Contemporary Folk Week Classes – July 23-29, 2023



Stories help us understand and process the world we live in. A story set to music possesses an added power to penetrate hearts and minds. In this class for all levels we will work on honing the craft of telling a story though song. Whether you seek to write a modern-day folk-hero classic, magnify a fragment of forgotten history, paint a picture of your hometown, or immortalize a series of events from your family history or your own life, this class will give you the tools to craft something memorable and meaningful.

DISTILLATION (Nora Jane Struthers)
As writers, we all attempt to find and convey truths. When we sit down to work on a song, the first question we should ask ourselves is “What am I trying to say?” The second question is “How can I best say it?” In this class we will work first on distilling our intentions down to their essence and then on our delivery of those intentions, through lyrics, melody, and performance. Bring a song or a piece of a song that you feel has promise but lacks focus. We will create a safe space to generate, hone, and share our work together.

The Sound of the Feeling. My favorite place to be is in the middle of a song. I hope this class will find us all in the middle of a new one. Our purpose will be to write new songs and to complete promising, unfinished pieces. The first day I will talk a little bit about what has worked for me as a performing songwriter. Then we will quickly shift the focus to the individual student’s areas of interest or concern. There is no one right way to write a song. I hope to address various approaches to beginning and completing songs be they lyric- or music-driven and create a positive atmosphere where writing a song is not only possible but inevitable. This year I would also like to add some ideas about how to spice up your chord progressions which can open new places for your melodies to go. Experienced and novice songwriters are welcome!

This course will focus on songwriting as well as presenting your songs in a live setting. We will spend some time working on writing new songs and the craft of songwriting, based on your interests and questions. Then we will focus on ways to connect with an audience: ways to introduce a song, how to pace a set, when a song needs no introduction, considerations when you are an opening act, sound system advice and mic technique. You can benefit from my experience and my many, many mistakes to find ways of telling your story, presenting yourself and your songs. If you have them, please bring printed lyric sheets along to the session. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach as a song coach but I will adapt to the individual needs and interests of the attending songwriters.

(Note: This class is offered twice. Each section covers the same material.)We will examine the songwriting process and look for ways to improve it to consistently produce better songs. We  will explore such topics as writing alone, co-writing, performing, writing for other artists, the business of music, and helpful hints for the writer. The class will have a certain flexibility built-in, so that topics of interest to the class and individual student needs can be explored in some detail.

(Note: This class is offered twice. Each section covers the same material.)
We will take your song and, as a class, get it over the goal line. You will learn a new love: the pleasure of finding just the right word, the right phrase, to bring your song home. That’s where the fun is.

We will look at the ‘Voice’ (the feel, the music, the language) of our developing songs and listen for the cues and clues of how to proceed with thematically unified, interesting narratives that matter to us.

Let’s tell a great story! When we are writing about anything from historical events to personal memories, we have to decide how to tell that story, finding the heart and locating the themes we will follow to communicate, lyrically and musically, what ‘happened’.

WRITING MELODIES (Cliff Eberhardt)
We’ll start with a brief history of melodic writing and then show how to incorporate a melodic vocabulary into your songs, including what to look for to get out of melodic repetition. Bring in songs that are incomplete or songs that you feel need improvement, not songs that you are married to or have already recorded. You’ll be asked to start with just a verse and a chorus to work on, no complete songs until later in the week. We’ll talk about how to insert different chords and use different intervals of your existing songs to improve your melodies, how to make the songs have more memorable melodies, and how to insert intros, bridges and endings. By the end of the week we will try to reconstruct your work into a complete, beautiful song. Usually during the week most students start to get it and add their own suggestions. That’s when I get to take cat naps. The point is, I’ve never taught this class where the students didn’t have a great time.

RELATABLE SONGS (Cliff Eberhardt)
This class is about making your song more accessible to more people. We all want to share our feelings in song with the world. Most want to hear a song that we can identify with. I want everyone to bring in a song (with lyrics) and we will explore the message of your song and discuss different ways to approach redirecting your message so that everyone can relate to your story. We will consider irony and juxtaposition to make your work more interesting and concise.

