Saturday I was like the unhappy little kid at the party who didn’t want to leave when it was time to go home. Not only were the temperatures and scenery ideal, but every evening I was treated to beautiful music played by incredible musicians in an excellent concert hall. I definitely did not want to leave. Yet, I knew that five hours down the 101 would bring me to another place I never want to leave. That’s where I am this week, Napa Valley.

Last week I was at Arcata and Humboldt State University. Each July for the past 57 years, the Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop has set up shop on the HSU campus for three weeks. Most of the players choose one week to attend, some go for two weeks. It is work but fun work that these musicians have a passion for…playing Chamber Music. My wife is one of those passionate Chamber Music players. I’m a passionate listener.

During the Middle Ages, musical instruments were mostly used to accompany singers. As technology improved and new instruments were invented, musicians started playing in ensembles. The Kings and aristocrats hired composers to write music for small groups that could be played in a palace chamber.

Hayden string quartet

Chamber music, like all of today’s styles of music, changed as society and technology changed.
Gathered last week were doctors and dentists, engineers and lawyers, professional symphony players and many music educators all coming together to play the type of music that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described as, “ four rational people conversing” (speaking of string quartets). It requires special skills to blend tonally, musically, phonically and make tempo, rhythm and volume changes…all without a conductor.
This Humboldt workshop has an extensive library which contains old master composers, little known composers and new modern composers.

Each weekday the 80 plus musicians gather before 9 am to get the day’s assignment. They will be paired with numerous combinations of groups and the groups are each assigned a selection of music to learn to play. Last week there were usually 19 or 20 different groups formed each day, from trio’s to Septets. There are professional coaches, usually one coach for each two groups, and they give encouragement and helpful hints while the groups practice together from 9 am till noon. After lunch it’s back to work until 3:30 pm. A small refreshment break and then each group checks the bulletin board for the evenings’ concert schedule. Half of the groups perform from 4 pm till dinner time. Promptly at 7 pm the other half performs their assigned music selection. During the day’s rehearsal the group decides what five minutes of the assigned selection they will perform.

The evening concert usually ends around 8:15 and then “freelancing” begins. Every spare moment (there aren’t many), the players are filling out their “dance cards” for the freelancing groups that play till 11pm every night. So many combinations are possible with violins, violas, cellos, bass, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, horns and flutes. When the music ends at 11pm, some serious music discussions are combined with some serious wine drinking. Somehow they each get some sleep and start the process all over again the next day.


I have the greatest time of all. I get to go on long walks through the giant coastal redwoods. The particular trail I love has stereo babbling brooks. I have walked over an hour in one direction and never found an end to this magnificent trail that has filtered sunlight creeping through the giants all around me.

filtered sunlight

I then get to work a few hours on my novel and this blog, before meeting my wife and her fellow players for lunch. Then back to writing until concert time where I get to be entertained and amazed at the Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop performers.

Thank you Chamber players for the amazing week. It’s now time to explore the beauty of Napa Valley, dine at the numerous gourmet restaurants and maybe taste some wine, too.

About bakoheat

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  1. tredman2013 says:

    I love the Coast Redwoods, enjoyed a trip to Arcata a few years ago, and plan to again visit Napa. Fun post.

  2. Val Phillips says:

    I really enjoyed reading this – partly because as a member of the Oklahoma diaspora (1937 cadre) my nicest early memories are of carefree barefoot early life Bakersfield (well, Oildale, really) but more because it is such an accurate description of the Humboldt CMW and the very high level of endorphin-driven satisfaction felt by the participants, which brings them back for decades.
    Thanks to Amy for tipping us to this writing, and thanks to you for penning it.
    Elegant work.
    Val Phillips
    CMW participant, coach, director
    Professor Emeritus, HSU
    You will likely hear from a few pianists……………..

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