Pickin’ and Grinnin’

Crown of the Continent Guitar Workshop and Festival returns to Bigfork

By Xavier Flory

Flat-pickers, finger-pickers, novices and shredders, rejoice.

The Crown of the Continent Guitar Foundation is holding its fifth annual Crown of the Continent Guitar Workshop and Festival Aug. 24-31 in Bigfork. This year’s lineup of concerts is more star-studded than ever, and the community will listen to and learn from Grammy-winning jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour, legendary rocker Dweezil Zappa and classical guitarist and composer David Leisner.

“In five short years the guitar foundation has put Bigfork and the Flathead Valley on the international guitar map,” said David Feffer, founder of the Crown of the Continent Guitar Foundation.

With 89 workshop attendees last year, the festival may not have much room to grow in size, but it is expanding in scope and influence. Two new scholarships from the National Museum of Jazz in Harlem and a scholarship for the winner of the Guitar Foundation of America International Youth Competition will attract talent from around the country. These will be complemented by a number of scholarships for Montana students, teachers and performers. The scholarship recipients vary in their expertise, but are all unwavering in their love for the instrument.

Emily Elbert, who received the Chairman’s Scholarship last year and is returning this year as a guest performer, is excited to return.

“There’s something truly special about playing in such a majestic natural environment,” she said. “It inspires the live music experience and energy exchange in a really powerful way.”

Simone Craft, 18, and Annika Gordon, 16, from Whitefish, and Shayla Smith, 24, from Kalispell, received Crown Scholarships this year.

Gordon only took up the guitar two years ago, but she loves the instrument’s range of expression.

The “… dripping, oozing richness and haunting sound of the acoustic can make you cry, fall asleep, or smile, while the pure power and strength of the growling electric makes you want to smash things and dance around,” she said.

Both Craft and Smith are working on albums and are excited to hone their skills in Bigfork.

“I am looking forward to the great musicians making their way to the Crown,” Craft said.

Smith said she focuses on the festival’s impact on her own playing.

“I expect to be involved in music professionally for the rest of my life, so I want to continually improve and be the best I can be. The workshop will be a valuable experience. Not only will it help me improve on guitar, but I believe it will help me become more confident in my playing,” Smith said.

The festival itself combines teaching, informal jamming and concerts that are open to the public. Teachers, participants and their families all stay at the Flathead Lake Lodge, where they have access to swimming, boating, horse riding and a panoply of other Flathead activities. Participants love the opportunity to live and interact informally with the world-class faculty, and many of them spend all day jamming, practicing and going to classes. But for family members and players who need a break, the festival is offering watercolor and Italian cooking classes this year.

The foundation also worked with The Nature Conservancy to produce a movie displaying the beauty of the Crown of the Continent region. The breathtaking landscapes are accompanied by original music from scholarship-winning Andre Floyd, and the video will have its premiere at this year’s festival.

“This level of intimacy and community is unique. We wanted it to be inclusive; artists don’t get much time with their families and they’ve loved it,” Feffer said.

If an artist really wants to be a great musician, they have to be exposed to different types of music and be familiar with Beethoven and Mozart, no matter what genre they play, Feffer said. Exposing the musicians to each other and their disparate styles is one of the greatest opportunities of the festival, and Feffer said teachers as well as students pick up techniques and sounds from the classical, jazz and rock musicians around them.

He also thinks that the beauty of Flathead Valley combined with the familial atmosphere allows the artists to perform beyond themselves.

“They’re not doing a show when they perform here; it’s more. They say they’re playing at a different level than anywhere else,” he said.

As the festival begins to sell out this year’s concerts, Feffer is focused on the future.

“We want to make music a much bigger part of young people’s lives in the valley. That’s our next goal,” he said. “To get them involved, give people the opportunity to grow up with guitar.”

For more information about the Crown of the Continent Guitar Workshop and Festival and to purchase tickets, visit cocguitarfoundation.org or call 855-855-5900.

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