Jenny Brook’s Bluegrass University

Beginner Classes for Adults – get the right start or review the fundamentals

Fairgrounds at the 2013 Jenny Brook Festival - photo by Dick BowdenIn Vermont’s Green Mountains, the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival took place June 27-30 in the farming village of Tunbridge. Lest you think this is just some wide spot in the road, it’s the home of the Tunbridge WORLD’S FAIRGROUNDS folks.

The Fairgrounds date from the 1800s, with picture postcard white wooden agricultural buildings, and a huge white grandstand facing a trotting track.  The festival stage and audience are inside the track, and the campers are spread out in all directions. Some even pitched tents inside the vacant livestock stables.

In addition to the top-notch line up of entertainers, for the third year Jenny Brook offered The Bluegrass University for those getting hooked on the jam sessions amongst the campsites.

Tony Watt of Boston put together Bluegrass University from experience at the Joe Val Memorial Festival in Massachusetts. There, instruction known as Fast Track! is offered to novice pickers and singers. Fast Track! is well-enough known at Joe Val that the classes are always “full up.” The Bluegrass University’s third year at Jenny Brook resulted in fourteen signed up for the two-and-a half-hour small group instruction on Saturday afternoon.

Bluegrass University faculty at Jenny Brook 2013: Tony Watt, Kelly Syockwell, Laura Orshaw, Mary Maguire, Chris Brashear, Bruce Stockwell - photo by Dick BowdenJenny Brook promoted The Bluegrass University in the program booklet and with signs around the campground. The faculty put on a concert at a small stage Friday evening, and then held an open invitation meet and greet Saturday noon in the fairground livestock judging arena. The curious were asked to bring a chair, instrument, and the nominal fee for the very informal class sessions, to begin at 2:00 p.m. After a few questions, one student asked the instructors to play something “so we can see if you’re any good!” The teachers sang Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky and played Bill Cheatham. That did the trick, and committed students returned at 2:00.

Chris Brashear (left) working with a student at Jenny Brook's Bluegrass University - photo by Dick BowdenTony Watt led the guitarists. Laura Orshaw taught the fiddlers. Tony and Laura perform in the Boston band Southeast Expressway. Mary Maguire who leads her own band in New Hampshire instructed the vocal group. Chris Brashear of Robin & Linda Williams’ Fine Band covered the mandolin. Bruce Stockwell taught banjo, and his wife Kelly Stockwell led the bass pickers. Bruce and Kelly perform with Vermont’s Hot Mustard. Dobro instruction was also available from Andy Katz of Flatt Rabbit.

Bruce Stockwell (left) works with a banjo student at Jenny Brook 2013 - photo by Dick BowdenBanjo, guitar, mandolin and fiddle groups worked in different shady corners of the judging arena. Vocalists and bass players convened at each instructor’s campsite.

Each class tuned out the surroundings and concentrated on their musical interests.   They paid no mind to the  hubbub of a bluegrass festival in a country fairground setting (for instance the open mike band contest, squealing kids, nearby old time fiddle jams, and yokes of oxen-in-training).

Fiddle class at Bluegrass University (Jenny Brook 2013) led by Laura Orshaw (at left) - photo by Dick BowdenThe faculty judged students’ needs in a flash and designed the instruction on the fly. The banjo class started with tuning, mechanical adjustments and a variety of rolls, leading eventually to beginner tunes. The fiddlers began with proper instrument, bow and body positions, how to draw the bow for a clear note, and then worked out the “long note” melody of a vocal tune, phrase by phrase. On the other hand, the mandolin class got quickly into tunes and riffs starting with Lost All My Money and Soldiers Joy.

Guitar class at Bluegrass University (Jenny Brook 2013) led by Tony Watt (at right) - photo by Dick Bowden

The guitar track presumed that the students knew how to play but wanted to learn bluegrass style. Students were taught how to grip the pick for a good attack on the bluegrass G run — counted out and played super-slow – which was eventually incorporated into the standard “boom-chick” rhythm.

Mary Maguire (center) leads the vocal class at Jenny Brook's Bluegrass University - photo by Dick BowdenThe vocal group jumped right into lead and harmony with I’ll Fly Away and other familiar numbers, then reviewed voice mechanics and management of power. There was plenty of singing to the accompaniment of two guitars.

Kelly Stockwell (at left) leads the bass class at the 2013 Jenny Brook festival - photo by Dick Bowden

The bass class had mixed experience levels, from a lady who had just bought a bass the previous day, to another who could already play and was looking for advancement. There was something for all. When the Nashville Number System was discussed, and how to recognize 1, 4 and 5 chords from the guitar player’s left-hand-shapes no matter where capoed, a light seemed to go on for even the more advanced students. They discussed mechanical adjustments, left hand positioning and right hand attack. They practiced the “One-Five” patterns on Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and concluded with walking patterns and runs between chords. An impromptu jam with a wandering guitar picker worked out great on I’m On My Way Back to The Old Home.

The students’ feedback included:  “Great chance to discuss and ask questions…instructors are so patient…very good…helpful…instructors willing to progress slowly with us…beyond my expectations as a first-time student…great!… good class with a good group…now I can play!…excellent instructor…taught to the different levels within the group…I’ve been learning for 3 years…learned new things and corrected wrong things…got tools to take home and work with later” etc.  Additionally, on Sunday the student who bought her bass on Friday proudly informed Kelly Stockwell that she had joined a jam on Saturday night, and was able to play a few songs.

Gibson Brothers on stage at the 2013 Jenny Brook Festival - photo by Dick BowdenMeanwhile great bluegrass music delighted the festival audience from New England, New York, Pennsylvania, eastern Canada and beyond. Mandolinist Jesse Brock did double duty, completing his run with Audie Blaylock & Redline and starting his employment with Entertainers of the Year the Gibson Brothers. Ask someone who was there about Leigh Gibson and the huge moth during the Saturday night show…

Loving the show at the 2013 Jenny Brook Festival - photo by Dick BowdenEntertainers included The Lonesome River Band, James King, the Seldom Scene, Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers, Tony Holt & the Wildwood Valley Boys (it’s always good to hear Atlanta is Burning wafting over the campground from the stage sound system), Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, Nothin’ Fancy, and regional favorites Smokey Greene, Erica Brown from Maine, Hot Mustard, New Hampshire’s Monadnock, Massachusetts’ Mason Zink Band and Mike & Mary Bluegrass Gospel Sing. The show was hosted by proprietors The Seth (and Candi) Sawyer Band.

Jamming behind the grandstand at Jenny Brook 2013 - photo by Dick BowdenEach night a stage band hosted a jam at the Sugar Shack concession, where coffee, corn chowder and hot dogs were served up for the night owls.  Breakfast, ice cream and maple sugar candy menus were memorized for the next day!

And of course, there was jamming everywhere in the fairgrounds, day and night. Several pro band members visited the campsites to join the after-hours music-making.

Seth and Candi Sawyer and The Bluegrass University felt that 2013 was very successful, and the attendees agreed. The solid bluegrass music, natural beauty, and fellowship of Jenny Brook bring the folks back year after year. Bluegrass University should add to the festival’s appeal.

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About the Author

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden is a VERY traditional bluegrass picker and fan from New England, who makes occasional contributions to Bluegrass Today representing the old timers' viewpoints.