Blog: Bluegrass in schools

Earlier this month, young bluegrass musicians Michael Giverin (mandolin), John Breese (banjo) and Jay Bradberry (fiddle), took their music to several schools in the South Gloucestershire region. Here, Jay writes about their experience.

For the duration of last week (13th-17th July 2009), myself, John and Michael participated in a Bluegrass Music for Schools scheme within the South Gloucestershire area.

The opportunity arose when Jer Boon was approached by the South Gloucestershire Music Service around May regarding possible contacts for their summer music schemes in the local primary schools. On being contacted by Jer, John assembled a ‘scratch band’ consisting of the 3 of us, and confirmed that we were available for the given week. During the organisation, the BBMA showed a great deal of interest and were more than happy to help out financially during our schools project. Although the South Gloucestershire Council covered our costs for the week, it is fantastic to know that such funding is there for future reference.

Our week consisted of 8 primary schools around the South Gloucestershire area, which meant that the age range of our audiences was between 4 and 11 years old in schools ranging from 50 to 300+ pupils. Subsequent to (a little) rehearsal, we had created a 45 minute presentation to use throughout each school and, with Mike as our main front man of the assemblies, we incorporated a variety of interactive features to our performance for the children to enjoy.

Our presentation introduced them to the history and origins of bluegrass music and in what context the traditional songs and tunes of the genre would be played usually. We’d then progress onto an exploration of the instruments being played (fiddle, mandolin, banjo and guitar) asking if the children might know what the instruments are and also how they are played using miming actions. A small repertoire of traditional bluegrass songs (Worried Man Blues, I Saw the Light, All the Good Times and Nine Pound Hammer) and tunes (Clinch Mountain Backstep and Cherokee Shuffle) was then played with each chorus thoroughly taught to the children beforehand and plenty of chances within the songs to take part, with Mike calling various instructions such as; “play your banjos!”.

We then demonstrated 2 typical time signatures in bluegrass (3/4 and 4/4) and integrated this knowledge with clapping sections during songs. Before performing a finishing, fast Reuben’s Train to exhibit how professional bluegrass musicians in America may perform in a concert environment, we had a great deal of fun in asking the children to put their hands up and vote for their favourite out of our 3 instruments, often resulting in either the fiddle or (sometimes) banjo being the winner (when wondering as to why there are not as many mandolin lovers, one child answered to Mike that they are simply “too small”!).

Despite the great amount of travelling involved within the week (Mike and I are both Northerners based in Manchester and Chester and John in Bath), we had a highly enjoyable time performing throughout all of the 8 primary schools involved with the scheme. I speak on behalf of all of us in saying that the 8 primary schools in our agenda were impressive in approaching our presentations as, largely, a relaxed, open-minded audience which meant that the vast majority of the children, and teachers, across each school thoroughly enjoyed the interactive features within our 45 minutes and, depending on the ability and size of the school, sang and performed as an audience at their best.

Some schools offered the opportunity for their children to ask questions at the end of the presentation with some genuinely thoughtful and sensible queries regarding the music and how we play it. One school even asked its pupils to sum our 45 minutes up in one word with some really heart warming responses like; “fantastic!” and “spontaneous”. It was also great to speak to some of the kids before they returned to their classrooms, most of them, offering an array of kind comments and questions.

Similarly, the teachers and head teachers of each of the schools showed a great amount of genuine interest and enjoyment from the music, claiming in provided feedback forms that our presentations were “the most interactive music visit we’ve had” with “children fully engaged throughout”. There was definitely a large interest throughout the pupils when asked questions along the lines of, “what is your favourite instrument from our set” or when teachers asked “would anyone be interested in playing these instruments?”.

Anything like this is bound to inspire, hopefully, at least 1 or 2 within an average school of 200 so I agree with the idea that presentations like ours in school will most definitely encourage kids to take up bluegrass music. The younger generation of the bluegrass circuit within the UK alone are obviously getting older and gradually passing into their 20s and, as cliché as it sounds, inspiring the target audiences of primary schools may be what is needed to introduce another generation to keep our music alive.

Surprisingly, even with the end-of-term excitement atmosphere apparent, the children behaved, overall, in a mature and respectful manner which just goes to show that it can be done seriously and treated academically. It most definitely helps, also, having the current younger generation of the bluegrass scene come into these schools and present the music to them, as the closer these children feel in age to the musicians, the more achievable musical aims will seem and the more inspiration they will get from these experiences. It is also an undoubtedly good age to introduce a new genre of music to them in a stage where they are still developing their musical taste.