ETSU to offer bluegrass degree?

ETSU Bluegrass, Old Time & Country Music ProgramThe East Tennessean, the student paper for East Tennessee State University, is reporting that the Bluegrass, Old Time & Country Music program at the school is hoping to expand from a minor in the Appalachian Studies department to a four year Bachelor of Arts degree.

There are still a few more steps in the accreditation process before the Bachelors Degree can begin, but a Spring 2010 announcement is their current goal. The school has offered a minor in Bluegrass, Old Time & Country Music since 2006, with a total of 72 students declared since that time.

I spoke earlier today with Raymond McLain, Director of the BOTCM at ETSU, and he was understandably excited about this possibility.

Raymond W. McLain, Director of the ETSU Bluegrass, Old Time & Country Music program“Last week we presented our proposal to the ETSU Academic Council – which includes the Deans of the various schools, the Provost, Vice Presidents, and members of the curriculum committee – and received their unanimous approval. We feel tremendous support for our program here at the University, from the President down to the students themselves.”

McLain tells us that the proposal for a 4 year bluegrass program must pass muster with the Tennessee Board of Regents at their next meeting, and then be presented to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission for their approval before the Bachelors degree can be offered.

If approved, it will be offered within the ETSU Center For Appalachian Studies & Services, and will be known as a Bachelor Of Arts in Bluegrass, Old Time & Country Music.

The course requirements would jump from the current 21 hours to 45 for the four year degree, which will include the core didactic, skills and ensemble music credits plus general education courses in the sciences, humanities and language. Students take 4 semesters of music theory as they might in a conservatory setting, but McLain says that the lessons are geared towards the musical styles the program covers.

“Traditional music schools study European music – and maybe some jazz and band music – and you study theory and harmony in a particular way that relates to that type of music. Our students learn theory and technique as it applies to bluegrass, old time and country music. We study some standard notation, but also the Nashville number system. They study songwriting, harmony singing and instrumental technique as they apply to these musical styles.

I believe it is an effective program. When I first got here there were about 100 students enrolled – now we have between 400-500. For the past 3 years now, one of Ed Snodderly’s students has won the Merlefest songwriting competition.”

Looking towards the possibility of the expansion next year, ETSU has set up a Bluegrass Advisory Group to help raise funds for the needs of a four year degree program. McLain says that they hope to raise $1,000,000 to endow for a Guest Faculty Chair.

“This would be a rotating chair, to allow us to bring in established bluegrass artists to offer special courses and mentor our students – either for a semester or a full year.

They are also raising funds for Graduate Assistant positions, for a facility to repair and maintain instruments, and for sound reinforcement gear. Gifts at any level are most gratefully accepted.

“The ETSU Bluegrass Band was playing a VA nursing home not far from the school recently, and after the program a man approached me in his wheelchair. He asked his buddy to grab his wallet and see how much money he had in there. He said, ‘Give that man $80 to help these children who came out here to sing for us. What he’s doing with these children is fantastic.’

I told him that he didn’t need to do that, but he said that he really wanted to. It was one of the first gifts we received.”

ETSU is currently searching for several lecturers for the Bluegrass, Old Time & Country Music program, on both tenure and non-tenure tracks. They have three full-time tenure track positions in the program now along with 12 adjunct faculty members.

Some of the adjunct instructors may be familiar names to our readers. Tim Stafford, Barry Bales, Adam Steffey, Hunter Berry and Richard Blaustein are among the teachers on hand to work with the students enrolled at ETSU.

Things look good for this Bachelors degree to become a reality next year, but McLain cautioned that nothing is certain until final approval is obtained.

McLain especially wanted to remember Jack Tottle, who started this program in 1982, at a time when such a thing was not so readily accepted in a university setting. Tottle had said from the beginning that he envisioned it as a way to teach young students of traditional and modern string band music to “maintain the sense of discovery, creativity and inspiration in the music.”

I asked Raymond if he had a chance to discuss the possibility of a four year degree with Jack…

“Oh yes! I called him on the way home from the Academic Council Meeting.

Jack’s vision for this program has had a major impact on the way we approach things here. Instead of teaching to avoid mistakes, we teach that part of this music is connecting with an audience and playing from your heart, with emotion and passion.”

Tottle will move from semi-retirement to full retirement after this Spring 2009 semester. I suppose his work is now done.

Share this:

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.