JAM sessions fill music students with Southern pride

The Junior Appalachian Music program shows North Carolina students how to pick up instruments and strum old-time favorites.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

It was the flash cards that prompted Helen White to speak up. Seven years ago, the school counselor at Sparta Elementary School was observing a third-grade music class when the teacher held up pictures of stringed instruments for the students to see.

Ms. White, a musician with a deep appreciation for Appalachian culture, was stunned that the students were learning to recognize dulcimers and mandolins without knowing what they sounded like. "I own all of the instruments on those cards," she told the teacher afterward. "I'd love to bring them in so the kids could touch and hear them."

After the Sparta students' next music class, White allowed each pupil a moment with an instrument of their choice. One third-grader, whom White knew had been diagnosed with severe learning disabilities, chose the bass. When the student produced a deep, beautiful tone from the instrument, other students clapped in appreciation.

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"She just beamed," White recalls, "and I thought to myself, 'We've got to get these kids instruments.' "

That desire laid the groundwork for JAM, or the Junior Appalachian Music program, in which children from third through eighth grade learn the fundamentals of bluegrass and Celtic music traditionally played in southern Appalachia. The program, designed by White, has spread to nine schools in the region and will appear in three more next school year. By learning from local guitar, mandolin, banjo, and fiddle musicians, public school students not only learn to strum and play by ear, they gain pride in their Appalachian roots and a sense of accomplishment.

"I think perhaps we've underestimated the importance of making traditional music in this region," says Sally Peterson, a folklife specialist with the North Carolina Arts Council. "I really think drawing local musicians from the community to teach has been a special part of this program and one of the reasons it's been so successful. These musicians and their students speak the same language; they come from the same backgrounds."

With the support of the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, and a variety of local donors willing to supply instruments, each JAM program is developed to match its community's needs and capabilities. Some classes are held after school; others are offered during regular school hours.

Students must apply to be JAM musicians. Once accepted, they receive an instrument to use while enrolled in the program. At some schools, the program is free. At others, like Sparta Elementary, participating students are charged $3 to $10 a week.

In turn, the program "gives kids something to look forward to," says JAM student Austin Turner, a fifth-grader learning to play guitar.

The program's appeal for students was apparent during a recent JAM session at Sparta Elementary. There fiddle players filled a hallway, a classroom of guitarists strummed in unison, and a group of upper-level students in a room full of Spanish vocabulary posters swapped stories about how they'd been invited on stage to play with local bands during recent performances.

"I didn't know you were sitting in with other bands!" exclaims string band instructor Tammy Sawyer.

Ms. Sawyer feels this type of community recognition is especially important for the students she works with. "A lot of these kids are at risk," she says, "and JAM really gives them a chance to get the positive attention they need. It also helps them connect to a continued culture that they're part of. Some of them are finding out there are musicians in their family they didn't even know about."

Fifth-grade language arts teacher Roxanne Edwards has noticed increased confidence in her students who participate in JAM.

"This region's culture and accent has a stigma attached to it of not being educated," she says, "but students connect this music to the region's culture, and they see how difficult it is to play and it boosts their self-image. It shows them that it's not shameful to be from the South or to have an accent or to play old-time and bluegrass music. When they go to concerts and competitions, they see people from all over the world that value southern Appalachian music and that makes them value it, too."

James Hall is a JAM student who might never have picked up an instrument had it not been for the program. Now he's a nimble-fingered mandolin player. During a recent JAM session, the seventh-grader listened intently as instructor Stanley Widener played a traditional tune called "Leather Britches."

After the song ended, James asked the instructor if he could identify a song he'd been practicing for fun. He started in and then paused for Mr. Widener's response. "Did you learn that by ear?" the instructor asked, incredulously.

"Yeah," James answered nonchalantly. "Sometimes I try to teach myself other little things I hear. I just don't always know what they're called. I picked that tune up some place and just kept it in my head."

Widener's face broke into smile. Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" may not be a traditional Appalachian song, but the sentiment seemed fitting. James had not only learned how to joyfully play an instrument, he also had learned how to listen.

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