We heard yesterday from David Hollender, banjo player and professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Dave has been teaching bass and leading ensembles there for many years, and now also teaches banjo for students following the Acoustic String Principal. This is a relatively new program – spearheaded by Hollender, string chair Matt Glaser and associate professor (and mandolinist) August Watters – that enables banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar or fiddle players to pursue a degree at Berklee.
Dave told us about a group from Berklee that traveled to Helsinki, Finland last week to give students at the Pop & Jazz Conservatory a taste of bluegrass music. The Conservatory, which is a participant in the Berklee International Network (BIN) of schools, invited the group as part of their Close Encounters concert series. They had specifically requested a bluegrass band from Berklee this year, and Hollender said that the school was was more than willing to accommodate their request.
The band mixed faculty and students from Berklee, including faculty members Hollender (banjo) and John McGann (guitar, mandolin and vocals), joined by two students, Nate Leath (fiddle and vocals) and Eric Robertson (mandolin, guitar and vocals), plus Finnish bass student Eero Tikkanen.
As we mentioned, Dave teaches banjo and bass at Berklee, while John teaches mandolin and guitar. The two also lead various student ensembles that play everything from bluegrass to Celtic, mainstream jazz and Gypsy jazz.
Hollender shared a few words about the students who were involved.
“Nate Leath comes from North Carolina is about to graduate from Berklee. One of the most adventurous and versatile fiddlers anywhere, Nate is a member of Old School Freight Train, has toured with Dave Grisman, and is a repeat winner at Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention.
Eric Robertson comes from Greensboro, NC and is a first semester mandolin student at Berklee. He has solid roots in bluegrass, great chops and it’s hard to believe that he’s only been playing for four years. Watch out for this guy!”
Dave said that the set Tuesday night had the emphasis on straight ahead bluegrass with a few excursions into more adventurous sounds, which he says is indicative of what goes on at Berklee. Everybody in the band shares solid roots and a deep love for traditional bluegrass music, and combines that with a pretty remarkable range of musical interests and skills. Those varied interests open up a huge range of possibilities for the band, and also helped bridge any gap that could have existed with the Finnish music students and faculty when the Boston musicians were asked to teach.
On Thursday Hollender and McGann teamed up to offer a workshop for the Conservatory students. Dave gave a lesson on the origins and evolution of the banjo and various picking styles. John covered a wide range of topics that represent the range of his playing and teaching – various rhythm guitar techniques for bluegrass and Celtic music, ways to use a metronome, some Celtic music and finally, the guitar style of Django Reinhardt. Dave said that their workshop started with the two playing a Stanley Brothers tune and ended with John on mandolin and Dave switching over to bass to play an acoustic string duo on a jazz standard.
On Friday the Berklee students got a chance to do some teaching at a workshop of their own. The Finnish students attending included one banjo player, about three mandolin players, a few fiddlers and a handful of guitarists. Leath and Robertson started out playing an old-time tune Nate wrote on the spot. That was followed by an explanation of the role of each instrument in a bluegrass band before John and Dave joined the student teachers onstage while Nate taught the Finnish students to sing some bluegrass harmonies and play a fiddle tune.
I get a great deal of satisfaction seeing the penetration bluegrass and acoustic string music is making in the world of academic music. That bodes quite well for the next generation of musicians who will carry the banner forward into an uncertain future.