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In a nation where pop music dominates the young crowd, the Virginia Junior Appalachian Musicians classes exist to give youngsters a firsthand knowledge of their own front porch musical heritage and traditions.
JAM program director Tony Hatcher said musical heritage can be taken for granted and overlooked, even if it is right at your door. But this program is already proving it can open eyes and change perspectives.
Costing only $10 per session, JAM is an affordable program, organized by the Blue Ridge Music Center, to give youth an engaging, enriching experience of Southwest Virginia’s musical roots and traditions of bluegrass and old-time music.
Every Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m., students take beginner classes in banjo, fiddle, and guitar — and for rhythm and timing, 30-minute voice and flatfoot dance lessons.
A learn to jam class is offered for more intermediate students. It covers topics relating to music business and culture and trains students how to form a band and perform.
Each class is taught by qualified, knowledgeable instructors. The program brings in guest speakers, local musicians and historians to go in depth and discuss musical heritage and traditions.
After the first eight weeks, students put on a performance for their families. Each quarter lasts 16 weeks, with a showcase of everything students have learned at the Rex Theater.
“There is a deep heritage with this kind of music,” said Scott Freeman, teacher of JAM’s fiddle and voice classes. “This program makes it easier for the next generation to get involved with this kind of music.”
After 15 weeks of JAM classes, students are now tuning up their fiddles, banjos, guitars, voices and dancing feet for their first public performance at The Rex Jan. 18 at 8 p.m., as part of the Blue Ridge Backroads show aired on WBRF-FM.
“This show is really going to draw a crowd,” said Freeman. “This is great entertainment for the region.”
From beginners to intermediate talent, the performance will have a “nice blend of different [skill] levels,” featuring as many as six to 30 people jamming on stage at one time. Freeman makes sure every student has a chance to shine in the spotlight. Students from the JAM program in Sparta, N.C., will join the Virginia entertainers.
To inspire the students and to show them what can become of their up-and-coming instrumental skills, young bluegrass professionals and siblings Samantha and Zeb Snyder will share some of their hot finger-picking tunes.
With about a dozen JAM programs in North Carolina, this is the first one in Virginia, and its first season. Organizers consulted with Helen White, founder of the original JAM program in Sparta, N.C., to develop this curriculum for the Twin Counties.
JAM began in 2000 as an after-school program at Sparta Elementary School, where it receives support from school administrators. Debbie Robinson of the Blue Ridge Music Center said she has mentioned a JAM after-school program to local school principals, but for now the first session is a way of getting their “feet wet” before jumping in.
Robinson said she was impressed by students at the family show. “They are really picking it up.”
The obvious intention of the JAM program is to provide youth with the low-cost opportunity to learn music and become more experienced and appreciative of the area’s musical heritage. The program has came with a slew of other advantages.
Organizers say this program is something these students will carry with them the rest of their lives, rather by remembering these classes or excelling in musical talent.
“It takes teamwork,” said Freeman. “This kind of music shows students how to get along with each other. And it’s the only music I know when you don’t have to know the person you’re jamming with.”
Wanda Hatcher, instructor of dance, said no matter the education level of students, when they come together to play bluegrass or old-time music, they are equals. Also, when it comes to this music, age is no longer a factor.
“It’s the type of music where you can see a 60-year-old playing with a 10-year-old,” said Tony Hatcher. “And it’s the same with dancing.”
People who were more interested in other genres of music before are quickly becoming intrigued by blue grass and old-time music.
“Some are already at advanced in other areas of music, but many came to learn bluegrass,” said Hatcher.
It’s not only having a positive affect on students, it’s also spilling over to the local economy. When students begin the program, they usually opt to borrow an instrument from the Blue Ridge Music Makers Guild. (The guild has partnered with the music center to provide instruments to students at no change.) However, Robinson said that when students become a little more advanced, they go to local music shops and buy their own instrument.
The new objective, Robinson said, is maintaining this non-profit organization. And without people, teachers, students, contributors and volunteers it wouldn’t be possible.
