Bluegrass In The Schools subsidized by AR Arts Council

It was just some casual web surfing that pointed me to the information about the BITS Program on the Arkansas Bluegrass web site. A follow-up query led to a lengthy discussion with Redmond Keisler about this program, which seeks to expose middle and elementary school students in Arkansas to bluegrass music. Keisler is a bluegrass dobroist, a partner in the Leno Capo Company, and the owner of Key Video Services, a video production company in Sheridan, AR.

Many of us who have performed in bluegrass bands have found occasion to do a brief program in a school, and the reaction of the young folks is almost always quite enthusiastic and encouraging. What Keisler is doing with the BITS Program is considerably more ambitious than bringing a band in to pick a few tunes, and is deserving of the attention and support of a wider swath of the bluegrass community.

Either alone, with just his resonator guitar and a backup guitarist, or with his full bluegrass group, The Keisler Brothers, Redmond can deliver a PowerPoint presentation to school systems that explains the history of bluegrass music, and when the band is on hand, demonstrate the structure of the music, the vocal harmony, and even perform a dozen or so songs that illustrate the style. They also demonstrate the different instruments, how they are played and talk a bit about the history behind them.

They are now listed with the Arkansas Arts Council, meaning that up to 40% of the cost of bringing this presentation to a school can be covered by AAC grants. You can find more information about the grants and the council on the AAC web site.

Of course, Keisler is not alone in these efforts. The International Bluegrass Music Association has been involved for some time, and offers a number of resources to to assist program developers and educators in this area.

Many people who have been working to promote bluegrass music education for young people credit Greg Cahill and his band, Special Consensus, for much of the early work that led to the IBMA program. The Traditional American Music (TAM) program debuted in 1984 with Special Consensus delivering it at hundreds of schools since then, and a rough estimate suggests that it has reached at least a million students during that time.

Cahill feels that The Goins Brothers may have actually been the first bluegrass artists to bring the music into schools, and credits a friend with first coaxing him into the classroom with his banjo.

“One of my teacher friends asked me to visit her classroom whenever I had time to play the banjo for her students starting back in the 1970s. I did, and the students loved the music, so I came back with a guitar player months later. Then the other teachers in that school heard about my visit and asked me to come back, which I did with the band. Then teachers from neighboring schools heard about our visits and asked us to come to their schools, and it began to grow. Since there was so much interest in bringing our acoustic sounds to the students – most of whom never heard or saw a banjo or mandolin, and upright bass – I went to the library and researched the basic origins of country music, which of course bluegrass music was considered in the formative years. I then developed a presentation outline, wrote up a several page overview of our ‘musical history lesson’ and called the program The Traditional American Music (TAM) Program. In 1984, I began offering this program for a nominal fee to schools in the Chicago area (since all Special C personnel moved to Chicago area to be in the band at that time) and eventually to the arts councils and town festivals that scheduled The Special C for concert performances.”

Greg’s TAM presentation is a single 35-40 minute program which includes musical performance interspersed with some historical background on the origins of bluegrass music, how the various instruments are constructed and used in a band, and how the vocal harmonies are arranged. The basic outline for this program continues to evolve as new ideas emerge, and Cahill makes it freely available on the Special C web site.

When Redmond Keisler brought Special Consensus into a Little Rock school to present the TAM program during a band visit to Arkansas in the 1980s, a seed was planted for what would become a full-fledged program under his own direction. They have a week’s worth of lesson plans which they can distribute to the school in advance, modified for either elementary or secondary schools.. Especially for English, History and Music classes, the students can study a bit about bluegrass music before the presentation, and Keisler and the band can even help any students with an inkling towrads learning to play bluegrass find their way to getting started.

“We do the assembly program and the follow up afterwards to help the students get started the fastest and easiest way possible. We stay with it to make it fun and a social event to get together and jam, when the kids can handle a jam session together. We keep them informed of Bluegrass event to come to and hear the music and see other performers.

He invites anyone with an interest in having them at their school in Arkansas to contact him for more information.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.