MONTVILLE, Maine — Doug Protsik hopped off his bicycle on a mid-August day and took a moment to absorb to the music that rose up to the white pine trees towering over Maine Fiddle Camp.
His gaze lit on a group of people practicing swing dance steps, then at a knot of folks concentrating hard on practicing some licks on the double bass. Off in the distance some campers played their fiddles with happy abandon, the old-fashioned strains of a jig causing toes to tap and heads to nod.
When asked what he thought when he looked around, Protsik, a 66-year-old professional musician from Woolwich and the longtime director of Maine Fiddle Camp, had to take a moment before he can answer.
“It’s just so wonderful,” the director said, with the glint of tears in his eyes. “I see so many good things going on all the time. Love and support, inspiration — all things positive. It can be so powerful and overwhelming. It’s amazing what I see and hear when I travel around the camp.”
Welcome to Maine Fiddle Camp, which is held several times a summer on the grounds of Camp NEOFA — owned by the Northeast Oddfellow Association — in Montville. It’s not a typical summer camp at all, and though it is located on quiet True’s Pond in Montville, people don’t come here to frolic in the water and cool off in the August heat. Instead, they come in droves from across the country and beyond to immerse themselves in traditional music at the camp. It’s a music camp for people of all ages and all abilities. They stay in rustic cabins or in tents, and spend most of their time playing music and improving their skills, which can range from rudimentary to near-professional.
Protsik, who was one of seven founding members who worked to start the camp in 1994, said that in the beginning it was a fairly low-key effort and stopped altogether during the summer of 1997. It was restarted the following year, and in the fall of 2000, the musician — who plays fiddle, piano and accordion — took it over, despite being told by others that the camp would never be a significant success and that there would never be more than 100 students interested in it.
“It stuck in my craw to drop it,” he said. “Somebody’s got to do it.”
And it was him. Sixteen years later, it’s working out very well, Protsik said, with attendance and interest steadily increasing all along. In 2001, the first year he was responsible for Maine Fiddle Camp, it was held on just one weekend in June, with 150 people there. Over the years he has added another weekend and three weeklong sessions, and this summer there was a high of 360 students and staffers making music at the camp during the first of two weeklong sessions held in August.
Why do so many people lug their instruments — including ukulele, accordion, horns, guitar, harmonica and many more — come to the woods of Maine?
“No snobbery. It’s for everybody,” Protsik says. “Here, we celebrate mediocrity and inclusivity … You cannot believe how many emails and phone messages I receive. How many lives have been changed for the better at Maine Fiddle Camp.”
One of those lives belongs to Liz Tucker of Truckee, California. She plays the double bass, and has come to camp for three summers with her husband, son and daughter.
“It’s a great family camp,” she said. “All of us look forward to being part of this great community. I’m so floored by the incredible generosity and talent here.”
She said aspects of the camp can be overwhelming at first.
“There’s music from 7 a.m. to midnight,” she said. “You’re in the shower, and people are doing three-part harmonies in the shower next to you. You’re just immersed in it.”
Earlier that day, she had participated in a group session to clean garlic and sing work songs, led by local farmer and musician Bennett Konesni.
“It was one of the single coolest experiences of my life — singing work songs and cleaning garlic,” she said. “It’s magical here. I think this whole setting is magical.”
In fact, “magical” is a word that popped up often when campers were asked to describe Maine Fiddle Camp. Cindy Millar of Washington, Maine, plays the fiddle and mandolin.
“I love fiddle camp,” she said. “It’s like walking back in time to a time when people provided their own entertainment. There’s music going all the time, until people drop. It’s really such a beautiful thing.”
A 17-year-old from New York City, Juliana Paton, said that it is her fourth summer at camp. That first summer, she had a moment of apprehension when she realized that she had been dropped off in the middle of the Maine woods and knew no one. But that disappeared almost immediately.
“It’s my favorite place,” Paton, who started on clarinet and switched to fiddle, said. “Every year is the best camp ever.”
These fans of fiddle camp want the world to know that you don’t have to be a musician or good at an instrument to have a good time at camp.
“You don’t need to know anything. You just need to come,” Paton said.
She was learning how to play the bones, an ancient homemade rhythm instrument, from Ari Erlbaum of East Montpelier, Vermont. Erlbaum, 25, has come to camp for six summers and was adept at rhythmically clacking the buffalo rib bones he held in each hand. Meanwhile, good smells were wafting from the kitchen as the camp inched closer to dinnertime, and knots of musicians gathered to sing the blues, to practice a staccato fiddle technique called “chopping” or to simply relax in the afternoon sunshine.
“What is the secret ingredient that makes it so amazing?” Erlbaum asked. “I don’t know. But for me, this is the best place, ever.”