Music on the march

Chico State’s Ethos Music Camp serves as basic training for hopeful young musicians

Photo by Tom Angel

Seems like these days everybody’s marching, looking for a fight. So maybe we should just replace all these M16s with guitars.
—Jimi Hendrix

It is 6:35 on a Sunday evening in July.

The scene in this large room in the Performing Arts Center, on the Chico State University campus, looks like a terminal for a load of fresh Army recruits. A few of these young people stand, hugging and saying goodbye to parents who have accompanied them to this destination. Most, however, simply sit on their own amidst a lake of blue, purple and black backpacks, bedrolls and oblong cases. Yet this group is distinctly not an army, at least not in any military sense.

Instead of wielding guns, most of these youngsters are cradling guitars. Or electric basses. Or twirling drumsticks. On the north side of the large space, a few are gathered around a young man who is performing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on a baby grand piano, its meandering melody suggesting a leaf of paper swirling around a Sunday street corner. Near the south wall, two guys collaborate on a small upright, banging out a boogie-woogie riff. All is contrasting cacophony, yet curiously and unmistakably musical. Taken as a whole, the clashing sounds resemble a symphony tuning before a concert. Or perhaps an army at ease, before it is snapped to attention and addressed by its general, before it marches into its first conflict. Or, perhaps more appropriately, into its first engagement.

This is the 2002 Ethos Music Camp, conducted these last three summers on the campus of Chico State University. And in a few ways it is similar to boot camp, sans any derisive, order-barking drill sergeants, of course. It is here that boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 21 come from all over the country for the purpose of beginning a journey in music. Doubtless, many enter as kids who probably “fool around” a little on guitars or drum kits. Still, many also leave with enough basic tools to consider realizing a career in the music business. Through a well organized series of classes, presentations, rehearsals and workshops, the students at Ethos gain confidence and experience under the guidance of expert musicians.

Over the next six days, these not-so-raw recruits will undergo basic training in the profession of music, culminating with the wracked nerves and sheer joy that come with performing before a live audience.

Ethos students Dallas Darnell, Alex Ruiz, Vincent Gutierrez and Kirk Williams (left to right) hone their particularly crunchy rendition of “Ariels.” Darnell and Williams are locals, from Corning and Chico, respectively; Ruiz and Gutierrez hail from Calistoga and perform in their high school’s jazz band.

Photo by Tom Angel

It’s Monday afternoon just after 3, and in an upstairs classroom in the PAC Chico State music instructor Paul Friedlander is speaking before all 60 Ethos campers. He suggests that we each experience music differently—some as pure feeling and others as pure thought. What has meaning for us is relative to two things: Who we are and where we are.

The older students seem attentive enough to Friedlander’s observations. However, when one has a class full of 12- to 21-year-olds, there are naturally bound to be some short attention spans and fidgeting.

Friedlander moves rather smoothly from citing Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s innovative use of turntables in funk music to tracing the guitar’s ascent to prominence in popular music. So that it’s not all lecture, he illustrates his points by playing tracks featuring transitional moments in guitar playing, beginning with ‘20s bluesmen Son House and Lonnie Johnson, with their distinctly different yet contemporaneous styles, through the ‘40s with T-Bone Walker and ‘50s with Chuck Berry and the ‘60s with Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, up to the ‘80s and Eddie Van Halen.

Guitarist, Chico State alumnus and Ethos instructor Matt Baldoni is happily badgered into cutting loose on his electric guitar, showing off some of his best Van Halenesque licks as a demonstration of where the technology surrounding the instrument now stands.

In the end, many of the kids seem relatively receptive to the history lesson, perhaps even gleaning Friedlander’s main point: Change is constant.

Yet, in the last chair of the row nearest the window, a 12-year-old in a red baseball cap, white T-shirt and shorts impatiently drums at his desk.

Talk is fine, his nervous, pent-up energy seems to state. But when do we play?

Tuesday morning at 10, the students are now forming their music combos, or ensembles, as the camp officially refers to them. Based on forms the students filled out the first day of camp, the eager musicians have been grouped according to their musical preferences and assigned anywhere from one to three pieces to rehearse, depending upon the ensemble’s relative proficiency on its instruments. In an upstairs rehearsal room only a bit larger than a modest walk-in closet, four young men practice a decidedly heavy electric number.

Classical guitarist and Chico State alumnus Tobin Roye (right) directs his guitar trio through a piece by 16th-century composer Thomas Campian. Roye is a good instructor, offering constructive criticism and encouragement.

Photo by Tom Angel

While loud, the piece does allow each member to demonstrate his ability. Overall, the song is well balanced; nobody’s instrument—guitars, bass and drums—over-rides any other.

One of the guitar players is a black-haired, round-faced 18-year-old with dark eyes and a wispy, late-adolescence moustache.

Dallas Darnell hails from Corning and has attended the Ethos camp since its beginning.

“The first year,” he says during a break in rehearsal, “there were only like 20 kids here. And it wasn’t as structured. They were still working out a lot of details to see if it could succeed.” He points out that most of those first-year students were from California. “Last year,” Darnell stresses, “there were kids from all over the country. The first year, there were only five students staying in the dorm [Whitney Hall, on campus]. Now there are only about four who aren’t staying in the dorm. And I’m one of them!”

Have these camps helped him?