The source of our best songs is often a subtle stirring in our deep heart. In this class we will practice asking a few simple questions that will help us hear what our hearts are trying to say. We will start with whatever you bring – be it words or melody or a story, and we will follow the emotion to understand what the song can become. Our skill and cleverness as writers may be useful, but songs usually turn out better if our cleverness is in service to the truth behind the song.

SIMPLE SKILLS (David Wilcox)
I still love practicing the simple skills that make up the craft of songwriting. When we do them together, we can make them fun. It’s a confidence builder to remember that our complex craft is made up of simple skills that can be practiced one at a time. For example, we will all take 15 minutes to write our own little melody to two lines of lyrics on a blackboard, and then we will all be welcome to share and talk about how we did it. What clues did the words give us? How did we discern the rhythm? All the different possibilities open our imaginations. Then, for the next exercise, I give everyone the same short piece of melody on your phone and we each take 15 minutes to write words that fit it. The rise and fall of the melody determines what syllables are accented, so it’s really just a word puzzle. We don’t feel self-conscious because this isn’t a song, it’s just a game of finding words that have a particular pattern of accent and rhythm. You could start with some nonsense combinations of words. There are no wrong answers. The momentum and freedom we feel from simple exercises gives us confidence to be more playful with our writing.

(NOTE: This class is offered twice. Each section covers the same material)
I’ve always thought that a great song is like peering into a snow globe. You look through the glass at someone’s three dimensional world. You’re pulled into the imagery and story by the narrator, and then the real world disappears around you and pop! There you are! Inside the snow globe! You’re walking down the actual street of a Dylan song, but you’ve exchanged the details he had written with the characters, the places, the experiences of your own life and imagination. In this magical way, a listener can co-create the scene with their own autobiography by rewriting details provided by the songwriter with images from their own life. It’s a jumble of their ideas and yours, which makes the entire experience even more personal. This is why people say, “That’s my song”, because the music told their life story so vividly that they claim ownership of it. How do we pull people in like that? How do you engage them to the point that the outside world disappears? What makes a song believable? Moving? We will start with the birth of great ideas, and walk through the editing process, with tools of the trade that will trigger listeners’ imagination into the snow globe of your song.



This class is for those who have a small to moderate amount of experience singing in public. It covers foundation-level work on increasing the authenticity and believability of your singing to have a greater impact on your listeners. There are lots of different ways to go about becoming a better singer; this class will focus on one highly effective approach: increasing the believability of your voice. Genuine, honest singing from the heart has the power to captivate listeners and leave them wanting more. The very best performances are ones that move a listener emotionally. In this class, we’ll explore a wide variety of things that will allow you to achieve greater authenticity in your vocals, including ways to connect more deeply with your audience by fully inhabiting the meaning of a song, choosing the right key, grounding yourself in the present, using body language to reinforce connection, holding notes, using wordless vocalizations, using vocal dynamics, etc. We’ll consider big-picture concepts to improve your singing, such as fun, gratitude, vulnerability, etc. and how to remove barriers to powerful, connected singing, allowing your voice to shine. We’ll examine vocal technique as it relates to delivering emotionally authentic performances, including vocal health, vocal warmups, enunciation of lyrics, etc. We’ll review inspiring examples of authentic believable singing by my musical heroes and ask the class to share examples, as well. Please come prepared to sing your songs for us! This class will be experiential, allowing you to try out new things right in class, and learn from other students as they try out new things. The environment will be warm and supportive, judgement-free, and focused on improvement and growth. Please bring water, your favorite notebook, and your favorite pen/pencil. If you play guitar or another instrument, feel free to have it handy, along with any needed gear (tuner, capo, picks, etc.). You’ll leave this class a better singer than when you started!

This class dives more deeply into the material covered in the Level I class above. It’s for those who have a lot of experience singing in public, who have a good understanding of and confidence in their voice, but want to learn more and/or address specific singing challenges.

WILD, WILD VOICE (Moira Smiley)
The human voice has astonishing range, and, like our lungs & our brains, we may not use it to its full glory! Here’s a class to explore the far reaches of our vocal color palettes. We’ll spend some time listening to and discussing recordings of truly wild singing that ‘wow’ us, from many genres. We’ll break down and try out elements of singing that define ‘style’ and our relation to it. We’ll write mini-songs to explore this in ourselves and learn about the contexts for singing that bring unique, expressive singing forward. We’ll learn a few unusual traditional folk songs primarily from Eastern European and Appalachian traditions to enjoy different vocal colors together. Moira will playfully draw out techniques, timbres, ornaments, laments and laughter you always knew were in you as a singer or writer of songs, but maybe hadn’t felt you could bring out!

