Appalachian heritage continues at Singing Bird Music School

Kate Underwood/The Register

Logan and Jasper Rogers, students at Singing Bird Music School, and Sam Gleaves, one of the teaching artists. 

More than 50 musicians came from as far away as Florida to attend this year's Singing Bird Music School in Berea. This event was born in 2018 from the inspiration and efforts of Donna Lamb, Sam Gleaves, and Belle Jackson, who wanted to create a camp for young people to learn Appalachian musical traditions.

Singing Bird Music School (SBMS) celebrates the living legacy of Kentucky fiddler Lewis Lamb, who will serve as the school's Master Artist.

The SBMS is presented by Berea Tourism's Festival of LearnShops, which features sessions for learning a wide variety of artistic media and genres The teaching artists of SBMS believe strongly in the importance of passing on the skills of their musical arts to the next generation.

Sam Gleaves, guitar instructor and one of the event's key organizers, said that many of the 2018 participants "have continued to take lessons throughout the year with teaching artists in our region." These teachers are keeping the traditions of Appalachian music alive for the future.

What Students Are Learning

For this year's ongoing sessions, students could choose from among a variety of instruments, including clawhammer banjo, bluegrass banjo, guitar and fiddle at beginning and intermediate levels. Anyone aged 10 and up was welcome to register.

Two students working with Gleaves, brothers named Logan and Jasper Rogers, were diligently picking away chords on their guitars. Although slightly younger than the age minimum, the School was able to sign them up for the beginning guitar course. Only two days into instruction, they were already strumming away at the recognizable folk tune "Crawdad Song." ("You get a line and I'll get a pole, honey… .")

Several one-session classes were also offered, such as square dance basics, learn to flatfoot, instrument petting zoo, The Ritchie Nieces and tunes and stories with Lewis Lamb.

In addition, participants attend group singing each morning, string band jams and a square dance. Teachers and participants enjoy a warm camaraderie that builds easily throughout the three days of instruction and enrichment.

Skilled Teaching Artists

Passing on a love for their instruments and their art, the dozen-plus teaching artists of Singing Bird Music School possess many years of experience.

For example, John Harrod has been playing and teaching the bluegrass banjo for 45 years. Students have learned from him at Berea College, Cowan Creek Mountain Music School, Augusta Heritage Center and more.

Deborah Payne is a fiddler and singer who has toured with various bluegrass bands, and has even traveled internationally with folk dance groups as their musician.

Gleaves, who provides beginning guitar instruction, noted that much of his motivation as a teaching artist comes from the encouragement he received from his own music mentors.

"I enjoy seeing young musicians learning to play old time Appalachian music and I want to encourage them in that same way," he said.

Teaching artists also included Carla Gover, Lucian Parker, Michael Parks, Pam Gadd, Greg Ives, Lewis Lamb, Deborah Thompson and Cari Norris. Master artists involved in the event were Lewis Lamb; Al, Alice, and Ruth; and the Ritchie Nieces. Each instructor provided skilled yet humble instruction for even the most inexperienced students. Musicians and dancers gained confidence over the course of the sessions, culminating in a final Friday evening performance.

Funding for the School

The cost to attend three days of classes in 2019 was fairly reasonable, compared to private music lessons with an instructor that can often run $50 per hour. However, interested learners did have options to help reduce or waive expenses.

One method for potential students to utilize in order to attend was a work-study program. These participants earned their registration through volunteering their time to help run the event.

The organizers also held two fundraising concerts in order to procure money for scholarships. This year, six students were able to attend Singing Bird Music School for free, thanks to these scholarships.

Final Concert Performance

The SBMS wrapped up its three days of classes with a concert. This event is part of the Levitt AMP Berea Music series that happens nearly every Friday night through Oct. 4.

The concert began with Singing Bird Music School students presenting some of the pieces they had worked on all week. Next, the expert SBMS teaching artists took the stage. This free performance, held at the cabin stage in the Old Town Artisan Village of Berea, was a fitting celebratory capstone to the second annual Singing Bird Music School.

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