Portal Irish Music Week
In the Spring of 2013, I got a strange and strong feeling pulling me to an music camp in Portal, AZ: Portal Irish Music Week. The place was remote and beautiful; the lineup of instructors was attractive and directed at Irish Music. I’d been bitten by the Irish mandolin bug and was looking for a place/person to go and get some help. Something about this little town with the big views was drawing me there.
Time marched on until October rolled around, Nowell (Luthier/husband) and I packed up and were on our way. Traveling on the I-10 headed east from LA is a somewhat unspectacular drive. So when arriving in Portal we were much relieved to find this little Store/Lodge as a welcoming destination. Attendees were coming in all day, with our first dinner together in the humble, wooded floor back room of the Portal Peak Café.
To give you a better idea of this music camp/week and its creation, I talked with the founders and instructors for an inside glimpse at what makes Portal…well Portal.
AS: How did Portal Music Week come about?
SM: I contacted my friend Will Harmon (fiddler) and asked his advice, because I’d been inclined to lead a fiddle camp. He said; I have a friend Peter Strickler who’s always wanted to run his own camp too. And the two of them essentially designed the first curriculum and webpage. I always call them the co-founders and they say no it was your idea.
I really get a kick out of helping other adults develop this side of them. So many people think that can’t learn late in life and I believed you could. Every style can form your personal growth as a musician, and it’s up to you choose what you want to sound like, and there’s no right or wrong about it. As a folk musician I had gone to a number of music camps and found the music camp experience was pivotal in my development, it was at a time of intense exposure.
AS: The Location?
SM: It’s gorgeous it’s so overwhelming beautiful on the edge of the Chiricahua wilderness; the mountains surrounding us. We just fell in love with the people and the place and they fell in love with us.
AS: The Format?
SM: We designed it as a retreat, with no cell phone service, and the Wi-Fi is wonky. It’s a place to be part of the music, be in the environment, to take walks, to learn about the natural history of the area and develop, recuperate and restore. I’m inclined to leave it capped at 30 students, so about 40 people total. I want people to feel like they can breathe and have space. If it happened to grow for another week…I might go in another style of music.
The instructors for 2013 were: Brian Conway (Fiddle), Marla Fibish (Mandolin), Matt Heaton (Guitar/Bouzouki), Shannon Heaton (Flute/Whistle/Singing), Pete Strickler (Tenor Banjo).
What was your goal teaching here?
BC: I’m trying to give them concrete information that they can go back home and can use. I give them private lessons as well; everybody gets one during the week.
MF: I want to make sure that every student leaves with something big, some Ah-ha, that’s going to propel him or her forward in their playing. One of the things about Portal is that you get private time with the students as well as classroom time. That’s kind of built into the Portal model.
MH: I’m game to teach at camps as a general concept. I like doing it and I like teaching and teaching groups of people, particularly if it’s one that is focused on Irish music. With fewer students you can pay more attention to people’s individual needs that would be the main thing. The big picture I’m always trying to accomplish is the same; I want to help people play better.
SH: I would say I notice more dramatic improvement in one week within each person’s smaller goals than any other week I’ve ever been involved in. I’ve taught at stuff like this, but not quite as intimate in our day-to-day integration of everybody eating together and playing sessions together.
PS: My real goal is to try to teach them (students) the things that took me years to learn on my own and give them a bit of a short cut or give them ways to think about the music.
AS: What makes Portal special for you?
BC: The Portal Café, a little old fashioned store, it has a little bell when you open the door. It’s got all you need in there. And the people that own it are really down to earth and we’re surrounded by darkness (evening’s), which brings me back to my childhood days visiting Ireland. Landscape is a little different (smiling) it’s hilly like Ireland, but of course it’s very different.
The absolute serenity of the area; I come here, I get relaxed, I love it and the people who populate the camp both as instructors and as students they’re all really great people
MF: At first it was gee this is a gorgeous place, and a lovely small intimate camp. But now it’s taking this whole other layer, it’s become a family, it’s become a community of people that love to come here and do this thing.
MH: In most camps you kind of like get the midweek slump, a lot of people ½ way through are a little tired, if anyone is going to get grouchy it’s then. But I don’t really notice that here, because every time you walk outside your getting a little break, and then if you really need to, you can go for a walk, it’s just a spectacular environment to be in.
SH: Wonderful combination of just the right class size and in this remote setting. Having a small pool of instructors, plenty of down time to socialize, and by nature of it all being such close quarters I think there was sense of everybody being in it all together and helping each other along…challenging each other.
PS: It’s stunningly gorgeous, it’s unbelievably beautiful here, but it’s also really quite peaceful. Here it’s just, hey we’re going to immerse ourselves in the music for a week. There’s other stuff to do hiking, stargazing and all, but it’s really take a deep breath, let it out, think about the music, and immerse yourself in it, in a relaxed environment.
AS: Anything you’d like to add?
BC: Susan does a great job of scheduling other activities. And the sessions are all very civilized in the sense that they start early and they end early. I just think it’s a great camp; it’s a once in a lifetime experience and even if you don’t play music, but you just love music, talk to Susan about coming. It’s the best place in the United States to do stargazing; it’s the best place in the US to do bird watching. So it’s worth the effort to get here. Definitely!
MF: Prepare to be surprised, it’s hard to imagine ahead of time what it’s going to feel like to be here. It’s funky, it’s a little rustic, there’s no gym, no laundry facility (laughing). But then we just have these moments, where you stand outside and it’s so damn beautiful that you’re just filled with awe and wonder and ready to just be happy and relaxed.
MH: It’s kind of cool just having such a small group of folks/instructors. It’s just a spectacular environment to be in.
SH: It’s very clever how it’s designed into a weekend. It was cool having the concert for the students and for the community. I love how this town in involved in this.
Nigel Heaton(3yr old traveling musician): Doesn’t like wasps – But his favorite instrument is his… ukulele.
PS: I’m pleased that it continues to happen.
(Interview published by Folkworks.org 2013)