Your SummerSongs Questions, Answered

Sometimes you just have to jam!

It was August of 2003 when I showed up at songwriting “camp” for the first time. A good friend had been talking about SummerSongs for months — the classes, the teachers, the community, the beautiful location  — and it sounded just up my alley after months of dealing with a divorce and sitting home alone writing sad songs.

It was one of the best decisions I ever made: Over the next year, I wrote dozens of new tunes, debuted a new album and never looked back. And, I’ve been to SummerSongs, many, many times since, both in New York and California. I literally have hundreds of friends and comrades from around the US and the globe through the  SummerSongs community, all of whom “get” the thrills and chills of writing and sharing songs.

However, if you’ve never been to this kind of music retreat before, I know there are always lots of questions about what the experience is like. Here are some answers to a few of the most common ones:

1) What IS SummerSongs? 

SummerSongs  supports and nurtures the songwriter in all of us. It is primarily a camp for adults, though families are welcome to join. We take classes in singing, songwriting, guitar, piano, creative process, and performance. We listen to each other and appreciate each other’s creative process.

2) Do I need to be an experienced songwriter? Or, am I TOO experienced? 

These are two groups of people who, over and over and over again, say after camp that “this has changed my life.” For the beginning songwriter, the life-changing experience is the sense of empowerment that comes with realizing that even if you’ve never written a song before, you can find your creative muse and your spirit in a supportive and nurturing environment. On the other hand, there is PLENTY to gain even if you are a professional musician. There is so much to learn — and it gives you a new perspective on what it means to be an artist. That is, art is for the world, it’s for your community, for the people you love and the people you just met.

3) Why is SummerSongs such a powerful experience? 

One of the most powerful things about coming to songwriting camp is the fact that you are there with your peers — you’re there with others who are interested in you, interested in what you’re writing about and they are also sharing their songs.  The mix of listening and sharing is incredibly, deeply inspiring and empowering. You’re sharing not only in song circles, in which people sit around and play songs for each other, but also sharing on stage at nightly “coffeehouse” open mics and student shows.

4) How did SummerSongs get started? 

Penny Nichols, a well-known singer-songwriter and vocal teacher originally from Orange County, California, founded SummerSongs with an initial camp in New York’s Catskill Mountains in 1999. She says: “Back in the 80s and early 90s I was teaching out of the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, a big music camp outside of Seattle. I came home and I realized that this connection and this socialization of songwriters is very important, because we get very isolated. So, along with a few other female songwriters, we started having quarterly weekend get-togethers where we’d talk about songwriting, write songs and eat a lot of strawberries and coffee and chocolate. I had an opportunity to put a songwriting class together — there were 27 students and that was the first SummerSongs. After that I formed a nonprofit corporation and started doing it full time.”

5) Is SummerSongs a “competitive” and “critical” environment? 

No. Um, NOT! SummerSongs is meant to be a supportive, encouraging, enriching creative experience. We are all there to listen to one another, to share with each other. We encourage participants not to criticize another student’s work unless they ask for critique first!

6) What are the accommodations like at SummerSongs? 

SummerSongs takes place at the Stony Point Center, 30 miles north of NYC near the beautiful Hudson River, where most of the accommodations are semi-private dorm-like lodge rooms with baths that are shared by three rooms. You can also upgrade to a private lodge room, or to a private room in an 11-room luxury B&B on the property which has private baths.

7) What are the teachers like at SummerSongs? 

The teachers, coaches and facilitators at SummerSongs are carefully curated and are typically touring, award-winning artists and performers with many years, even several decades, of experience teaching adult students at retreats. Some may be brand-new to SummerSongs, others are beloved instructors who come back every year. In all cases, they are there for you — supportive, encouraging and meant to help you take your creative process to the next level!

8) What is a typical day like at SummerSongs? 

There is no typical day at SummerSongs! Every day is whatever you want it to be — you can participate in as much or as little as you like. There IS a lot going on you can take advantage of: Two class periods in the morning, two after lunch, as well as one-on-one coaching sessions you can sign up for and post-dinner open mics, staff shows, song circles and jams. But, you might just want to designate a period as perfect for a nap, or set aside some quiet time to take a walk or just noodle on your guitar.

9) What if I’m on the fence about a songwriting retreat like SummerSongs?

Do yourself a favor and take a chance!

10) What if I have additional questions? 

Reach out! You can get in touch with me at sharon at — if I don’t know the answer to your question, I’ll know exactly who to pass it to.

