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SummerSongs West 2007
by Severin Browne, October 2007

My name is Severin Browne and I am a song-write-aholic. It started when I was very young and has stayed with me my whole life. I know there are many out there with this same affliction that might benefit from having the friendly and supportive songwriting community that I've found at SummerSongs.  This article will tell you a little bit about the SummerSongs family and about the June 2007 SummerSongs West, specifically. If you're inspired by any of this, please join us at our next camp.

SummerSongs was begun in 1999 in Upstate New York, the brainchild of Penny Nichols, a respected singer, vocal coach and songwriter. Penny wanted to create an annual summer camp where songwriters could be nurtured and supported while they made their way along their creative journeys. I traveled to New York in August, 2000, for the second SummerSongs to find out how Penny could, encourage, support and promote the creation of songs, the work of songwriters, and to facilitate the inclusion of original songs in the life of communities, as she said in the SummerSongs Mission Statement. What I found impressed me, and I surprised myself by realizing that I never wanted to go another year without SummerSongs!

After a couple years SummerSongs expanded to include a winter song camp fittingly called WinterSongs. The next stage of growth led to West Coast versions of the camps called SummerSongs West and WinterSongs West. I was in Heaven knowing that I would have such a great resource right here in California.

I began my 2007 SummerSongs West adventure by driving to LAX to pick up Steve Gillette, an old friend and fellow SSW teacher. After driving about 50 miles north of Santa Barbara on Highway 101, we drove east on a little road past a few wineries until we got to the gate of the retreat. From there we drove another ten or twelve miles through typical California terrain of rolling hills of dried grass, spotted with grazing cattle and live oaks. Then after a while the scene changed to the lush green that we would find at the retreat. Also in this part of the journey we had to drive up and down a couple mountainous areas and down through two narrow, but very wet, river beds. We knew we were close when we saw a sign that read "ZACA LAKE, POPULATION 8," and another below it that said "NO DOGS".

We found the lodge, got our cabins, met up with old friends, and prepared for the camp we had both been waiting all year for!

A typical day at SummerSongs West found us gathering at cabin #17 at 8am for a breakfast of eggs, potatoes, bagels, fruit, homemade granola, juice, coffee and more, all laid out like a cafeteria. At 9am, the first class period had 5 choices, 4 of which were about songwriting and one about singing. At 10:30, the second class period had 2 songwriting choices, one singing class, one guitar class, and one class about organizing your creative time. At noon we all met at cabin #17 again for lunch, then had some free time until the third class session at 2:30. The choices for third period were between 2 songwriting classes, a guitar class, and a "groove" class! The last class period, 4 to 6pm, had one songwriting class, a performing class, a vocal recording class in Vince's Pro Tools studio and another singing class. Yes, there were a lot of choices.

Each night of camp there was at least one special musical event that students were encouraged to participate in. Many students used their free time during the day to write new songs or practice old ones to perform at either the "coffeehouse," one of the song circles, the campfire sing-along, or the final student concert on the last night. Many of the teachers played guitar or keyboards or sang background for those "big arrangement" moments on the student's songs. And cheers were heard echoing through the canyon!

The teachers at this camp are not elite and unapproachable like they are at many music business camps. They are all seasoned veterans of the business, but they are also caring people who like to see each student get the best training and make the most progress. Two of the SummerSongs guidelines that all the teachers follow are 1) Do not offer critiques unless requested and 2) Make all comments and criticisms positive and constructive. This alone makes SummerSongs a much more growth-friendly camp than any other that I've heard about, especially for those of us who do not like to have our songs torn apart without some real guidance on how to make them whole again.

Here is a little about each of the teachers and their classes, and I'll sprinkle it all with quotes from some SSW '07 campers.

Steve Gillette is a long time singer-songwriter credited with writing one of the classic folk songs of all time: Darcy Farrow. He is also the teacher of one of the most popular songwriting classes at the legendary Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas. His songs have been recorded by superstars Garth Brooks, John Denver, Linda Ronstadt, and many others. Steve's main class at SSW '07 was "Songwriting," but he also taught a class on "Performance" and gave one-on-one time to students who signed up for it.

