Scholarship Benefit Concert featuring Carolina Bluegrass Band

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Members of the Fall 2017 Carolina Bluegrass Band standing together in a few rows in a classroom. Many are holding instruments - mandolins, fiddles, and two banjos are visible, as are the headstocks of one bass and one guitar. Instructor Russell Johnson stands with the students at one end of the back row.
Fall 2017 Carolina Bluegrass Band students, photo credit: Kandis Johnson

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is in the second year of their bluegrass initiative, which began last fall as a program to link up the research and archival resources that UNC holds with undergraduate teaching. UNC added a course on the history of bluegrass and started the Carolina Bluegrass Band within the Department of Music under the direction of Russell Johnson, co-founder of Triangle-based bluegrass band The Grass Cats, and an award-winning singer, musician, and songwriter (and a longtime PineCone member!). The band’s fall concert is coming up on Thursday, November 30 at 7:30 p.m., and it will be a scholarship benefit for the university. The auditorium is equipped with an assistive listening system. Tickets are $10 each (general admission), or $5 for UNC students and staff. Tickets can be purchased at the door. Learn more about the Carolina Bluegrass Band fall concert

Parking details: Patrons may be able to get in the Swain lot (usually free after 5 p.m.), or there is the Rosemary municipal parking deck or street parking. More information about parking is available on UNC’s website: (music.unc.edu/about/directions/), or by calling 919-962-1039.

This year, UNC expanded their bluegrass offerings by hiring a faculty instructor for banjo, Hank Smith, and offering both mandolin and bluegrass guitar lessons. They plan to add fiddle as soon as possible, too.
At UNC, students have the opportunity to study at a world-class research university and obtain a liberal arts education. Most students in the music department double major, and get a balanced education across more than one discipline or field. Now that bluegrass is an integral part of the school’s music department, students can earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in music with bluegrass as their specialty. And it fits really well with a double major in, say, chemistry, or economics, or business, or history, or environmental science. 

The Carolina Bluegrass Band has 17 members this year, and 12 of those are returning from the spring semester. Plus, five of those students have been enrolled in the program from the beginning. This year, they are organized in smaller groups based on experience level and playing ability. The advanced band plays gigs on and around campus, while the beginner students are getting immersed in the bluegrass tradition, expanding the reach of bluegrass to new people who otherwise might never have tried it out. All of the students study bluegrass from the perspectives of cultural theory, history, and analysis.

Lecturer Russell Johnson and Jocelyn Neal, Professor and Associate Chair for the UNC Music Department, graciously answered some questions about the program:

Q: Do most of the students participating have a strong music background before they join the Carolina Bluegrass Band?
Russell Johnson: Yes; many have come from a classical background, especially the violin players. Most have played in school bands and orchestras and several are accomplished pianists. Guitar players have been from classical and jazz backgrounds though some played guitar just to accompany themselves singing. Well over half of our members sing and many have been involved in choirs and choruses.

Q: How do you find/recruit students for the bands?
RJ: We put up flyers announcing the auditions in the music buildings on campus during pre-registration and when students return at the beginning of the semester. We also use the University listservs to announce auditions. There has been some word of mouth communication among students in the music department, and I’ve had students find out about it from articles in alumni magazines and other publications and websites. Our concerts have made several students aware of the bluegrass initiative, and they auditioned because of hearing the band perform at the concert.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise about teaching the Carolina Bluegrass Band?
RJ: Initially my biggest surprise was how few students auditioned that had a bluegrass background. Our first semester we only had one student that had any experience on  banjo (I’m glad to say we have three banjo players now!) and one bassist.