Get ready to register at!


Songwriting Tips: The Evocative Power of Melody

Want to improve your songwriting in 2017? Start by creating great melodies that support your song! That’s what SummerSongs founder Penny Nichols can help you do this year at WinterSongs West (January 26-30) in Cambria, CA in her brand-new workshop, the Evocative Power of Melody.

We asked Penny about that and more:

Q: Can you talk about your new workshop, the Evocative Power of Melody?

Penny: We hear so many songs these days and the melodies are mostly groove melodies which are great if you want to dance, but they may not support the emotional landscape of a story song all that well. So we will be looking at how a melody enhances and can support your story in a song.

For instance, listen to Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” The melody transports you to the movement of the train and puts us in touch with the underlying sense of loss and nostalgia he wanted his listeners to experience when listening to his song.

Q: What led you to come up with the idea? What is it about melody that you think songwriters need to focus on?

Penny: I came up with it from listening to all of the albums that people send me and music I hear on the radio. How many of those melodies do you remember? You may remember a song idea or a lyric, but a song with a melody you remember stays with you much longer and more vividly.

Q: What is something a songwriter can do right now to make the melodies in their songs better?

Penny: Listen to your songs with your focus on the melody. Does the melody go down when you’re getting deeper into the feeling of the song? Does it go up when you are making an important statement? Ask yourself how your melody is supporting your story? Is it supporting your story at all? That is your starting place. Through discussions and exercises in the class we will explore how to analyze our songs in terms of the effectiveness of our melodies and maybe you will come out of it with a powerful new song!

Q: Now let’s talk about SummerSongs generally. What are you most proud of in terms of the success of SummerSongs Songwriter Camps since you founded the organization in 1999?

Penny: I am deeply grateful for the experience of watching so many beautiful songwriters learn their craft and go on to be successful in their musical pursuits!

Q: What are you most looking forward to at WinterSongs West?

Penny: Being with all of our songwriting community and appreciating the new places they will have explored in song since I last heard them, and sharing my own new songs as well.

Q: Why should someone return to a retreat like SummerSongs if they’ve been before, and why should someone decide to go if they’ve never been?

Penny: Come back because the inspiration will feed your muse all the time you are away. Reconnect and rediscover the amazing work we share together in music at camp. Come for the first time to connect with a deeper level of your own creativity and to meet some of the most amazing songwriters you will ever know, up close and personal.

WinterSongs: Cambria, CA, January 26-30, 2017
SummerSongs West: Cambria, CA, June 1-5, 2017
SummerSongs East: Stony Point, NY, July 23-29, 2017

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SummerSongs Spotlight: Glen Roethel

At SummerSongs, the uber-talented Glen Roethel has served as leader of all things “jam,” Beatles and otherwise — as well as a wonderful guitar teacher. But Glen began as a SummerSongs “camper” and has long-been on a songwriting, musical and spiritual journey of his own.

Glen teaches super-fun but superbly educational classes at SummerSongs that will help songwriters and music-makers of all levels learn to play in a band and as a group. Here’s what he had to say about his own SummerSongs experiences over the years and how attendees can get the most out of his classes this summer:

Q: Can you talk a bit about how you first came to SummerSongs? 

Back in late 2003, I was finding my way out of corporate America and back into more musical surroundings.  I wanted to do it with better, intentional lyrics focused on healing and hope. So I searched and searched for community and a mentor – someone to guide me and help me shape my new career. I searched the internet tirelessly until I finally found a video of one man performing – by himself with acoustic guitar – at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C..

David Roth was a tall man, clearly at ease with his audience, brilliant in his magical turn-of-phrase, and everything he sang enriched the moment with a positive message – I had found my mentor!

Upon learning that I had just missed him in a concert near my home I quickly found his website, joined his mailing list, and sent him a note requesting a master class or any kind of tutoring that he might offer nearby. He responded immediately to my email, sending me a long list of music camps where he taught. Upon pressing him further he offered, “SummerSongs is very special.

I signed up immediately! And that summer at my first camp I met SummerSongs founder Penny Nichols, Sue Riley (of emPower Music & Arts), Sloan Wainwright, my beloved friend John Redgate, and many more who are embedded in my life now. My life has changed forever, and now SummerSongs is a community that I call home.

Q: What do you love most about SummerSongs? 

A:  I love SummerSongs because it is a healthy, nurturing environment where real work and learning take place. And, everyone grows into the songwriter, performer, teacher and person they want to be – that’s a fact!

