"SummerSongs had to be one of the most positive life affirming experiences I have ever had. The support I received for my songwriting was unparalleled. I am fairly lucky that I have a supportive group right here at home, but it is nothing like spending a week with people from all over the country (and world) with the same driving passion. Guess it made me feel like less of a freak. I think that this support is the reason for the dramatic improvement in my songwriting. While I can't say that any one class was more or better than another (they were all great), it was the atmosphere of love and support that I carry with me when I pick up a pen and my guitar to write."
--Meg B. (New York)

"The support that I received from the instructors and the other students was amazing. My most heart-felt experience was the evening before the student show when I asked my 'musical guru', David Roth, to accompany me on a simple little lullaby that I had written. Before long, other instructors walked in and joined in with their talents. I had my 'Dream Band' made up of David and Freebo on guitar, Michael Sansonia on harmonica... and on piano for the show, Penny Nichols and Sloan Wainwright on vocals. At one point I had to step back and just listen to them. They were doing MY SONG... and it sounded sweet! I then ran to the rest room, dropped to my knees and offered thanks."
--Fran S. (Florida)

"Every member of the staff was not only technically and professionally qualified to teach, but (to my amazement) were generous and kind in spirit beyond any expectation. Penny Nichols should be congratulated on her ability to assemble such an incredibly talented, compassionate, and able staff."
--Craig W. (California)

"SummerSongs changed my life. This is no hyperbole, no exaggeration. It inspired several things. I came to believe in myself as a true songwriter - not just a musician attempting occasional originals. I'm writing songs more often, and they keep getting better. The unflagging support from everyone, staff and students alike, instilled in me a confidence that has spilled over into other areas of my life. For example, teaching has become easier since I've begun to carry myself differently - discipline problems in the classroom have declined noticeably. If anything is essential to creativity, it is a feeling of freedom to create, without fear of condemnation from our inner critics. The overwhelming feeling of acceptance that infused all of SummerSongs set up the ideal safe environment for creativity of all kinds. In fact, I get emotional thinking of how many truly wonderful people I met and got to know. The memory of that magical week sustains me in the hardest of times and inspires me the rest of the time. There is no question that it changed my life."
--John M. (New York)

"I was sure that I was way out of my league going to SummerSongs. So I didn't really have any fantastic expectations. I wasn't expecting to come out a songwriter, but I did want so very badly to come out with the tools necessary to become a songwriter. And I did get that."
--Therease S. (California)

"The last two sessions at SummerSongs have been a turning point in my career. I've been performing professionally for over twenty years. I have to admit I was skeptical before I arrived at my first SummerSongs session. I didn't know what this experience could do for me, I had this 'know it all' mind set and I was real close to backing out at the last minute. My fears were strong, but something inside me told me to open up and accept what was being offered to me. I opened up and accepted one of the best experiences in my life... The staff, the campus, and my classmates were nothing short of magical!... I found it hard to describe to friends and loved ones what had happened to me during SummerSongs. I had fallen in love with fifty or so people in one week... How Penny Nichols and her staff topped the first year I'll never know. I'll be there for this year's WinterSongs and I know I'll be there next summer. SummerSongs is like a best kept secret!"
--Vito P. (New York)

From the first sight of the campground to the final farewell speech by Bob Franke, this was a spectacular experience that I would recommend to any songwriter. SummerSongs 2002 will take place on August 4th to 10th. More information and online registration can be found at

This article is re-printed with the permission of the Angel City Voice.

© 2012 Severin Browne