Body percussion, vocal & theatrical improvisation, gesture work, breath work… these will form our playful exercises, discussions and musical games. We’ll break into pairs to learn to create with and support each other. We’ll learn and create body percussion as a way of making your singing and songwriting more embodied and free. Moira is unfailingly gentle and playful when teaching movement, so ‘non-movers’ are encouraged and welcome to come. Group vocal improvisation (circle songs and other structures) will alternate with more personal/solo songwriting and performance exercises. Explore fresh, physical ways into songwriting while at the same time strengthening your confidence, clarity and presence.




The inner workings of performing can be tempestuous. You invite so many voices into your own head when you make the decision to step to the front of the room and ask for everyone’s best attention. It’s one of the most stressful situations in life. Finding that original joy, the thing that made you fall in love with music and song can be elusive. Getting everything else out of the way can be incredibly difficult. And that can apply to the most experienced performers. This class will invite you to perform many times and get to the root of what is standing in your way. It will help you with your choices; with focus, intimacy, confidence, and ultimately, joy.

As a songwriter and performer, you are asking to be handed the sorcerer’s wand. You have the power to take the audience on a journey – one of your choosing, but with their permission. This dynamic is what makes every performance unique. It calls upon every talent and skill you have. It asks for a unique awareness of yourself, and what is going on around you – even as you’re running on all cylinders internally. A Native American definition of power is ‘what works’. Discovering what works for you and how that moves audiences is a lifelong adventure, but it starts with your intention. This class will help you be clear with who you are and help you bring that to the stage. Then the wand will be in your hands.

Vance’s dicta is that songwriting and performance are inextricable entities, so his classes will focus more on one or the other aspect, depending on individual need. All of this is done in a supportive atmosphere as if it were an ‘instructive open mike,’ – Vance working with one student as the others watch. Then it’s YOUR turn! In these practical classes Vance gets ‘under the hood’ of what you do and want to do in a supportive and very entertaining way. This stage/song boot camp is a class you don’t want to miss.

ADVANCED VANCE (Vance Gilbert)
This offering is for any of you ‘graduates’ who want to go further in performance and songwriting with one of the best. Got the basics? Then here’s an opportunity to dig into the performance/songwriting connection a little bit deeper. Patter, pacing, and constructing a set, are among the advanced performance points you can review in this class. It’s a great opportunity to tweak and hone skills previously acquired in a ‘Vance’ class, or heck, sure, if you missed the first one, c’mon in – there’s plenty for you to do here too.



Guitar & Creativity

Explore the value of twisting, tweaking, building up and stripping down content and how it enhances and flexes intention in musical stories. Mix & match musical styles to a composition. See how packaging changes the way we connect to the content of a song or tune – yours or other people’s. Bring material you’d like to explore. Joe will provide song examples as well. We’ll all be surprised at the results. From detailing with tiny paint brushes to bold strokes with a paint roller – with or without a drop-cloth – it’s all about fearless possibility in creativity. Re-framing words, rhythms and melodies reminds us of the long, historical love affair between tradition and innovation. Everyone has a place and space to create anew from the old, the borrowed and the blue. Let’s liberate ourselves from the tyranny of common sense while exploring our Home on the (Free) Range of Contemporary Folk.

Join us for an e-ticket ride upon the pursuit of possibility. You’ll be asked to write a series of poems to share throughout the week with only 5 minutes to construct each one. You won’t be able to prepare for what will happen, so just get ready to have fun and be surprised and impressed with your and your friends’ ideas created under pressure. “Song-etry” connects something that just about everyone has already done (writing poems) to the newer art of writing songs. Joe will guide you with the approach of story first and then the music to serve the written word. This class is geared towards entry level songwriting, but anyone can benefit from the process. Bring a spiral ring notebook, a pen or pencil, and (importantly) a recording device. Bring an instrument too if you want, although it’s not required.