Penny Nichols recorded her first album for Buddha Records in 1967, which sold 50,000 copies. She worked as a singer for many years, recording and/or touring with many world-class artists. She received a Platinum Record for her work on Jimmy Buffett's Son of a Son of a Sailor, and appeared in the movie FM as a member of the Coral Reefers. She also received a Grammy nomination for her work on Arlo Guthrie's The Power of Love album. Besides being the leader and founder of SummerSongs, Penny also taught a Singing class, a Harmony Singing class with Dale La Duke, and a Vocal Recording Technique class with Vince Chafin. She also gave one-on-one tutoring to students who signed up.

Rebecca T. Says:

"On a personal level, Summersongs is a fountain of inspiration and creative power for me. Every camp leaves me fired up and ready to do the work related to songwriting and performing. For me it is essential! I didn't know what I was missing, but now that I do, I will never miss it again!

Joyce Woodson is a Southern California girl who sings songs about the West and has three tastefully produced CDs. Her songs are about cowboys and wide open spaces, and her guitar playing and overall performance abilities are stunning. She taught classes at SSW '07 on Stretching Your Writing, Organizing Your Creative Time and Performance with Steve Gillette. She also gave one-on-one time to many students.

Crow Johnson is also a singer-songwriter as well as a writing teacher from Arkansas, and has been touring and teaching for over 40 years! Her class at SSW was called "Getting to the Songs that Only You can Write", and her philosophical yet down-home way of teaching was a big hit with many students. Crow also did many one-on-ones with the students who signed up.

D'vora G. says:

"Workshops are for all levels and include all aspects of the creative process: How to start a song, how to finish a song, how to write a funny song, as well as singing, performing, recording, guitar techniques and more! You can either focus on one particular skill, or move around to glean something from several areas."

Florence Riggs is a vocal teacher with 40 years experience in the Los Angeles area music business. Her list of clients is very impressive and far too long to include here. She led a class that she calls "Creative Soundings" as well as private voice training on a one-on-one basis.

Bill Gessner is truly one of the hidden gems of SummerSongs. Besides being on the Board of Directors of SummerSongs, he writes very funny songs! Bill led a class called "Writing Funny Song" and tutored many students one-on-one.

Janice S. says:

"I took a workshop on "Writing Funny Songs" with Bill Gessner that was not only a lot of laughs, but very informative, enlightening and encouraging. We did a writing exercise based on a sign that Bill saw at camp that read, 'What should you do if you meet a black bear?' We got some great laughs out of it and one person ended up writing a great 'Bear Song'."

Dale La Duke is a wonderful singer-songwriter-piano teacher who led the "Harmony Singing" class with Penny. He also taught piano to students who signed up.

Pat Milliken is a virtuoso guitarist from the Santa Barbara area, where he performs and teaches regularly. Besides one-on-one tutoring, he taught a class in DADGAD, a popular alternative tuning for guitar.

Nicola G. says:

"Summersongs is an experience of camaraderie in action. In a world where the music world sometimes seems so competitive and angst-riddled, we all leave that behind and go jump in the lake, Zaca Lake specifically, and wash all the tangles out of our minds and feel the love. It ain't just a fairytale, its real! And it's called SummerSongs."

Vince Chafin is also a Santa Barbara area singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He brought his Pro Tools Recording studio to camp and recorded demos for everyone who signed up. He also taught a class on Vocal Recording Technique with Penny.

Sheldon M. said this on the SummerSongs West Yahoo Group:

"Hi everyone! I'm still high from camp and missing you all so much. All the wonderful things people wrote about the experience really resonated for me. One thing I especially miss is the focused listening we all gave each other. What a gift. And my daughter was envious of the nighttime full moon swimming."

Rebecca Troon is another Santa Barbara treasure. She is a singer-songwriter with such an infectious spirit that she practically levitates the room! She taught a class on "Groove", as only "Troonie" could. She also tutored students, helped Matt with the "food facilitating" in the kitchen, and still had time to take a few classes!

Severin Browne. As a staff-songwriter and recording artist at Motown in the '70s, a continual music student in the '80s, and a recording artist again in the '90s, I've learned a lot about music and the business that I share with my students. I taught three different classes at SSW '07: Song Starting - where each day we discussed a new way to begin a new song; Song Finishing - where students could get ideas on how to complete songs they had already begun; and Beginning Guitar - where students could get help with their playing. I also gave students one-on-one tutoring.