“The first year, yeah,” Darnell says. “Because I came and learned stuff that I felt was too hard. But the teachers showed me. And I learned a lot about recording and just being in a group. I jammed with some real professionals. And then I wanted to play more professionally. I think it’s made me an all-around better guitar player. It did last year, and I think it will this year, too.

“I’m really about the only rock guitarist in my whole town,” Darnell continues. “It’s so easy to stand out there. But when I came here, I really didn’t expect to be one of the worst! I mean, there are so many good guitarists! I went from the most standout guitarist to … I mean, I was like a joke to some of the teachers. Compared to some of the guys like Matt [Baldoni] or Warren [Haskell], some great guitar players. But it’s definitely helped, and it’s still a lot of fun.”

With that, Darnell goes back into rehearsals for the big show Friday night.

Young Sandra Vargas belts out the old B.B. King hit, “The Thrill Is Gone,” during the student concert. Her ensemble is under the direction of Chico State alumnus and local jazz guitarist Dave Elke (pictured performing in the middle box photo on this issue’s cover).

Photo by Tom Angel

The big show Wednesday night is the Masters of Guitar Ethos Benefit concert in the new BMU auditorium on campus.

Ethos Director Zac Smith serves as emcee for the evening, introducing in successive order guitar program head Warren Haskell and then program alumni Tobin Roye, Dave Elke and Matt Baldoni, who each turn in enjoyable sets. During his spot, Haskell states from the stage, “It’s really nice to share the stage with former students,” and then plays a modern composition that somehow magically blends reggae and Bach.

For his set, Roye, a recent graduate of the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco, performs Spanish-accented pieces, most notably “Savilla,” a curious composition that starts out festive then finishes in an almost improvisational yet gloomy mode. Between compositions, Roye expresses his hope that Ethos will continue to grow, becoming a premiere “music camp for kids, right here at Chico State.”

The highlight of Dave Elke’s mostly jazz-fusion-influenced sound is when he brings some of the Ethos singing students out on stage to perform Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” assisted by camp vocal instructor and Long Beach resident Josh Paschell.

However, the show belongs to Baldoni, now relocated to L.A., studying at USC and doing session work at recording studios around Southern California. He leaps into several Hendrix numbers, including “Little Wing” and “Voodoo Child,” allowing himself the luxury of joy-fueled solos that practically levitate off the fretboard.

The next day, a rumor circulates among some of the more deeply impressed students that Baldoni must have sold his soul to be able to play like that. When this is reported to him, Baldoni laughs, delighted.

It’s tales of Robert Johnson. The more things change. …

Thursday afternoon features a tour through the Chico State Music Department’s recording facilities, and they are impressive.

Music camp drum and vocal instructor Brad “Ziggens” Conyers (left) explains the possibilities and limitations of the all-digital recording process to Ethos students in the PAC’s recording studio. Conyers emphasized “material over gimmickry."Tom Angel

Photo by Tom Angel

The board looks like something out of Star Trek, with its monitor and seemingly countless knobs, lights, and so forth. The deceptively limited number of channel meters on the mixing panel prompts visiting camp instructor Brad Conyers’ observation that in actuality an almost endless number of tracks can be built up within the all-digital system. Conyers, who’s a member of the Fullerton-based band The Ziggens, also stresses the importance of learning all one can on current recording technology but not becoming too engrossed with it: “It’s easy to become a techno-junkie,” he warns, “blowing too much money on new toys.”

Everybody’s attentive but a bit edgy. They want to get back to the rehearsal rooms. Tomorrow is Friday and the students’ big concert. Later, out in the PAC hall, a cellist not involved with the Ethos camp rehearses the same line over and over.

It is curiously anticipatory.

It’s 7 p.m. Friday, and a large audience waits in the Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall.

Tobin Roye’s tutored trio of classical guitarists kicks things off, performing 16th-century composer Thomas Campian’s “Song Tune” a bit haltingly at first but finishing well. The evening’s first electric group, also under Roye’s guidance, follows with Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” a female duo on vocals, then is joined by camp assistant and former student Aubrey Pope on the Pixies’ “Where’s My Mind?”

Next come guitar alumnus and camp instructor Bruce MacMillan’s student ensembles with lively renditions of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” (screeched to surprising perfection by MacMillan himself!), the Allman Brothers’ instrumental “Jessica,” Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” and The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.”

Dave Elke’s student groups produce enjoyable versions of Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream,” Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” (this arrangement courtesy of Guns N’ Roses, of course), a humorous punk rock original that was actually pretty good, and a nice take on B.B. King’s classic “The Thrill Is Gone,” featuring young Sandra Vargas on lead vocal. Elke’s groups finish with a fine rendition of “I Shot the Sheriff,” previewed Wednesday night at the Masters concert.

Baldoni’s coached bands top things off nicely with a selection of Hendrix tunes, and Corning guitarist Dallas Darnell and his Ethos ensemble (dubbed “Moltar’s Return” for the night) play a driving rendition of metal band System of a Down’s “Ariels.”

Overall, these youngsters have done a pretty impressive job of getting together an evening’s worth of music in just one week. It speaks well of the Ethos Camp and its instructors that they can provide the training and encouragement needed to produce such results. Next year, says director Zac Smith (please see sidebar interview), Ethos will offer an optional second week of recording training and expects twice as many students in attendance.

As armies go, this one is definitely on the march.

For more on the camp founder click here.