Taking bluegrass to the local community – school workshops in West Yorkshire

Many readers of this blog will know that for the last eight years I’ve been organising concerts in Yorkshire and booking nationwide UK tours for outstanding bluegrass and roots artists. The vast majority of my work has been 100% independent, but in the past three years I’ve managed to secure Arts Council England funding for several different projects, most recently to support True North Music’s 2023-24 local live music series in West Yorkshire. We have an exciting programme of concerts, ticketed workshops, community outreach sessions and livestreamed events planned over the course of the year – read more about it here.

For the community outreach element, my idea was to organise two workshop sessions for young children and two for older people, bringing bluegrass, folk and roots music to people who have probably never heard it before, and who may not normally have opportunities to go to concerts or festivals. A friend of mine is Chair of Governors at a local primary school, and she introduced me to the Head Teacher and music teacher there. Mount Pleasant is a large ethnically diverse primary school in Lockwood, Huddersfield, just a few miles from where most of our concerts take place in the villages of Meltham and Marsden. After explaining my mission via emails, I went into the school a few months ago to meet the staff members, who were thrilled with my plan to organise two free bluegrass and folk music workshops for the children.

We settled on Friday 7th July for our first event, a set of fiddle and ukulele workshops for Year 6 children (aged 10-11). The pupils at Mount Pleasant receive a term of violin tuition in Years 3, 4 and 5 (which is great) but not in Year 6, so this would be a refresher for them as well as a window into a different style of music. I was delighted to be able to book two outstanding UK musicians, Jay Bradberry and Mike Giverin, to deliver the first set of workshops. Based in Cheshire, they’re not only two of the finest players of bluegrass and folk music in the UK – renowned for their work with the bands Jaywalkers, The Rip-Roaring Success (Jay) and 4Square (Mike) – they’re both outstanding, experienced music tutors too. Jay has a long track record of teaching children, and has worked in schools for many years via the Cheshire music service Music for Life. I had also built in a bit of budget to give some paid intern work experience to young people, and I was pleased that Abbey Thomas was available to assist with this event. Abbey is a talented mandolinist, guitarist, and member of the band Blue Lass, and she recently graduated from Leeds Conservatoire.

Musicians Abbey, Jay and Mike with MPPS Head Teacher Mrs Naeem Nazir

With the dream team in place, we rocked up to Mount Pleasant Primary School on a very hot summer morning. Thankfully it’s a modern building and we had been allocated two airy, spacious rooms. We had decided to include a couple of mini performances at the start of the day, and this allowed around 300 children – about half of the school’s pupils – to experience some live bluegrass music in the  main hall, which was a great treat and something entirely novel for them. Jay and Mike had put together a short programme which included exciting bits of performance – fast paced renditions of classic bluegrass tunes Wheel Hoss and Clinch Mountain Backstep – alongside some audience participation. They had the children singing along to My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains and joining in a call and response version of Dueling (No) Banjos (!!) where Jay played each line and everyone sang it back. All this was interspersed by Jay’s excellent explanations of what bluegrass is and how it was influenced by different styles of music (to the extent that you can cover this in a few minutes to a roomful of children). There was also a game of “what’s the instrument” where the fiddle (aka violin), unsurprisingly got the biggest reaction, thanks to the children’s previous experience of violin lessons, whereas almost nobody had encountered a mandolin before! I was hugely impressed by Jay’s ability to get all this information over in an interesting and fun way, ably assisted by Mike and Abbey. The children really seemed to enjoy the music, with lots of the younger pupils definitely more uninhibited in their clapping, singing and chair (floor) dancing!

Following the performances, over the course of the day Jay and Mike taught three 55-minute workshops to Year 6 children. They started out with a 10-minute taster session of ukulele strumming plus singing, using the traditional bluegrass song Two Dollar Bill (with one group of lads in particular enthusiastically adopting an American accent to sing along). The main part of each workshop was devoted to learning a fiddle tune on the school violins: the tune Scotland,  written by “father of bluegrass music” Bill Monroe.  Jay had the class playing along using long bows in the A part, chops on the B part and slides on the C part (making a comedy cow-mooing sound!), while she played the more complicated melody. Mike had the children following him on the simplified parts, while Abbey played guitar back-up. It was brilliant to have Abbey join us on the day, as a third band member and an additional person helping the children one-to-one in the workshops. As a (perpetual learner) fiddle player myself, I was also able to help out the children here and there, as they tried to get to grips with their instruments and follow along with the instruction.

“The whole experience was amazing for our children; many of whom had not been to a concert before. The mini concert was a great way of introducing children to folk/bluegrass music, most had never heard of this type of music before. The interaction and engagement from the musicians was also excellent as it involved teaching.” – Head Teacher Naeem Nazir

The whole day was a big success, and I think most of the children had a lot of fun as well as learning something new. If it sparks an interest in even a few of those young people, and leads them to explore bluegrass or folk music in the future (as pickers or just as fans) I count that as a win. Bluegrass is a community-based music that is great for joining in with, and it was good to bring some of that joy and fun to a group of young people. I think most of the staff members who came along to the morning performances enjoyed it too – I noticed plenty of feet tapping along to the music! I’m looking forward to organising the second music workshop day for Mount Pleasant this autumn, for the youngest (Early Years) children this time.

The next workshop will likely have more of an old time music theme – for those who don’t know, old time music is essentially the forerunner of bluegrass and emerged in Appalachia from the blending of European folk traditions (fiddle tunes and ballads that went to the USA with settlers from Scotland, Ireland and England) with African-American and Native American influences, including the banjo, which is an instrument of African origin. We hope to include singing and perhaps body percussion and some step dancing, which should be great fun for the little ones. All the outreach events fit in with my mission to bring world class live music to my local communities, and to bring bluegrass, Americana and old time music to a wider audience.

I want to acknowledge again the funding support from Arts Council England which has enabled us to offer these community workshops, and also thank our series sponsor Dark Woods Coffee for their support.