Q: Let’s talk about your classes: You’re teaching “School Of Rock”! What is that about? 

School Of Rock is a sandbox where we’ll all get to play with some new toys: riffs, hooks and rhythms from classic rock songs (primarily for guitar and beginning bass). Why? Because rock music has rhythm and musical hooks as their focal point. Adding movement within chords, grace notes, hooks, and bass lines – these are very common requests I’ve heard from campers and School Of Rock is a very fun way to achieve it.

Students will love it because they’ll enjoy playing these parts in a group, and stitching them together for a coffeehouse performance. Then, as an afterthought, they’ll realize that they’ve just expanded their musical and songwriting toolbox with well-rehearsed, tried-and-true multi-million-record-selling musical parts!

Q: How about your other class — “Guitarchestra?” What’s that like?

My other class, Guitarchestra offers a similar advantage but can fit any instrument and any player at any skill level. I feel crazy just saying that, but it’s true. In this class we learn to be playful – to leap safely without a net, and discover new options; we learn to squeeze every ounce of possibility out of simple musical parts; we pay attention INTENSELY; we sing stomp strum bang “ahhh” laugh harmonize conduct and follow; we compose new arrangements on-the-fly. And all the while we each push our own learning edge forward just a little.

Q: What are the biggest challenges of learning to play together as a group? Why is that important?

If you’re a songwriter who has never played in a group,  it might take you some time to shift your approach away from “me, my song and I” to “there’s someone else doing this with me.” But it’s a beautiful progression. Once you have locked in with other players and no longer trip over each other’s parts, you will begin moving toward musical mecca – feeding off of each other’s performance! This level – which encompasses improvisation and musical detours – is the most exciting reward of playing well together in a duo, band, or ensemble.

Q: Finally, you are known as the leader of the SummerSongs jam, especially the Beatles jam! What’s the thing you love most about that? 

larry-bridges_pic_of_glenMost of what I know of music I earned by learning to play great songs that I heard on the radio. It was a mostly solitary effort until I got a car – and the songs had drums, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, keys, vocals, harmonies – so I did my best to incorporate as much of the arrangements as I could, by myself. I really love these songs, and I don’t even try to “make them my own.” I think they are perfect the way they were created, and everyone knows them that way!

So what do I love about it? Everything. I love that we all get to sing and play and dance together. I ask each person to contribute by suggesting and leading a favorite song. I shout out chords and lyrics (Seeger style) and it thrills me to see folks learning new songs on the fly! We just let loose our love and excitement over the music that inspired each of us to this joyful life of creativity and expression.

Join Glen at SummerSongs from July 22-29, 2018 in Stony Point, NY! 

A Day in the Life at SummerSongs

Wonder what a typical day is like at SummerSongs?

The truth is, a typical day at SummerSongs is whatever you want it to be! If you want to fill your time to the brim with songwriting and music classes, coaching and evening activities, you can be busy all day and night.

But if you prefer to relax, renew and retreat, take naps and write on your own under a tree or overlooking the ocean, you can! You can do as LITTLE or as MUCH as you please.

Either way, the typical formal schedule at SummerSongs might look like:

1. Breakfast — buffet style with all of your musical peeps!
2. Class period #1
3. Class period #2
4. Lunch
5. Break — get one-on-one coaching time with your favorite teacher, take a short class with recording guru Mark Dann, or get together to jam with a new friend!
6. Class period #3
7. Class period #4
8. Free period — naptime? writing time? one-on-one mentor time? you choose!
9. Dinner
10. Open mics, song circles — join in or just watch!
11. Late-night jamming (if you’re still awake!)

Summer will be here before you know it!

SummerSongs West: Cambria, CA, June 3-7
SummerSongs East: Stony Point, NY, July 30-August 5

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SummerSongs founder Penny Nichols honored as “Best of the West”

Our own Penny Nichols, founder of SummerSongs, was honored in October by the Far-West Folk Alliance Chapter as “Best of the West.”

Of course, we think Penny is Best of the West…and the East…and the North and South!

A whole bunch of members of our beloved SummerSongs community were there to cheer Penny on…and sing what has become a bit of a theme song for both the West and East Coast retreats…”Beautiful World,” written by Penny and her brother Rory Nichols. Here’s a video of them singing, including David Roth leading the charge:

After that, we all got a chance to hear Penny totally nail her speech, in which she talked about her early days as a singer-songwriter in Orange County and Los Angeles, and added some amazing, inspiring words about her thoughts about the music business today and the values and goals of SummerSongs.

