Teachers from Shoreline out to make musical history at Wintergrass Music Festival

Friday, February 11, 2011

What do Grammy winners Mark O’Conner, YoYo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, Michael Doucet, Laurie Lewis, and Darol Anger have in common with Shoreline residents Beth Fortune and Tom Petersen?

Beth Fortune
Fortune is on the same mission as many of the greatest Classical, Jazz, Folk, and Americana performers: bridging the gap between the oral and classical traditions. Students of all ages who play a variety of styles and who learn to play by ear, in addition to reading music, are better musicians and more motivated players, she says, and the educational evidence is on her side.

Fortune, the Strings and Choir teacher at Seattle’s Washington Middle School, has been a pioneer in the field of what’s known as Alternative Styles. 

this month’s Wintergrass Music Festival, she’ll help direct the world premier of a youth orchestra playing traditional and roots-styled music. The students will share the stage with famed Bluegrass fiddler Laurie Lewis, renowned New Acoustic composer Darol Anger, and Cajun legend Michael Doucet. 

Petersen and student on mandolins
Photo by Lika McFarland
The showcase performance, on the festival’s main stage, will be the first of a planned annual event open to schools and individuals nationwide that will demonstrate the joy and value of Alt Styles education. Fortune will also oversee a class for music educators looking to join in the fun.

Alt Styles’s time has come. Much in the way Jazz went from being a shunned form, found only in scattered after-school clubs in the 1960s and ‘70s, to being the most prestigious and popular band program nearly everywhere, 

Alt Styles are poised to move from lone efforts like Fortune’s, and into the mainstream. Canadian fiddler Natalie McMaster is on the cover of this month’s Strings Magazine. Classical kingpin O’Connor has just released an instructional program in Traditional American music, while YoYo Ma said in a recent Seattle Times interview that learning to play Bluegrass helped him improve his Baroque playing. 

Petersen and students on mandolins
Photo by Lika McFarland
Marsalis, who hosts the nation’s top competition for high school Jazz bands, in his book about music education, Moving to Higher Ground, pointedly says that Bluegrass shares with Jazz its Blues root and communal playing experience, and thus is equally vital and valid.

Wintergrass has long conducted a Youth Academy for young pickers, under the direction of Fortune and taught by famed multi-instrumentalist Joe Craven. For older players, there is the Reader’s Session, in which classically-trained strings players learn to “get off the page,” aided by the nation’s top Alt Styles clinician and arranger, Renata Bratt.

That music returns to the regular classroom is the goal of Tom Petersen. The longtime Shoreline community volunteer and M.C. of the Richmond Beach Strawberry Festival teaches in the Northshore district, where he teaches History with the aid of the folk and popular songs that chronicled our nation’s past. “Music has always been the great social glue,” he says. “Something’s lost when no one knows the same songs any more. That’s why Classic Rock and Roots music are so popular with kids – they can speak the same language again.”

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Two years ago, Petersen, whose sons were in the Wintergrass Youth Academy, was asked to participate in a workshop by the Foundation for Bluegrass Music to show regular classroom teachers how “three chords and the truth” could engage reluctant students and appeal to a wider variety of learning styles. 

The workshop is now a full-blown day-long course, held at the Wintergrass festival, at which teachers can earn 8 Clock Hours of credit, learn those three chords, and take home a pile of classroom-ready lesson plans and materials.

This year, Petersen and Fortune combined their efforts to add a course at Wintergrass specifically for Music teachers looking to put Americana in the school music program. Renata Bratt, American String Teachers Association president-elect Bob Phillips, education professor Tom Kopp, Ph.D, and several of the festival’s headline acts will join in the instruction.

Fiddles and banjo pickers at the Kenmore Youth Festival
Photo by Lika McFarland
The proof that Alt Styles and music in the classroom works is backed by a growing volume of education research, and by the rousing success of events like last December’s Bluegrass concert by the Kenmore and Canyon Park Junior High orchestras. Director Karen Cramer, who took Fortune and Petersen’s workshop at Wintergrass last year, overcame initial skepticism and created an indelible experience that inspired the students, their parents, and the local Bluegrass musicians who helped tutor the groups, to insist that the lesson become a permanent part of the music program.

--Tom Petersen 


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