Zaca Lake Retreat

D'vora G. said:

"We've both just returned from a 6 day experience in Zaca Lake, an idyllic spot near Los Olivos, lovely for swimming, canoeing, hiking and just reflecting on the beauty of a pristine lake surrounded by mountains and trees. We were visited by deer, raccoons, squirrels, birds, and some even spotted a bear! But did I mention that "camping" here was in carpeted cabins complete with fireplace and Jacuzzi? Also delicious and nutritious meals for all diet preferences were provided by those who know how!"

Zaca Lake Retreat is a beautiful area with cabins and trails on the edge of a very deep lake surrounded with green tree-covered mountains. I was very happy to learn that this very special location will become the permanent home of SummerSongs West. It is a little bit off the beaten path, but once you arrive it is truly magical and inspiring. 

There were animals everywhere: deer, squirrels, jackrabbits, raccoons, possums, coyotes and bears. I'm sure this must be the reason for the "No Dogs" sign. I did not see any coyotes or bears, but two of the campers said they saw bears on the road leading to camp. And we all heard a couple coyotes howling after our campfire sing-along.

On the third day of the retreat, I spent a little time recording a new song at Vince's Zaca Lake Studio cabin. I was surprised to see a little squirrel in the cabin, and Vince told me his name was Ed. We finally got him to leave the cabin before recording. But when I was finished and opened the door, there was Ed on the inside of the screen door (hanging about halfway up) wanting back in. I thought that Ed was just enjoying my new song, but someone else suggested that he smelled the chocolate and strawberries that Vince had. Naw, I still think it was the music!

Jerome Y, said:

"One of the songs I performed was called "Closer", and it was about getting closer to nature. Being an inexperienced performer, I learned in the performance class and elsewhere that the key to eliminating nervous mistakes and improving spontaneity on stage is practice. So practice I did, taking my guitar to a secluded spot on the other side of the dining hall. The afternoon before I performed the song, I sat there with the wind blowing off the lake and my un-tucked shirt tails flapping behind me like wings. I finished running through the song and turned around to see a young fawn (that still had its spots) about six feet away from me and trying to get "closer". Its mother was about 15 feet away up an embankment. With no voice, the doe's only way to communicate was body language. She was using that to its fullest to try to get the fawn to come to her, but the fawn waited and watched me until he satisfied his curiosity, then turned and joined his mother. What a thrill to get closer to the wonder of nature! Perhaps the fawn was trying to get closer to the wonder of music."

Why SummerSongs West?

I've tried to understand what it is about SummerSongs that makes it so magical for me. I've written songs and attended functions for songwriters since the early seventies when I was a staff songwriter and artist for Motown. Being from a music industry center like Los Angeles, I've been to many songwriter groups and industry seminars that don't even begin to capture the warmth and support that I feel at SummerSongs. They can't touch this! And the reason is clear: they are about business and SummerSongs is about personal growth and community. I don't mean to say that SummerSongs ignores the music business, but rather that the priority is to help the writer dig deep into his or her songwriting craft. And when you add in the community, it's just magic!

Tom H. says:

"Summersongs was a bit like cleaning a window that I hadn't realized was so dusty. Things appeared more clearly and seemed closer to me than they had before. I've thought of myself as primarily an audience member and support staff kind of guy. My experience at Summersongs has given me a real push. I'm much more interested now in showcasing my talents as a solo performer. It's (in the) early days still, but I can feel my life taking a new direction."

Jerome Y. says:

"Another moment for me happened in the harmony singing class. We had worked for several days on Penny's special arrangement of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot". We had all enjoyed watching Penny work her magic with layer after layer of arrangement, but this time through we all knew we had "nailed" it. We were looking at each other's faces, and almost at the same moment we all noticed that Penny had slumped down in her chair and was crying. She told us she was moved to tears with what we had created together."

Susan M. says:

"I look forward to camp every time it comes around and it has created lasting friendships and relationships and support for me as an artist in the community at large. I feel very loved and cared for and nurtured and equipped to come back to my own world and continue my journey as a singer/songwriter in life."