“Community and building community builds confidence, it builds trust, it builds love, it builds good listeners, it builds support for all of us. When you can support each other and kind of let go of the whole concept of competition, stop thinking about music in terms of competition. That world that was competitive, it doesn’t exist anymore. We have the internet. Anyone can put anything out there. What you want to focus on is developing and growing and appreciating and listening to each other. That’s the main thing, that’s where we’re going with all this.”

There’s SO much more…check out the entire video of Penny’s speech here…plus her performance of “LA Man” with SummerSongs West’s Nina Jo Smith:

SummerSongs, founded by singer-songwriter Penny Nichols in 1999, offers seasonal songwriting camps (summer and winter) for adults on both the East and West coasts of the United States. The songwriting camps take place in the Hudson River Valley 30 miles north of New York City; and on the beautiful California Central Coast, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Both locations are perfect havens for songwriting and creative inspiration.

Join us for our 2016 retreats:
WinterSongs West: January 14-18: Camp Ocean Pines, Cambria, CA
SummerSongs West: June 3-7: Camp Ocean Pines, Cambria, CA
SummerSongs East: July 31-August 6  Stony Point Center, Stony Point, NY

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Why attend a songwriting retreat? Six reasons from our returning “campers”

Songwriting in New York

Are you ready for a songwriting retreat?

Here’s why some of our returning SummerSongs “campers” are so excited to come back!

A safe creative environment

“SummerSongs is a safe environment for creating and sharing creative endeavors with other like-minded spirits. I’ve met so many wonderful people at camp with whom I have subsequently worked and “played,” that I now call our SummerSongs community ‘The Tribe.'”Britta Lee Shain

Long-lasting friendships

“I am excited to return because I can’t wait to reunite with my American friends and make a whole lot of music together!”Caroline Grant

Awakening the songwriting heart

“This is the place my songwriter heart was awakened and I was introduced to a whole community I didn’t really know existed. I feel so lucky it was the first songwriter camp I attended. The caliber of the teachers, the physical setting and the altruistic philosophy encountered here is a true delight for this seeking soul.”JoNita Beede

Gaining new music and songwriting skills

“I love the people at SummerSongs and WinterSongs and it’s the greatest greenhouse for growing my skills.”Nina Jo Smith

A boost of creative energy to feed the muse

“We share a creative and cooperative energy that works like megavitamins for the muse in each of us.”Tom Hubbard

A growing artistic community 

“This is a community that is constantly expanding and growing, creating an opportunity for all participants to grow musically, as well as personally. My family now consists of many of the SummerSongs and WinterSongs participants, a family that continues to support and challenge those who desire to grow as an individual and as a songwriter.”Jaynee Thorne

SummerSongs was founded by singer-songwriter Penny Nichols in 1999, offers seasonal songwriting camps for adults as havens for songwriting and creative inspiration.


Got questions? Email Sharon Goldman, marketing director, at

Swimming in the River of Your Song: Q&A with Sloan Wainwright

Sloan Wainwright, one of SummerSongs’ favorite long-time teachers and mentors, will be back July 30-August 6, 2016 to teach two classes: “Swimming in the River of Your Song” — a creativity workshop with lots of games and prompts to get your creative juices flowing; and “Singing with Heart, Body and Soul” — a vocal workshop featuring a combination of vocal warm-ups and work-outs, with plenty of individual attention and support.

Here’s what she had to say about singing, the creative process and the power of songwriting camp:

Q: What are people most challenged by in terms of getting into their creative process?

A: I say people are mostly challenged by time. That’s why I love taking that time to be in the space of creativity. That’s what camp is all about. People also tend to need to identify their process and figure out what it’s like for them when they’re creative and being compassionate about that. We practice that as well in our space of creativity.

Q: Can you discuss how you work from songwriting prompts in “Swimming in the River of Your Song”? 

A: It’s really free-writing work with timed exercises, providing a jumping-off place with spoken or written prompts. Usually it’s something open-ended and evocative. What’s interesting is that people react to them differently. Some people take prompts literally. Others listen to the cadence of the sounds and take off from there. A lot of people need to give themselves permission to get into the creative process, it’s a kind of uncoiling and unraveling and bumping into your voice. What I like about it, too, is the energy that gets built up in the group, because we also share what we wrote. I like to be playful and childlike with it — we don’t have to be too serious.

