Steve Berman can attribute his lifelong love of harmonica to Woodstock 1969. On the way back from the legendary hippie festival to his hometown of Detroit, he waited on the side of dusty roads learning the harmonica while hitchhiking.
Some five decades later, the now-retired UCLA neuroscientist plays harmonica a few times a week in welcoming homes, surrounded by fellow musicians at events dubbed “Hoots” or “Song Circles.” Berman is the president of Songmakers, a multi-county, Southern California-based nonprofit made up of mostly acoustic music-makers.
“Music for me has always been a participatory event,” says Berman. “When we went to parties in Detroit when I was growing up, I used to bring a little bag of instruments, finger cymbals and so forth.”
Berman joined Songmakers about eight years back, around the time he met his wife, Sandy Lessner. Berman and Lessner bonded over a shared love of volunteering: Berman as a Peace Corps volunteer in the ’70s in Africa and Lessner having spent more than 30 years volunteering for the Topanga Banjo * Fiddle Contest and the California Traditional Music Society’s Summer Solstice Folk Music and Dance Festival.
Berman took an intermediate banjo class at the latter and the instructor told him about the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club, which happened to meet at his synagogue in Santa Monica. The players there were also members of Songmakers. Berman and Lessner moved north to Agoura Hills in 2010 and Berman began climbing his way up the Songmakers ladder.
He may now have been a part of it for the better part of a decade, but Songmakers itself has been around for far longer. It began in the late 1940s as an “informal jamming group,” formally launched in ’53, and has since evolved into a 400-member, 17-board-member-strong nonprofit social group that supports acoustic music with a very busy calendar.
Nearly any day of the week there’s a “hoot” (an official Songmakers event) or a “song circle” (an unofficial but supported musical gathering) in someone’s home or a pizza parlor in Ventura County, Los Angeles, or Orange County. There’s usually about 20 events a month and hoots vary in size from 10 to 40 people. Ventura County Songmakers meet-up spots include the Bell Arts Factory, the American Legion Hall in Ventura and the private home of a longtime violinist in Camarillo.
There’s also an annual picnic plus a handful of campout weekends a year, which are very popular says Berman. Most of the campouts are in Kenney Grove Park in Fillmore. The last campout of the year, “Music in the Mountains,” supports another organization, a Unitarian Church Camp called Camp de Benneville Pines in the San Bernardino Mountains. There are about a dozen musical workshops at the event, and a professional musician opens the Saturday night concert.
Most important to the core of Songmakers is supporting homemade music, Berman explains.
During any given event, the musicians sit in a circle, and when it’s a musician’s turn to pick a song he or she tells people if it’s a sing-along, play-along or if they want only certain instruments. “You orchestrate it, you’re the leader,” says Berman. There’s a set of guidelines, including taking cues from the leader and other rules of etiquette. But there are no skill-level requirements to join Songmakers. There’s also no age requirement: While many are retired like Berman, there’s also a newer batch of younger players thanks to Songmakers now being on Meetup.com.
“I always tell people, the Songmakers promise is, you may play badly, but you won’t find out from us,” Berman says. “It’s part of our mission to only give positive reinforcement and encouragement, and we guarantee, the more you come, the better you’ll get.”
Songmakers offers Hoots and Song Circles throughout Ventura County. For a calendar of events and more information, visit www.songmakers.org.