Rich P. says:

"I've been to all of the SummerSongs and WinterSongs camps held on the west coast these past four years. Attending camp has enormously influenced my music and profoundly enriched other aspects of my life. Penny manages to create such a special environment at camp where music is the common language, but where a spirit of community and genuine kindness somehow spontaneously emerges. By the end of camp each of us is wondering what we can do to share this spirit and help it grow."

The students at SummerSongs (both East and West) span the range from beginning songwriters who have never performed for anyone to experienced writers with loads of gigs and recordings. Many of these experienced students have helped with tutoring too The performances each night of camp at coffeehouse or in the song circles are a great gauge to show everyone's growth too. And the support that naturally comes from being in the same boat together makes it easier to risk and grow naturally.

Rebecca T. says:

"Watching people grow and blossom over time as artists is as great an experience as growing and blossoming myself! I got tears in my eyes many times at coffeehouse, seeing people get up and sing despite difficult journeys on their artistic path. There is so much beauty and healing available to us as songwriters. I have so much respect for the courage and support it takes. To be a part of Summersongs is a great honor to me."

Janice S. says:

"With the support of the teachers and the others at camp who share my passion for writing songs, I have come to recognize a deep bond of kinship and community that is beyond words. No matter what level you are at with songwriting, beginner or professional, at camp the playing field is leveled and everyone becomes a willing participant in their own personal journey to risk, to learn, to trust, to share. Having attended five camps now, with one positive experience building on the next, I feel I have grown not only as a songwriter but as a person too."

Marie J. Says:

"Summersongs West 2007 was my 1st Summersongs and it was the best vacation ever in my life!  I learned to transfer my guitar chord skills to the piano; I put to rest my inner critic that said I wouldn't dare improvise in public; I swam in the lake and toned in the dome -- and then there were all those unfinished songs that received much needed direction and gentle persistence. Most importantly, I learned where I fit into the songwriting circle. I found my voice in more ways than one. Without that, I would have remained offstage. I sang my first original song onstage at Summersongs West 2007! Potential and infinite possibility all mixed in with hugs and laughs -- what a blast! I am so grateful to all the teachers and fellow songwriters."

Sabine B says:

"I am in the corporate world where my left brain is consistently engaged. Summersongs for me is a retreat of the most delicious kind. It permits me to retreat from the world and get in touch with my creative side. Sometimes I attend classes, sometimes I prefer to just sit in my cabin, by the lake or under a big shady tree, writing pad in hand, doodling with my guitar. It's a perfect way to take a vacation by yourself while having the option to be with people or not. It's impossible not to become part of the group at Summersongs. The evenings are filled with no-pressure performances, camaraderie, good food and plenty of fun. Now that Zaca Lake has become the permanent home of Summer and WinterSongs, I will attend twice a year without hesitation. Summersongs 2007 was such a peaceful, fun filled, interesting, stimulating, joyful week, that I know it will stay with me for the rest of my life."

Jaynee T. said this on the SummerSongs West yahoo group:

"Summersongs, with the variety of classes, coffeehouse, song circles, frequent jumps into the lake, and one-on-one instruction teaches that songwriting need not be a solitary business. Songwriting is as much a community affair as it is a vehicle for an individual to express his or her inner voice. And it is the community of Summersongs that I so deeply embrace because I have been void of this kind of love and genuine caring and support for almost all of my life. Summersongs has truly been a Godsend for me on so many levels. I feel so blessed to have stumbled upon this family of Summersongers| that I am humbled and forever grateful."

Matt B. wrote:

"Since coming back from SummerSongs West I have been dancing with my creative spirits and the pleasure has been such that I feel like I am flying through some uncharted creative territory high up in my songwriting stratosphere. These creative avenues sometimes seem elusive or blocked when dealing with the every day weight of the world. SummerSongs breaks down the writers block and helps me to relocate my own individual creative process." 

The next camp will be WinterSongs West in January 2008. There is room for you to join us if you like the idea of singing and laughing and growing as an artist. So visit the website at and enroll early. I hope to meet you there!

© 2012 Severin Browne