“We can’t [provide these classes] without the support of the people,” said Robinson. “We’re constantly looking for new ways to make it sustainable. For those who would like to contribute, they can be assured that they’re making a difference in the lives of children.”
The JAM program has 23 students, with most classes having no more than eight. Although the class isn’t as intimate as private lessons, the small number and two-hour time span allows for student and teacher one-on-one time.
For $10 per session and with family plans available, that seems to be a rate that parents can’t beat, especially because private lessons can cost as much as $25 per 30 minutes.
“I hope we can continue to provide the affordable cost,” said Freeman. The the low cost is made possible through grants, community support and individual contributions.
Robinson said students come from throughout Southwest Virginia and North Carolina areas. Some travel from as far as two hours away. And banjo class was in such demand that two banjo classes — old-time and bluegrass styles — had to be formed.
The program will provide three or four series of classes a year. Students must attend a “tuning party” first, where they’ll learn to tune their instrument. The next tuning party will be held on Feb. 10 at the Galax Recreation Department.
On Feb. 3, the JAM program will start its second session. Classes for the new students will have the same format. They are held at the Galax Recreation Department and the music center.
Robinson said she is open for suggestion for classes, but the program has to have enough students interested in the chosen class. For example, the program originally incorporated mandolin into the agenda, but not enough people signed up for it, so it was dropped.
Classes were open to students as young as six. Robinson said the classes seem a “little difficult” for 6- and 7-year-olds. She recommends the classes for ages 8-16. unless the younger child has experience with the instrument.
Some students who have taken the first quarter plan to enroll in the next. Although beginners and veterans will be in the same classes, Freeman will accommodate the different skill levels. And, if students are advanced enough, they can move up to the learn-to-JAM class.
For home-schooled children, the class is available for school credit.
There is discussion of adding an adult JAM class, but nothing has been set yet. Also, a JAM program may be making its way to Carroll County, according to Robinson.
Students have just enough time to tie down some tough notes for the annual Jimmy Edmonds Homecoming and Youth Competition, which will be held in a few months. All students are encouraged to participate and have a chance to earn prizes, such as instruments.
Robinson said the instructors deserve to be shown appreciation. “We’re very fortunate to have these wonderful musicians,” Hatcher said.
JAM instructors include Ray Chatfield (old-time banjo), Lisa Widener (bluegrass banjo), Stanley Widener (guitar), Scott Freeman (fiddle and voice), Maggie Anderson (learn to jam) and Wanda Hatcher (dance). Assistants include Karen Carr (learn to jam), Helen Chatfield (old-time banjo) and Grace Wilson (fiddle and dance).
To make a contribution, to enroll your child in JAM classes, or for more information, contact the Blue Ridge Music Center at 236-5309, ext. 112, or send mail to 700 Foothills Road, Galax, Va. 24333. Those interested in JAM will receive an introduction packet about the program.
The public can contact the music center for tickets to the Virginia JAM performance or purchase tickets at the door of The Rex. Tickets are $5, with proceeds going to JAM and a portion going to maintaining the Rex Theater.
Virginia JAM is presented by the Blue Ridge Music Center through partnerships with the City of Galax, Galax Parks and Recreation Department, WBRF Radio, The Virginia Commission for the Arts, D’ Addario Foundation for the Performing Arts and the Blue Ridge Music Makers Guild.
“I don’t see anything but positive effects coming out of this program,” said Robinson. “With this program, there is no excuse for children [not learning how to play an instrument]. They will not be turned away.”
Virginia JAM Classes
• Instrument and learn to jam classes 2-3 p.m.
• Singing class 3-3:30 p.m.
• Dance class 3:30-4 p.m.
Tuition: $10 per session
Family plans: (cost per session, for children in same family)
• $17.50 for 2 children
• $20 for 3 children
• $22.50 for 4 children
• $25 for 5 children
Contact Debbie Robinson, 236-5309, ext. 112