Q: What has been a challenge the ensemble has had to overcome?
RJ
: I don’t know that it’s a challenge, but for many of the students they are experiencing playing in a bluegrass band for the first time, so it’s a lot to learn and remember. For many it’s  the first time they have played in a small group of six or seven, and for some it’s the first time they’ve had to play and sing. They are working on the instrumental  building blocks of bluegrass like tuning, timing, and tone while having to sing lead or harmony and concentrating on pitch, phrasing, blending,  and getting feeling into their vocals. For some it’s the first time they have ever played music without reading it off of a page, and improvisation is new to many of them. So while initially a challenge they have taken it head on and we’ve made great progress.

Q: What is an achievement you’re most proud of with/for the band?
RJ
: There’s been so many moments that have been rewarding, that I’m proud of; it’s hard to pick just one. Every rehearsal is rewarding to see these young students learning about bluegrass and being able to perform it. It’s gratifying to see them use skills they learned in class as they “work up a song” that one of the members brought and “pitched” to their group. To see it go from when it’s first presented to a finished product where they have worked up the arrangement, singers, harmonies and solos is very gratifying. Also I’ve had several students that have really got into bluegrass outside of class. They study the pioneers of the music on their own, learn its history and attend jams, concerts, and festivals outside of class. I feel like we have achieved a lot at our concerts too. They have been well attended and the audiences have been energetic and responsive. Our spring concert featured two very entertaining sets with songs from Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin as well as selections from The Dillards, J.D. Crowe, Doc Watson, The Steeldrivers, Dolly Parton, and Alison Krauss.

Carolina Bluegrass Band students standing onstage together at 2017 spring concert; some students hold their instruments, including guitar, bass, mandolins, fiddles. Many of the women wear dresses, the men wear slacks, button down shirts, some wear suit coats or sport coats, ties, or both tie and coat.  Mic stands are also visible on stage in front of the group.Q: What is your vision for the UNC Bluegrass program? 
Jocelyn Neal
: Our vision is to continue to grow the bluegrass initiative in concert with and as a contributing part of our existing music curriculum. One aspect of this will be to bring in more students for whom bluegrass is their primary performance focus: students who are invested in the highest level of playing. We are already working with those students toward more public performances and connections with the professional world of bluegrass. As that part of our program expands, we hope more students with bluegrass backgrounds will consider UNC as the ideal place for their college educations. Another equally important aspect of our vision is to have more students experience bluegrass as a way to expand their musical knowledge beyond their main styles of performance.  The chance for a violin major who  plays mostly classical music to spend a year fiddling and learning the traditions and performance techniques of bluegrass is really exciting, for instance.  On both of these fronts, our vision is to have bluegrass—and its unique performance traditions, ways of transmitting music and experiencing music—be a fully integrated part of our program, alongside all the other styles and genres that the Music Department studies.  The fact that we offer academic courses and archival resources along with the change to play in the band is an important part of that. (Spring 2017 Carolina Bluegrass Band students at spring concert; photo credit: Sara Neal Redmond)

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
JN & RJ: We are thrilled with the growth of our students this year and proud of what we have accomplished this semester and cumulatively since we started the Carolina Bluegrass Band. Not only does the band sound good, but the individual players have stretched themselves and are sounding better and better every semester. Several of them participated in jams during the summer, and many of them have started absorbing not only the music but also the ways we learn the songs, transmit them, and weave together the different parts of a performance this year, figuring out vocal harmony parts with less guidance and sensing when to fill and how to support each other in the middle of a song. The students in their second and third semester, in particular, have learned a lot about all the things involved in presenting a song bluegrass style, including sourcing material, picking a singer and key, figuring out the best harmony stack, learning and perfecting harmonies, working out arrangements on kicks offs, tags and solos and backing up a vocal. Several have even sat in with the Grass Cats! And on the other end of the spectrum, we have had participation from students who literally didn’t know who Bill Monroe was when they showed up. And in a true Carolina way, several of them have taken on research projects and fieldwork projects about bluegrass as part of their academic studies, and at least two students got funding for research involving bluegrass, which is pretty cool!

Learn more about UNC-Chapel Hill's Carolina Bluegrass Band