Taking a Break From Life to Live the Fantasy

The New York Times

© By Hilary Howard
Published: May 11, 2008

A LATE-NIGHT jam session in a hotel lobby is what persuaded Tom Stockfisch to take up the cello shortly before his 50th birthday. On a summer night four years ago, he and his wife stumbled upon a Quality Inn where participants were staying for the annual Strings Conference in San Diego, a summer camp of sorts for violinists, cellists, bassists and viola players created by the virtuoso violinist Mark O’Connor.

“Three people beside us started playing ‘Cold Frosty Morning,’ and then people on the other side of us began to play it,” he said. “We heard it in stereo.”

Inspired — and yet a complete novice — Mr. Stockfisch, a consultant for scientific software, registered for the next summer’s session (“I sounded awful the whole week,” he said). When he returned the next year, he played the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 at the student concert. “It’s my new religion,” he said.

More and more adults are leaving their BlackBerrys and briefcases behind to become swept up for a few days or weeks in the celebratory world of summer music camps. The programs range in disciplines from chamber music to rock, and many of them take place in bucolic, low-stress zones like the hills of Tennessee or the lake country of Interlochen, Mich.

“When people do have a chance to have time off, they want to accomplish something, fulfill a passion they have,” said Nancy LaPook Diamond, president of NicheDirectories, which publishes GrownUpCamps.com. “In the last couple of weeks, we added two new music camps to our directory. There’s a tremendous trend toward enrichment programs in general.”

The Strings Conference in San Diego, which this year is July 27 to Aug. 2, followed Mr. O’Connor’s original brainchild: the Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camp in Tennessee (www.markoconnor.com). The camp was inspired by the release of his 1993 album “Heroes,” which featured his playing of duets in a variety of styles with musicians who had inspired him as a child, including Pinchas Zukerman, a classical player, and Stéphane Grappelli, a jazz violinist. “I got the idea if I created a camp where I could bring together all these traditions and disciplines of string music, it would be a really unique offering,” he said.

The fiddle camp takes place 40 miles west of Nashville at Montgomery Bell State Park one week every summer (this year the dates are June 22 to 28; it costs $750). Campers may choose to pitch tents or stay in basic cabins as part of the camp fee or stay at an inn, which is not included in the fee.

For the first two days a “fiddlers shuffle” takes place, after which “the entire camp will have seen every discipline and every teacher that we feature,” Mr. O’Connor said. “Bluegrass people’s eyes will be opened to klezmer.” Other disciplines include violin hip-hop and traditional music played on the erhu, a Chinese fiddle. From there on out, students create their own curriculum.

Mr. O’Connor is hoping to begin his third summer strings program in 2009 in Manhattan, where he now lives.

Laura Colcord, a management consultant and “wannabe jazz pianist,” is another music camp convert. Ms. Colcord first went to Jazz Vermont (www.jazzcamp.com) because it was a birthday gift from her brother. She’s now returning for her fifth straight summer. The camp, which takes place this year from July 13 to 18, holds a five-day session at the Killington Grand Hotel every summer for $1,624 a person, including lodging (some discounts are available).

Participants play in bands they’re assigned to and work with guest artists like the tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, on the faculty at the New England Conservatory. Ms. Colcord, who leads a busy professional life during the year, finds that jazz camp helps her get into a different frame of mind. “If you choose to do music, it drives out — at least for a moment — everything else that you’re worried about,” she said.

“Almost all of our students have other careers,” said Byron Siegal, president of Jazz Vermont. “We could open our own law firm. Or medical clinic.”

Some doctors, apparently, want to rock. Bill McDonald, a maxillofacial surgeon from Vancouver, enrolled in one of David Fishof’s rock ‘n’ roll fantasy camps (www.rockandrollfantasycamp.com), which take place in London and throughout America in cities like Detroit and Seattle. They offer various ways and opportunities to perform with rock stars in professional venues.

“I thought, ‘Am I ready for this?’ ” Dr. McDonald said. “Finally I decided ‘Who cares, I’m going to do it.’ So I enrolled and started practicing like heck.”

His first experience, which included auditioning for Bruce Kulick, former lead guitarist for Kiss, was “a bit intimidating.” Dr. McDonald eventually teamed up with Kip Winger (vocalist and bassist for the 1980s rock band Winger), who coached him and his band while they rehearsed at S.I.R. studios in Los Angeles. Special guests like the guitarist Neal Schon from Journey and Roger Daltrey from the Who would stop by to offer advice and jam.

Dr. McDonald has signed up for his fourth fantasy this summer, a five-day bus tour with performances in five cities, with the not-so-cheap price tag of $9,999 a person (the fee includes everything — lodging, bus, meals — except for airfare). But for him, it seems to be well worth the money.

“In the profession I do, I’m always worried about my patients,” he said. “This takes me away from that. I become totally infatuated and engrossed with the band. It’s almost like going to another world for a bit. Rejuvenation, if you want to call it.”

The rejuvenation theory makes a lot of sense to Bayla Keyes, artistic director of the Interlochen Adult Chamber Music Camp in Michigan (www.interlochen.org). “Some of these people store up everything for a year and they just come and play, play, play in the summer,” she said.

The program, which costs $389 (not including housing) and is one of the oldest and biggest of its kind in the country, will conduct its 58th year Aug. 13 to 19, and has spawned other adult music programs at Interlochen, like the Early Music Workshop (June 8 to 13), Adult Band Camp (Aug. 5 to 10), and a Guitar Festival Workshop (Aug. 21 to 23).

“This place inspires such loyalty,” said Ms. Keyes of the arts center, built around two lakes and primarily known for being an arts camp for children. “It’s very corny, but people always talk about the Interlochen magic.

“For hundreds of years, there’s been an association between music and the outdoors. You cannot imagine how important music camps are in the development of so many professional and amateur musicians. It’s like summer and freedom. All of this magic happens when you’re away from home.”