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Bluegrass Enthusiasts Go 'Hands On' at Colorado's Rockygrass Academy

Summertime in the United States means vacation. And for some people, the idea of a vacation isn't sitting poolside, or hiking a mountain trail. It's the chance to go somewhere special and study something they love.

For some bluegrass fans, attending a festival and buying CDs isn't enough. They want to play the music, too. And every year, Planet Bluegrass, the people who produce the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and Rockygrass, put together a special school in Lyons, Colorado, called The Bluegrass Academy.

"Every week before Rockygrass, we have what's called the Rockygrass Academy," says Emily Voorhees, the marketing director of Rockygrass. "We offer bluegrass instruction in all the major bluegrass instruments: Guitar, bass, fiddle, dobro, mandolin and banjo. And then there is also a mandolin building class. All of these classes are taught by the pickers and the players who are playing that weekend. And then at night, everyone is camping here for the academy. So at night, that's when the real fun begins. Jam circles begin, and many a bluegrass band has been sort of been 'birthed' by their time at Planet Bluegrass, at the Academy. It's a pretty inspiring thing."

Someone who doesn't have an instrument could also sign up to build their own mandolin … not just a toy mandolin, a real mandolin that you can play."

"A real mandolin! They are quite beautiful," Ms. Vorhees says. "A man named Michael Hornick from northern California, he's a luthier [instrument maker] out there. And he brings the kits, so they're all ready-to-assemble. But you make them. And you can build mandolins, mandolas and octave mandolins. They're beautiful. And then they play them. It's pretty inspiring. They finish them in a week!"

Amanda, the student just heard getting a lesson from Patrick O'Kelly, rode in a car for 14 hours from her home in Arizona to build a mandolin on her vacation. That's not your typical summer activity for an 11-year-old girl. Which begs the question: Was taking the Mandolin building class her idea, or did her parents decide what Amanda would be doing on her summer vacation?

"No, I actually wanted to take it," she said. "Because last year I kept peeking in, and it looked like so much fun, so I did it this year... It was a lot of hard work, and a great experience!"

Patrick O'Kelly helped Amanda play her mandolin, and built himself a new guitar over the weekend. He explains how the student builders celebrate the completion of their projects.

"What usually happens is that at four, or five o'clock, all the mandolin students will go down by the river, and someone like Peter Rowan will lead the group in a singalong, and they will all play their instruments. It's the annual christening of the instruments," he said. "It's really cool to watch everybody get a chance to play their instruments."

Steve Szymanski is Vice President of Planet Bluegrass, and director of the very popular summer school. Who are his students? He says doctors, lawyers, homemakers, college kids, all come to the Bluegrass Academy.

"Our students are a very refined bunch of people," Mr. Szymanski says. "I think the word has gotten out about what we do, and how we do it, and who is [teaching] here. Every year it gets better. Every year there is more of a community here."

He says about half are repeat visitors.

"And out of that half, I'd say we probably have 30 people who have been here five or more times," he says. "And now we're getting the inter-generational thing. This has been the 12th year here at Rockygrass. For two years before that we did it at Telluride. We're starting to see the kids who were just barely able to stand now playing instruments, and playing them as well, in some cases, as the instructors!"

If the Rockygrass Bluegrass Academy sounds like something that would interest you, visit their website at But be warned, Steve Szymanski says the Academy often sells out hours after registration opens.