Darren Nicholson takes bluegrass to the schools in Asheville

Bluegrass in the Schools has been a priority for some years now for the International Bluegrass Music Association, and the IBMA Foundation, both of whom have developed and supported programs for teachers who want to introduce the music to their students. A number of touring bands have special shows that they can take to a school audience, which introduces the instruments in the bluegrass band, and shares some history of the music for special assemblies.

It’s a very personal thing for Darren Nicholson, mandolinist with Balsam Range who also performs with his own group, as he met his wife at just such a school show. Jennifer Nicholson is a first cousin to Audie Blaylock, and Darren first cast eyes on her playing a show for her students when he was filling in with Audie’s band. She was teaching 6th grade general music in Michigan at the time, and the band did a workshop with her students in class, followed by a full concert that evening. And as they say… the rest is history.

Living now in western North Carolina, Jennifer teaches Music Appreciation at Asheville High School for grades 9-12. Since it’s a style native to the Appalachian region, she includes a section on bluegrass music each year. Just this week Darren brought some pickers to the high school to give a live demonstration.

Jennifer tells us that using her talented husband as a resource was an obvious idea.

“We have just completed a bluegrass unit and I asked Darren to bring in a group to perform for the students. I’ve used the Discover Bluegrass DVD for several years, but since it’s geared to younger children, I decided to adapt my own lesson from the DVDs and incorporate a live band into it as well. We can watch YouTube videos all day, but seeing it in person brings it to a whole new level, and the kids agreed! As they were walking out the door, we overheard one of them comment to another that ‘it’s much better live, for sure!’

This year, we were lucky enough to have Derek Vaden (Larry Stephenson Band), Lyndsay Pruett (John Stickley Trio), Caleb Hanks, and Celia Millington-Wyckoff join Darren for the performance.

Last year, it was the same group but with Bennett Sullivan (a 2019 IBMA Momentum Award winner for his TuneFox app) on banjo.

This year was the third time I’ve done this with my high school students. Our first time was around 2009 with Balsam Range.”

Well done, Jennifer and Darren! There is no better way to introduce young folks to bluegrass than with their own personal concert, where they can ask questions and recognize that real people play the music. The same thing was done in my high school in an earlier age, and it had a big impact on my decision to pursue a career in bluegrass.

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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.