Q: What do students tend to want — or need — to learn in “Singing with Heart, Body and Soul”?

A: It’s important to put together a simple personal vocal practice. You do have to practice with singing, It doesn’t have to be heavy and hard, it can be fun and easy and light. A lot of it is about our belief system when it comes to singing. But it’s all about warming up, being in our bodies, connecting to our breath, using the voice, relaxing and learning to practice. I’m there for people all week long to help them learn about what they have and how to use it.  To help them seek that balance between relaxation and control.

Q: What do love about a songwriting retreat like SummerSongs? What do you think keeps people coming back? 

A: it’s very powerful to be immersed in a community of like-minded folks. I think that founder Penny Nichols has such a beautiful vision. And with the help of her team, they invite fantastic facilitators and mentors, people who really shed light on the power of putting together a practice, of identifying our process as artists. Learning new things is great, but being together is also great. It’s about being in a loving community but also a learning community. It’s good for all of us as we grow and expand when we’re together. The intention itself is very powerful. That’s been put out there and all of us are in alignment with that. That’s powerful any way you slice it.

SummerSongs , founded by singer-songwriter Penny Nichols in 1999, offers seasonal songwriting camps (summer and winter) for adults on both the East and West coasts of the United States. The songwriting camps take place in the Hudson Valley of New York and on the beautiful California Central Coast, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Both locations are perfect havens for songwriting and creative inspiration. 

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Six Reasons to Give Yourself the Gift of a Songwriting Retreat

Ever wish you had a week, or even just a long weekend, to really focus on your songwriting and your music? Do you ever find that you just don’t have the time to grow, to think, to create, to share — like everything else in your life seems to come first instead of your songwriting?

That’s why a songwriting retreat, or “camp” is so amazing!

Here are six reasons you NEED a retreat to focus on your songwriting and music this summer: 

1. Time. Sometimes it’s too hard to make time in your regular daily life for your songwriting craft. A little “time out” to hone in and focus may be just what you need.

2. Inspiration. A songwriting retreat with amazing teachers and other musicians you admire can give you that dose of inspiration to keep you going year ’round.

3. Fresh ideas. Getting out of your usual space and into someplace beautiful and filled with nature (like SummerSongs at the Stony Point Center!) can help you generate new and fresh songwriting ideas.

4. New friends. In your regular daily life, maybe you don’t have a zillion other people who really “get” what you love to do when it comes to songwriting and music. At songwriting camp, everyone “gets” it.

5. Improved skills. Maybe you want to learn to play guitar. Maybe you know how to play guitar, but you want to learn to fingerpick. Maybe you know how to fingerpick, but you wish you could learn a few cool “licks” to add to your tune. At a songwriting retreat, you can learn all of the above!

6. Songs! You may have never written a song or perhaps you’ve written 100. Maybe you’ll write something new. Perhaps you’ll finally finish that song that’s been kicking around all year. Or, you’ll spruce up the song you always knew could be just a little better. All at songwriting camp!

Psst: At SummerSongs, you can address all six of the above reasons — for hundreds of songwriters of all levels of experience, it’s been song-changing and even life-changing!

SummerSongs, founded by singer-songwriter Penny Nichols in 1999, celebrates its 20th annual camp in 2018! SummerSongs, which takes place from July 22-28 in Stony Point, NY (just 30 miles north of NYC in the beautiful Hudson Valley) is a perfect haven for songwriting and creative inspiration. 

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Singing with Your Heart, Soul, & Body – Sloan Wainwright

Sloan Wainwright

Inside each of us lives and beautiful and unique instrument, so let’s sing together with joy and freedom! In this workshop we will move our bodies, soften our hearts, open our mouths and let our voices out to play. With an emphasis on vocal health and self care, we will use a combination of vocal warm-ups and work-outs – traditional and non-traditional – to help relax, release and strengthen the voice, making it more flexible and reliable. Individual attention is offered as well as to the group as a whole, and each student will be supported in developing their own personal vocal practice. This class is for singers and non-singers alike.

Vocal recording technique with Penny Nichols

Here’s the workshop you have been waiting for! A chance to work with one of the most experienced vocal recording artists around in a real studio environment on one of your own songs! Learn all about how to give your best performance on a recording, how to communicate with the engineer/producer, how to stay on pitch, how to keep breathing, how to deal with anxiety in the studio, how to evaluate your performance, how to choose the best performance and how the recording process works. Plus you will leave the workshop with one of the best performances on a CD that you have ever done!