Friday, March 13, 2015

Developing Kids As Musicians - Essay

Below is a lightly edited version of my monthly commentary appearing on the Welcome Page of the CBA web site. As always, I want to thank the California Bluegrass Association for providing me a forum for exploring ideas about bluegrass. Look for my new column to run weekly on Fridays at No Depression, an online magazine devoted to roots music since 1995. I look forward to discussing this piece here or on the other forums we jointly inhabit.

One of the great opportunities we have as a result of our travels is seeing a wealth of young, promising bluegrass musicians in a variety of settings. Often we get to see children between the ages of eight or nine and mid-teens brought to the stage to perform with major bands, almost always to loud applause, even cheers. At other times we see family bands who perform together either locally or nationally. Seeing enthusiasm from audiences for young musicians is encouraging to the kids themselves as well as their parents. They both get jolts of affirmation and encouragement to continue to pick and improve. Most, of course, will not become professional musicians or gain recognition beyond their home town or region. This is fine. With proper nurturing, they'll have a lifetime of satisfaction and fun playing in local or regional bands, making the occasional festival appearance, and participating in local jams. These are the places where grass roots bluegrass most flourishes. There are, however, significant dangers for developing musicians in isolating them to their own town or region without exposing them to the larger world of young musicians to sharpen their skills and to gain an appreciation for the work, dedication, and talent necessary to rise within the music world.

We see excellent Kids Academies at a number of festivals. These academies serve a lot of functions, not the least of which is to give parents at festivals some respite from overseeing their children between, say, age six and sixteen. However, much more importantly, the academies give young people an opportunity to play and sing with others of their relative ability, to enjoy each others' company, and, in good settings, to have time to break into smaller groups to jam together and develop friendships with other young musicians they'll see at festivals for much of the rest of their lives. Some academies break students down by experience levels while others feature only large group instruction and practice. We've seen excellent programs at Gettysburg in August, the MACC (Musicians Against Childhood Cancer), Pemi Valley, Jenny Brook, and other festivals. We've read great reports about the childrens' program at Wintergrass in Washington State. And, of course, the IBMA Kids on Bluegrass program offers a range of outstanding opportunities for more advanced young pickers. HoustonFest, in Galax, VA in early May is all about young pickers, a mecca for young bands and jammers. I know that California Bluegrass Association has an active youth program at all it's events, but sadly, we haven't been able to get that far west. I'm sure there are many others I'm not familiar with.

Lots of parents take the time to stop to tell me about their kids or give me the CD they've produced. I often ask the kid if he or she is going to kids academy. Responses differ, from enthusiasm to something along the lines of, “uh...er...we don't do that.....” suggesting to me that the parents may think their kid is too good to be involved in a “children's” activity. Parents making this response are missing out on several opportunities for their kids. The first is that, if they really are that good, the kid could make a significant contribution to helping other kids learn or helping prepare for the end of the weekend performance. Also, they're electing to miss the chance for their son or daughter to get to know other young people who are at the festival, finding people they could later jam with or just hang out together with at the festival, as well as developing friendships that could further develop at upcoming festivals through the years. Finally, there's the very real possibility that their kid could actually learn something from the instructors or other kids that would help lead to improvement. After all, jamming together helps build both technical and personal skills.

It might seem to be a little early to start thinking about the IBMA meeting coming in Raleigh, NC from September 29 – October 3, 2015, but for young pickers, it's never too soon to plan for bluegrass Nirvana. A couple of years ago, IBMA formed a Youth Council with a member of the Board of Directors taking direct responsibility for working with the staff and youth representatives to create, plan, and make a reality of a strong youth program. 2013 and 2014 saw this program grow exponentially. A room was set aside for young pickers to come to a “get-to-know you” early on featuring free pizza. Activities included getting to jam with invited bands (Della Mae, IIIrd Tyme Out, Michael Cleveland, and others), preparing a high end band selected from across the country to play on the Plaza Stage during Saturday of Wide Open Bluegrass, and working with younger players. At any part of the day, one could come past the Youth Council area and find small groups of young people ranging in experience from emerging young professionals to near beginners jamming in the surrounding hallways and in the Youth Council room itself. The Youth Council activities and room became an almost mini-convention of its own. Young musicians seeking to grow, challenge themselves, and contribute should be supported in a serious effort to attend IBMA.


Being a parent of an emerging child in any endeavor can be a risky and satisfying affair regardless of whether the talent lies in sports, music, arts, academics. The risks of pushing too hard, reaching too high, or neglecting to encourage and enable talent are significant. Don Dilling, father of former IIIrd Tyme Out banjo player Steve, has told me of coming to Steve's room to say good night only to find him asleep in his chair cradling his instrument. Larry Stephenson sings of “The sound that set my soul on fire.” Finding a balance between encouraging and pushing, and remembering that of the thousands who begin an instrument, only a very few rise to the top, presents important cautions. When I was a teacher, however, it always seemed to us, as staff, that kids in music programs were among the nicest and most well-rounded youngsters in school. Lots of that came from the group nature of making music. Let's make sure that they stay that way.