When Ben Helson left Rhonda Vincent & The Rage last Fall, we noted that he would be serving as the as Bluegrass Director of the Bethel University Renaissance program in McKenzie, TN. Bethel is a small, private Christian school with a total enrollment of just over 5,000 students, with satellite campuses in Jackson, Clarksville, Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis and Paris.
The school has been in continuous operation since 1842, and has developed an interesting take on creative arts opportunities for their students. Functioning much like a collegiate athletic program, Renaissance at Bethel offers academic scholarships to talented undergrads in music and theater, with the recipients rehearsing and performing in a variety of ensembles to promote the college in return.
Among the choices available to potential awardees is the Renaissance Bluegrass Band, under Helson’s direction. We caught up with him recently to get a feel for what the program entails, and what they have been doing.
“Renaissance started in 2004, with 42 recruited freshman students. Since then, it has grown to almost 300 students, all on scholarship, and with unique abilities in a wide range of musical styles and genres.
Renaissance is staffed with a combination of professional music and theater business veterans, and includes professional singers, songwriters, educators, and acting professionals. Our connections with the industry in Nashville, New York, and LA remain strong, and any student with professional aspirations will find themselves regularly rubbing elbows with people who can give them a serious look, and very likely a leg up in progressing toward their goals.
Renaissance places a strong emphasis on actual performances – on stage. Travel is extensive, and each group will perform around 100 or so times per school year. Our travels have taken us from coast to coast across the U.S., and to Canada, the Philippines, and Japan.
Renaissance partners with the Music Division and the Music Industry Studies Program on the academic side to offer a wide range of music degrees, from the most traditional to the least. However, you do not have to major in music to be a part of the Renaissance program.”
The current bluegrass band at Bethel has just wrapped up an ambitious project, a music video they completed during a 3-day summer music camp. The band, under the guidance and professional direction of Sarah Sellari and Chris Henry, wrote a new bluegrass song, recorded it, and then shot and edited a video for the song, which tells the story of a girl who attended Bethel many years ago.
It’s called End Of A Rope, and features Nicole Brand on the lead vocal.
Other students in the video include James Hathcock on mandolin, Bryan Hollifield on banjo, Tori Huntley on fiddle, Corey Kirkland on guitar, Sydni York on bass, Katie Springer on fiddle and harmony vocal, and Chelsea Rhodes on harmony vocal.
Ben says his role as director keeps him hopping, with a job description not far removed from that of a collegiate athletic coach – minus the giant salary. He has the responsibility to recruit and audition talent all over the country, rehearse the band and select their repertoire, and provide individual instruction to members as needed. Recruiting visiting instructors also falls under his bailiwick, as does producing and managing recording projects, and acting as an ambassador for Bethel University, the Renaissance program and the Renaissance Bluegrass Band.
Students in the band receive performance credit for their time in the group, which is noted in their transcripts.
Bethel encourages anyone interested in participating to contact them about opportunities with Renaissance.
“We hold auditions for anyone who is interested in becoming a part of the group, and accept as many as pass the audition. We obviously shoot for the cream of the crop, and that is what we feel we have.
We do have to have the proper combination of instruments though, but there is no limit to the number of qualified players and singers we will take. If we have too many for one group, we’ll just start a second – or a third, etc.”
Potential students interested in the Renaissance Bluegrass Band are invited to fill in this online form for more information.