Contemporary Folk Week Classes – July 25-30, 2021

(NOTE: This is a description of last year’s program. The info will be updated for 2022 when our catalog is published in March)


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.

Songs chosen for critique each day will be drawn from ‘a hat.’ Attendees will be encouraged to attend all sessions, for it will be beneficial to be a part of the process whether your song has been chosen or not. Critiques will be very much in-depth, and we’ll hope to cover two to three songs per 75 minute session. We will address song form and structure, prosody, storyline, melody, arrangement and last but not least, commercial potential.

CO-WRITING (Jon Vezner)
The class will explore the benefits and advantages of co-writing, how to choose a co-writer, discussion of the co-writing process, and the division of copyright. Students will be paired up with someone in the first class session to be their co-writer for the week. Co-writers will then work on their songs on their own time. Class time will be set aside each day to discuss progress, problems etc., and the songs (complete or incomplete) will be performed during the last day of class.

This class will include songs by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and others and how they shaped Tom’s songwriting. We will write songs right from the news of the day. Bring 15 copies of anything of this kind you have written.

This is a songwriting class on traditional styles. Come explore what traditional songs have to teach us in the 21st century. We will write new verses for traditional songs, which will give us a new appreciation for this priceless heritage.

It’s a beautiful moment when a wave of inspiration hits you. However, if you’re like most of us, it can be a long time between those moments. Fortunately, the Muse is kind to those who are busy at work! Inspiration never travels without the companion of craftsmanship, and we’re going to use the whole toolbox: hard and soft rhymes, cadences and chord changes, cut & paste, puns and juxtapositions. In the process we’ll conquer three challenges during the week: assignment writing, writing lyrics without an instrument, and putting music to a co-writer’s lyrics. Come explore how creativity can blossom from boundaries.

Tired of writing yourself into a corner? How often have you found yourself up against the wall of writer’s block? Have no fear, there’s always a way through, and we’re gonna find it together. In the process, you’ll acquire some tools that can help you overcome future writer’s block. Bring a problem song, 16 copies of the lyrics, and together we’ll tame that sucker!

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.



In this class we’ll do individual singing in front of the group, and play with techniques including phrasing, presence in the lyric, technical tips for breathing, relaxing, and getting out of our own way. This class is for anyone who wants to inhabit their own songs more comfortably, or just play around with what their voice can do. We work to create a safe environment to explore and take risks. Really fun! I have done one of these classes via Zoom, and it translated remarkably well!

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. 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 focussed on improvement and growth. On the first day of class, please be prepared to sing 1-2 minutes of a song for the group (such as the first 1-2 minutes of a song, or one verse and one chorus, etc.). Also, 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 it!

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.

We’ll examine fast or slow vibrato, bending notes, trilling, “the art of the yodel”, hammering notes, warm & raspy and singing on the edge of your voice and so much more. There are so many elements that we can draw upon when weaving the stylings of voice into our songs. Learning vocal styles can help our voice box to relax and assist us in discovering what we may be really good at, that we never knew we could do. Plus it is crazy fun! With this online course, we will spend time warming up and then the order of the hour will be PLAY. We will use song references to hear various styles and then try some out on our own. Each student will be encouraged to work up a song during the week to experiment bringing some of these style elements into it.

Are you in some vocal patterns that you need to break free from? Has tension set in along your vocal range? Are you stretching past your comfort zone during your exercises? Are you stuck using only chest voice? Head voice? Do you work in “the mix?” After all of the songs, all of the shows, all of the vocal work, where does your natural voice like to sit? This class will send you off with a toolbox of tried-and-true exercises rooted in contemporary vocal technique, that will allow you to develop the strength and flexibility to sing the songs you love to sing. Finding that sweet spot in your range may even amp up how you write your own songs. I will share exercises for the beginner and advanced singers. We will briefly cover how to care for your voice including recovery tips after voice loss or fatigue from repeated shows. Each participant will get individual attention and feedback. Bring 16-32 measures of a song to share. Bring water to drink during class and a notebook if you like to take notes. Students are welcome to record audio of the class warm-ups and specific exercises.




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 bootcamp 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.

(NOTE: This class is offered twice. Each section covers the same material) Would it be surprising to find out that 90 percent of the impact of a communication was visual? Your clothing, hair, posture, poise impacts the story you tell through your songs. We will address the visual aspect of performing as well as the dynamics of the presentation sonically as well – a checklist of what you are bringing on stage, stories, songs, and the visual – as well as what the venue provides – lights, sound, environment. This class will teach you how to get the most out of your performances, find the soul of your songs, and make the most out of the venues you play!



Guitar & Creativity

This is a class to share experiences, struggles and victories around the place that music sits in our lives. Old wounds and regrets, as well as victories and transcendent or unexpected experiences, community building, and honoring the presence of music in our lives as it lives TODAY. I realized a few years ago that at a few key moments, there were some iconic questions I asked myself that led me to find the right path for me with music. I have come to believe that we all have our own answers floating around inside us, about life and music and the conversation that art opens up between us. But for me, there is a skill in hanging out and even befriending the open-ended questions, until the answer reveals itself. I’m interested in supporting each other as we ask these deeper questions. My experience is that the group is a rich place to learn from each other, and that we find insights and our own “light-bulbs” by hanging out in this conversation with like-minded people. I’m also curious to see how Zoom can facilitate bringing us together into a more intimate conversation than we might be having in these socially-distanced times. Hopefully, it’ll be very juicy!!!

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, and a pen or pencil,. Bring an instrument, too if you want, although it’s not required.

This will be a traditional Master Class, normally offered on the university level and to colleagues in the arts, focusing on the role of and history of the artist through the ages and up to the modern world. We will be covering history – from the Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal to the ancient Greeks and those ugly Romans, the Dark Ages, the medieval troubadours and their role in spreading the news, the Renaissance, and why syphilis gave rise to the “artist as lunatic” perception. We’ll pay attention to fear and its effect on us as creative persons, the poetry and consciousness of wood, what to do when the well runs dry, the importance of both craft and talent, and the impossibility of living up to your ideals. There will be quotes and song illustrations as well. Students will be asked to read 3-4 short stories about artists before class begins. If you haven’t received the short stories three weeks before classes begin, please email me at for copies of these. (No class limit)

There are things in “the arts” that no one talks about – bring them here! My Master Class will have a very defined fourth wall; it is an instruction class, not a discussion. Conversely, the afternoon class will be a guided free-for-all. Participants are encouraged to bring any and all questions and thoughts about art and business; discussions are expected. There may be a few guest interviews of select instructors and students, conducted by me and covering everything from “How political are the Grammys?” to “What do performers do when there’s no bathroom available?” to “How can I age gracefully in a youth-skewed market” and “Why do I even bother?!” to “How can I convince my family to give me my college money and let me spend it making a CD instead?” Both classes will take advantage of the fact that I’ve been doing this since I was 12 years old. I am 68, so I must have learned something by now. Chiefly, I no longer have anything to lose by telling the unvarnished truth. Bring questions you don’t think anyone else will answer. Bring your doubts, bring your confusions, bring your anger and pain. We will sort through as much of it as we can, and become stronger in the making. (No class limit)