Old Music and New Technology

For the past 3 years, the Pick and Bow program at the Hindman Settlement School has provided fiddle, banjo, bass, guitar, and mandolin lessons to students in Knott and Floyd county. Sam Gleaves brought this program to fruition and it blossomed as an after school program, taking place in schools in Knott and Floyd county. 

But this year, as classrooms remained empty for weeks on end, myself and our team of eight dedicated instructors made the transition to completely virtual music lessons. For 12 weeks, instructors taught weekly private and small group lessons via Zoom. Teaching lessons via Zoom came with it’s own unique set of challenges: a weak wifi-connection crashing with the slightest wind gust or not being able to tune the students instruments for them, just to name a few.

But virtual lessons came with their own set of unexpected joys. On several occasions, a student’s curious cat or dog would wander onto the screen to everyones delight or a younger sibling would sit it on a lesson. Because there was usually just one or two kids per instructor, there was more opportunity for teachers to really get to know and mentor their students on an individual level. Our wonderful banjo instructor, Melanie Turner said that “Teaching banjo online proved to be a unique challenge, given how it is traditionally taught hands-on. However, it was great to watch the students take on the challenge and adapt to the format. I’m happy we were able to continue with our lessons.” After a 50 minute lesson, we would all gather together in one large Zoom room and play a tune together and hang out for a moment. And every lesson ended with “The Goodnight Song”, which became our little tradition and a way to wish each other a good evening. These weekly lessons provided regular and precious social interaction for students during a very isolating time. 

On December 5th, we wrapped up 12 weeks of lessons and celebrated everything the students had accomplished this semester. Under normal circumstances we would invite all parents and friends and biggest fans of our students to attend a finale concert to showcase their hard work. But this year we had to get creative. We put together a virtual performance video that we called “The Pick and Bow Variety Show”, complete with old-timey tunes, jokes, a pet show-and-tell, and some surprise special guest audience members. I think an alternative name for our performance could have been “Hindman Hee-Haw”! Watch the kids performance here and be sure to write an encouraging comment!!!

As an educator, I’ve been amazed at the resilience, patience, and mutual support demonstrated by our wonderful students throughout our transition to online instruction. The kids became each others biggest fans and cheerleaders within their small groups. One of our three guitar instructors, Scott Napier, said this of the students; “I have to say that the small groups I’ve had in Pick & Bow have been very rewarding. I’m amazed at how quick the students adapt and how they are respectful to one another during the sessions.”

I wanted to leave you with a story of one of my favorite musical memories. A few years ago, I was performing at Seedtime on the Cumberland, a music festival put on by our friends at the Apalshop over in Letcher county. Concerts featuring the region’s finest traditional musicians under a tent in the Apalshop parking lot ran concurrently with punk and metal shows just across the road at the Boone Drop-In Center. I have a vivid memory of walking from a late night punk show back towards the old-time music tent. As I heard the sounds of electric instruments fade behind me, I picked up the sound of fiddles and banjos in a late-night jam back at the old-time tent ahead of me. I stopped and listened to the sounds of wild and urgent punk music played on electric instruments blend with the lonesome whine of a Kentucky fiddle tune. Hearing this bizarre and beautiful blend of old and new music remains one of my favorite musical memories. 

In a time when we as a community are forced to find new ways to connect and support each other from a distance, there are moments of true joy and community to be found. Just like the beautiful blend of old time and rock music I experienced years ago, our virtual Pick and Bow program helped me discover the magic that can happen when you blend tradition with technology. 

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and joyful, peaceful, and healthy holiday season.