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* * JAM keeps our Appalachian music tradition alive 



Banjos. Fiddles. Guitars. Flatfoot dancing. Reels. These are the mainstays of traditional Appalachian music. I often joke that we Southwest Virginians think culture is something other people have. But locals and visitors alike find much to enjoy and be proud of in the maintenance of our heritage music. Like any aspects of the culture, for it to endure, it needs to be passed on to our youth. That’s the focus of JAM, the Junior Appalachian Musician program, and its newest affiliate in Christiansburg.


According to director Sidney Hollandsworth, JAM is a series of local affiliates throughout Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina. Begun by Helen White in Independence, Virginia, JAM’s mission is working to provide communities with the support and tools they need to teach children to play and dance to traditional old time and bluegrass music.


Hollandsworth told me, “JAM is a program for children in grades 4 through 7 to learn a traditional instrument and learn about Appalachian culture.” Sessions are held at the new Great Road On Main, the concert, education, and event center in the newly remodeled and reopened Main Street Baptist Church building. “We begin each session with an enrichment lesson, where we tell about toys and games, or perhaps a dance. Then the kids split into fiddle, banjo, and guitar classes, where they get instruction on the instruments.


“We’re in our first semester, which started in January and will be wrapping up soon. We have 17 kids. We hope to expand in the fall, to perhaps two classes per instrument.”


Floyd County has had a program for several years. Lisa Bleakley, the tourism director for Montgomery County, was eager to start a program here. Sue Farrar at the Montgomery Museum and retired executive Dave Reemsnyder were instrumental (pardon that pun!) in getting things going, and they decided that the Christiansburg strand of schools would be the best place to start. So the local JAM program was a cooperative venture between Montgomery County Public Schools, Christiansburg Elementary School, the Montgomery Museum, and Great Road On Main.


When I asked Sidney about her involvement, she said she was a piano teacher, and was approached about being the director. Sidney’s parents, John and Kathie Hollandsworth, are musicians (and incidentally, fellow Christiansburg High School graduates with me), so she was brought up around traditional music. John plays and builds autoharps and Kathie plays bass and hammered dulcimer. Sidney was a voice major in college, but “my primary instrument is piano,” she said.


“I was brought up in the music. Many of our students are newer to it. We asked early on whether kids and parents listened to this type of music or went to festivals. Overwhelmingly, they said they hadn’t. Not many were really enmeshed in the music or culture. So it’s been neat to see that sort of experience for them for the first time. Class instruction on playing a stringed instrument isn’t super common. They’re at the age when private lessons may not be the right first step. The parents may have suggested it, but the kids won’t be successful unless they’re motivated. I’m sure lots of them go home and practice on their own. Some come from musical families. 


“Some kids who are very focused. They take it seriously and want to be good at it.”


To recruit students, the incipient JAM program gave information to Angie Hagwood, music director at Christiansburg Elementary School, who shared it with children and parents last fall. In January, the students were accepted and the program began. “None of the kids had had any prior experience. For the most part, teaching is ‘by ear.’ They do some rhythm notation and tablature. (Tablature is a simple form of musical notation indicating where the player is to place his or her fingers on the strings of a stringed instrument, rather than actual notes.) We work with them to match what they hear with the fingering on their instrument that produces that sound. Youth seem to pick it up faster than adults.


“We have one teacher now per instrument: fiddle, guitar, and banjo. The program is tuition based, on a sliding scale, with students who qualify for free or reduced lunches also getting reduced tuition. So if they don’t have a lot of money, we don’t turn them away. We’re hoping for donations to go to scholarships.


“It’s been interesting every single week. The kids are into it, they’re really excited. I’ve been surprised at how much they enjoy the dancing and learning.”


Donations for instruments or scholarships can be made to the “Montgomery Museum,” with “Montgomery JAM” in the memo line, and mailed to 300 South Pepper Street, Christiansburg, VA  24073, website: https://greatroadonmain.org/ or to Lisa Bleakley at Montgomery County Tourism. 


“This is a good thing for our community,” Hollandsworth said. “The kids are learning, having fun, and building skills and self-esteem. Parents have thought it was worthwhile. Parents and students both think it’s worthwhile.”

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