Making Music for the Soul at Centrum



I have always loved to sing. As a child with my mother, dueting on “The Eensy Weensy Spider.” In grammar school chorus. Later, playing a small role in a student production of The Music Man. And in the coffee house where I strummed on a guitar and crooned folk songs with my high school friends.

As an adult journalist and teacher, I was delighted to interview some wonderful jazz singers and lecture about their contributions to the field. But for a very long time, I only rarely raised my voice in song.

Then, in my 50s, when my husband formed an ad hoc band with a few fellow middle-aged friends, the singer in me awakened. And eventually I was fortunate to discover a place in Western Washington for passionate amateurs like me to learn and share music in a beautiful place—and in a welcoming, nonjudgmental atmosphere.

That place was Centrum, the nonprofit arts center located in a converted military base in Port Townsend, Wash. Centrum hosts many programs for writers and other arts practitioners throughout the year. But what beckoned to me was their participatory summer music programs. They were like summer camps for teens and adults, but promised a full immersion into music for several days or a week, with instruction from seasoned professional musicians and instructors.

It takes some courage to pipe up and sing out in front of others. But I took a leap and signed up for Vocal Works, a five-day program at Centrum that revived my love of vocalizing. I stayed in a former barracks with women who ranged in age from their teens to their 70s, and in experience from dedicated musicians to more casual singers like me. I took classes in jazz and folk during the days, jammed with musicians in the evenings, and on the last night heard our teachers perform a joyous concert.

There was a wonderfully inclusive, friendly vibe there, and I made some good music friends. I also got great tips on singing from some enthusiastic instructors including the Grammy-winning vocalist Rhiannon Giddens, who with her sister Lalenja Harrington taught us traditional African American folk and blues tunes.

Since then I have been back to Centrum for another Voice Works workshop, and a more challenging but also rewarding jazz camp. And I highly recommend the experience to anyone who would enjoy the fellowship with other musicians, in a lovely sylvan outpost, and with a lot of encouragement.

Attendees can choose between staying onsite in individual or double rooms in the rather spartan barracks, or arranging for their own housing (definitely in advance) in Port Townsend’s many hotels, inns, and airbnbs. There is a mess hall at Centrum that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner—for those who sign up for a meals option—as well as a coffee shop and a bistro for drop-in eating and drinking.

And at the end of each session, there is a bonus: a weekend of music by the teachers (many of them respected recording artists) in Port Townsend’s array of restaurants and clubs. It’s fun just to stroll along Water Street, the main drag in PT, hearing music pouring onto the street from so many directions. Workshop participants get in free; others can attend by buying passes, which sell out fast.

In addition to Voice Works, there are other Centrum workshops that welcome instrumentalists and vocalists of every age and ability. This summer’s lineup of sessions is scheduled to take place in person, with some remote options. Check out the latest COVID requirements, and get registration, fees, and other information, at or by calling 360-385-3102.

Here is this summer’s lineup of sessions:

June 28 – July 1: Voice Works

July 3–10: Fiddle Tunes workshop, for bluegrass lovers.

July 25–31: Jazz Port Townsend, for jazz buff instrumentalists and singers.

August 1–7: Acoustic Blues Workshop, for instrumentalists and singers who love the blues.

September 7–11: Port Townsend Ukulele Workshop, for enthusiastic strummers.

Misha Berson writes about the arts for,  and many other media outlets, teaches for the UW Osher program, and is the author of four books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard).

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