The Junior Appalachian Music program is instrumental in continuing old-time music tradition.

Young people encourage younger people at Christiansburg Elementary School to play traditional instruments including the banjo, fiddle, and guitar.

Liz Kirchner

They say there is music in everything, and 400 third, fourth, and fifth graders in the little Christiansburg Elementary School auditorium waiting for the assembly to begin sounded like an enormous box of chickens.

It’s the sound of hundreds of little girls chatting and fixing each other’s hair, boys jostling and guffawing sitting cross-legged in surprisingly straight rows on the linoleum and watching while, up on stage, another boy and girl were tuning up a violin and a banjo, talking and deciding what to play, bouncing through bits of old-time fiddle tunes.

The girl is 12-year-old Mallie Yun cradling the violin, dark bangs, glasses and a pink sweater. Her neat fingernails painted black and blue are nimble on the frets. The boy with the banjo is her 14 year-old brother, Todd. They are ambassadors of JAM, the Junior Appalachian Music program that helps schools and organizations in mountain and foothill regions like Montgomery County introduce old-time bluegrass music to young people. Small, affordable afterschool JAM classes let kids touch, hear, and begin to play fiddle, banjo and guitar, priming the pump to restock the region’s rich heritage of traditional music.

The audience is clamoring.

The assembly today is a kid-to-kid, ‘If I can do it, so can you” approach, and Christiansburg Elementary School seems like fertile musical ground.

“Music… arts education, in general, is so important for children. It serves so many purposes: from fine and gross motor skills, to creativity, to enhancing vocabulary, and these are beyond the more obvious musical experiences of playing instruments, dancing, and singing,” music teacher Angela Hagwood said.

Above the playground-clamor of whoops and chatting, she steps onto the stage, she claps twice and, in a kind of call and response, all 400 children hush instantly drop the hair they’re braiding, the shoulder they’re punching, or the joke they’re telling, swing to face front, and they clap back to her: “Clap Clap Ssshhh!!” they say with their fingers to their lips. And she says, “I need every one to take a baby scootch forward.” Everyone, the entire close-packed block of children scootches forward as one.

Ms. Hagwood introduces Mallie and Todd who step to the mic, say Hi and introduce themselves, then crash off into a rousing reel. The audience begins to clap in time. It’s deafening. Teachers in the back are clapping and tapping their feet.

Mallie and Todd are from Galax, the heart of old-time music country. Mallie’s played violin since she was 8, Todd for just 2 years. They started with JAM in Floyd just a year ago. A teenaged cousin, also a JAM alum, is a member of Shadowgrass, a popular bluegrass band. But a child doesn’t have to come from a musical family.

“I don’t know how that happened! My sister and I don’t play any instrument, but our kids and our grandkids do!” Mallie and Todd’s mom, Sarah said.

“Old-time music is rich in this area. In Floyd and in Grayson County where I’m from they’re very excited to get the next generation into it, so it doesn’t die off. And that’s what the JAM program is,” she said.

On stage with Mallie and Todd are local musicians Ginger Wagner and Phil Louer, champions of old-time music in the New River Valley since the 1970s. They helped founder Market Square Jam and Blacksburg Square Dance. Wagner plays banjo in the acclaimed Indian Run String Band.

With the music, Phil, loose-limbed and thin as a reed, dances in clattering taps demonstrating the traditional floppy skuffs and doubles of clogging. He calls for ten volunteers to learn a dance step, a hundred young arms shoot up, twenty join him on stage. Mallie and Todd play and everybody in the auditorium rock steps together.

Once a week starting in January until school’s out in the spring, JAM classes will meet for about two hours after school at the Old Main Street Baptist Church. Each class has a small charge, about $8. Instruments don’t cost the student anything. The program can take 40 students.

Fourth grader, Beau Bradley, strums a claw-hammer banjo with Jean Haskell, professor of Appalachian studies and banjo student, on stage at the Junior Appalachian Music program assembly.

“Appalachian music is one of many examples of the music that all of my students and many adults need to experience. It is a rich part of the history of the area in which we live and we are lucky to have the dedicated musicians who keep playing and sharing this genre among us. Their willingness to teach our students these instruments and this style of music will only help further spread the appreciation of this unique culture and music,” Hagwood said.

Getting the JAM program to Christiansburg Elementary has been a real orchestration, bringing together the Montgomery County Tourism Development Council, the school, JAM students, and local musicians.

On stage with a mandolin is Director of Tourism at Montgomery County Lisa Bleakley who spearheaded the project. “

The goal of launching the program in Montgomery County is to give young people a view of their history and heritage of the place where they are growing up,” she said.

Because Montgomery County houses a number of Crooked Road heritage music venues, and JAM is part of Crooked Road’s education and outreach efforts, Bleakley recognized from her seat on the Crooked Road board, JAM as both a cultural and an economic development opportunity.

“Floyd and Galax have huge name recognition, but when you think of Montgomery County, you don’t think of bluegrass and traditional music even though we have a number of venues like the Blacksburg Market Jam and Square Dance.“ Introducing JAM seemed like the next step.

As the assembly draws to a close, Ms. Hagwood says, “I hope you’re excited about what you’ve seen today, and what you’ve learned about JAM.”

“We want more!” yells someone from the audience.

These are not shy children. They have questions about how to sign up. Information will be on Peachjar, the school web site.

“Can we sign up online or the old fashioned way?” The school is sending home student interest forms.

While the JAM network supplies schools and organizations with music, opportunities to participate in festivals and jams, education, and lots of encouragement, the schools are independent and responsible for supplying solid music training and the instruments that will be free to the 40 students in the program. Christiansburg Elementary JAM is still working out transportation, where they’re going to get banjos, and who’s supplying snacks.

For the children that don’t participate in JAM this year, the school supports a rigorous arts ethos. “Music is an outlet for emotion, energy, and expression. I hope the take away from my classroom is that we are all capable of making music together and we are all singers…I want my students to go into adulthood singing hymns at church, joining as a crowd sings the national anthem, belting out Happy Birthday, and singing to their babies,” Ms. Hagwood said.

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