The sound of rhythmic stomping poured out of a red barn on Walker Creek Ranch last Sunday afternoon. There was heal-toe clacking and wood-floor pounding, and the commotion grew thunderous as 24 feet traded licks.
Standing in a circle around instructor Rebecca Stout, a dozen students were learning the old-time Appalachian art form of flatfooting. They covered the age spectrum and beamed as they chug-chugged forward before taking two steps back. At one point, a pupil asked about choreography: How much improvisation is there in flatfooting on the dance floor? The answer: a lot.
“I’m reacting to what the fiddle player is doing—like having a musical conversation,” Ms. Stout, who lives in Los Angeles, said. “I want to move how the music is sounding to me. I’m listening and trying to channel a response with my feet. I think of my feet as an instrument.”
All across the Marshall conference center last weekend, courses like “Flatfooting Rhythm and Rhyme,” “Repertoire: Songs from West Virginia and Tennessee” and “The History of Bluegrass” were offered as part of the Walker Creek Music Camp. Orchestrated twice a year by Marshall native Ingrid Noyes, the camp has become a vital resource for old-time and bluegrass musicians across the West. They stream to the rolling hills of West Marin in the spring and fall for classes, concerts and, most importantly, jams that often run late into the night.
“Ingrid has succeeded is gathering some of the best teachers, who are extraordinary at playing and who can communicate how they got there,” said Bill Birrell, a Santa Monica mandolin player who has attended the camp for years. “And compared to other environments with serious players, what’s wonderful about Walker Creek is everyone here is supportive. You’ll be in a jam with a beginner and no one will give them a stink eye. There’s something about being in these incredible bucolic hills; people sit around and share ideas.”
The camp began in 2013, after Ms. Noyes, herself a multi-instrumentalist, left her post as the director of the California Bluegrass Association’s music camp. She had been at the job for over 10 years, and decided to strike out on her own.
Ms. Noyes grew up in Marshall, the daughter of Hans and Dina Angress, early partners in dairy farming with Bill Straus. She learned to sing harmony on family car trips and her mother encouraged her to take up music. At age 7, Ingrid began with piano lessons; she has since added guitar, banjo and accordion to her repertoire.
She said she was never interested in becoming a full-time musician, but decided to combine her love of music and teaching. She’s taught piano ever since, and plays music everywhere she goes. She currently lives up the coast, in Fort Bragg, but frequently returns to West Marin, snatching up house-sitting gigs whenever she can.
Though she focused on folk music early in her life, Ms. Noyes now plays mostly old-time traditional and bluegrass music. She fronts a band called Rosie and the Railroaders and recorded several cassette tapes of old-timey tunes with her then-husband Ernie (their duo is called “Noyes and More Noyes”). She had to take a break from performing after injuring her wrist two years ago, but the hiatus hasn’t been full of gloom.
“What I found after breaking my wrist is that I do not miss playing gigs,” she said.
Two hundred and thirty campers attended this spring’s music camp and license plates showed folks from Nevada, Idaho, Texas and Ohio were in attendance. Out-of-state students comprise a vast majority of the camp’s roster, but Ms. Noyes is hoping to garner more local interest. (“I don’t get a lot of local people, and we’re right here,” she said.)
The cost of attending the camp can reach up to $775, but that includes three square meals a day and overnight accommodations. The camp has a tight, detailed schedule. Each day begins with instrumental and vocal classes before students choose from various electives; each evening ends with concerts or late-night jams.
Throughout the day, Ms. Noyes bikes through the campus and personally checks in with the instructors and students to ensure that they’re having the best experience.
She employs about 50 staffers, recruited from across the country.
On Sunday afternoon, Billy Cardine, a bluegrass dobro composer from Asheville, N.C., taught a packed classroom how to sneak into a jam even if one is unable to recognize what key the musicians are playing in. As he spoke, students listened carefully or inched their voice recorders closer as he explained the 1-3-5 chord structure and its interchangeable melodies.
Sitting near the back of the class was Don Palmer, a Redding resident in his first year at the camp. Having access to instructors like Mr. Cardine is what encouraged Mr. Palmer to make the trip.
“I had no idea what I could learn, and Billy taught us stuff I had no idea you could do with a dobro,” said Mr. Palmer, who is picking up the instrument after 40 years on the banjo. “He showed us six ways you can play it: like guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass and then how to play the melody and harmony at the same time!”
Matt Porter, a banjo player from Marshall, has worked at the camp as an assistant instructor and art teacher for the last five years.
“The camp has all the right moving parts,” said Mr. Porter, who missed last weekend’s camp due to an illness in the family. “The classes are offered for all three playing levels, there are great teachers from all over that differ each year, and then you have the electives, where you can learn the jug or hand bones.”
Walker Creek Music Camp will return in the fall, and Ms. Noyes is already back at work.
“The job doesn’t stop; it just gets more intense certain times of the year,” she said. “But I also make time in my life for hanging with friends, hiking, boating and family.”
Last weekend, as she biked across campus and poked her head into classrooms, campers thanked her for providing a refuge from the chaos of everyday life.
“It helps that there’s no cell phone reception,” she said. “People are less plugged in and can just breathe and play music. It means a lot to me to see how much it means to the people who come here.”
To learn more about the camp, visit walkercreekmusiccamp.org.