News Column

Teaching the next generation bluegrass

November 14, 2013


Nov. 14--PLATTSBURGH -- Little fingers -- and not so little -- are a-picking and a-strumming banjos, guitars and ukuleles, thanks to the Bluegrass for the Next Generation Project.

Known as BGNG, the project was launched by the generosity of an anonymous donor.

"Its conception began the summer of 2011," said Stuart Voss, who serves as president of the project's steering and executive committees.

"This person generated the overall idea, and different ones of us helped fill in the framework, but the vision came from the donor."


The project's mission is "to encourage a lifelong interest in acoustic music, in general, and bluegrass music specifically."

"The donor's vision is to address a problem in bluegrass," Voss said. "It is mainly followed by the Baby Boomers and those older people over 50 who came to like it in the '50s and early '70s.

"Bluegrass music needs to be brought to the next generation, hence BGNG."

The project has a five-fold educational process:

--Introduce the genre through schools.

--Involve the new audience in listening and attendance at concerts.

--Encourage those musically inclined to learn to play acoustic instruments used in bluegrass.

--Encourage community outreach and generational mixing so interest in bluegrass music may be passed on from one generation to the next.

--Undertake any additional activities that further the objectives of the BGNG project.

"The first year was to create a plan that evolved by early 2012 and the first kickoff concert by the Gibson Brothers," Voss said.


The education process includes components in high school, college and community.

Participating schools receive donations for instruments and funds so students can attend bluegrass festivals and concerts.

Glen Gillespie, Plattsburgh Bluegrass Festival founder, discounted tickets to students K-12 and college. The festival includes mini-clinics led by bluegrass professionals.

At Willsboro Central School, Superintendent Steve Broadwell and music teacher Jennifer Moore ran with the project.

"Willsboro High School was the first to take it on during the academic year to incorporate it into their music program," Voss said. "Northern Adirondack and Chateaugay are working on it.

"The idea is those students will learn bluegrass and, hopefully, some of those will come to Plattsburgh State and take part of the college component that is taking shape, an emerging bluegrass program on campus.

"The main effort is to provide instruments and them getting started."


SUNY Plattsburgh Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and professor of sociology Dr. Steve Light will teach the debut class, Music 119: Introduction to Bluegrass Music in spring 2014.

"Basically, it's an introduction to the founding of bluegrass shortly after World War II," said Light, who is a multi-instrumentalist (banjo, dobro and guitar) in the Bluegrass Gospel Project.

Students will learn about instruments, vocal harmonies, bluegrass bands and the genre's pioneers, such as Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe.

"Up to the present-day people like Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs and that kind of thing, so that covers a lot," Light said.

"As a bluegrass musician myself, this is a great opportunity for me because I love the music, and it's a chance for me talk to students about that and pass on some of my passion for the music."


Though he played the saxophone and guitar in high school and band and so forth, he always had a desire to play bluegrass.

"It speaks to me in ways other kinds of music don't," Light said. "Some people will listen to opera and think it's the most wonderful sound the ever heard. Other people hear jazz guitar. I heard bluegrass. I said, 'That's great. I have to learn how to do that.'"

At 16, he saw a used banjo hanging in a Glens Falls instrument store. He made time payments until he bought it.

"It had a warped neck, but it was good to learn on it," Light said. "I went to college in the pre-Internet days. I was trying to learn about bluegrass, but there was no YouTube and no Internet."

At SUNY Cortland, he was trying to play his banjo in his dorm room when another student walked by and told him he needed to get Earl Scruggs banjo book.

Light wished he was as lucky as the BGNG students. A member of the college's Bluegrass Club registered for his new course.

"If I was in college now, and they had something like that, I would join it," Light said.


The college component encourages students to become music minors or majors, with a specialty in bluegrass.

"They will take ensemble like they take guitar, woodwind and brass ensembles," Voss said.

"The donor has provided up to eight (student) scholarships over a two-year cycle. They be obligated take the introductory course and the ensemble course. We're working on the final details on that."


BGNG was branded by Jonathan Slater's PRE468-Advanced Advertising Strategies students.

"It's academic-service learning," Slater said. "The students are working hands-on for a real client, and the client is usually a community client or a nonprofit or government unit or some sort of pubic agency."

BGNG's campaign was to build awareness of bluegrass music among student populations in the North Country, particularly at the college but not exclusively.

"Experience Bluegrass" is the campaign's theme, which was integrated in all things BGNG from the Saturday's concert to the new course and scholarships.

"It was a branding campaign that anything being done under the auspices of BGNG was one with one voice, one message, one idea," Slater said.

"Bluegrass is just more than a music genre you listen to. It's a full participatory experience."

The campaign is a call to action: listen, join in and get together.

"Do what they (bluegrass musicians and fans) do," Slater said. "What they have is a really great time."


A special collection of bluegrass CDs, books and film is under creation at the Feinberg Library thanks to generous donations by Eric Gibson, Compass Records, WAMU Bluegrass on-line and others. The collection will be digitized and Tim Harnett, a reference librarian and roots musician is the library's point person.

The Communications Department received scholarships to develop a bluegrass radio show on WARP for student deejays. The show airs on campus Channel 10 or Charter Cable Channel 17 for 10 weeks every semester. Soon, it will stream music live over WARP's website.

The Bluegrass Club meets twice weekly and is led by Shannon Ferguson.

The project's Steering Committee includes Julie Hogan, a counselor-education lecturer at the college and bassist in Beartracks, and Hap Wheeler, the college's network manager and mandolin player in the Too Tall String Band.

"Eric Gibson is a member of the committee and an artist-in-residence on campus," Voss said.

Saturday's Gibson Brothers concert is a reminder to the students of the power of bluegrass music.

"We had 400 to 450 at the (last) concert," Voss said. "We hope to pack the house. Net proceeds over expenses will go to the BGNG fund on campus."

Email Robin

IF YOU GO WHAT: Gibson Brothers: Bluegrass for the Next Generation Benefit Concert. WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16. WHERE. Glenn Giltz Auditorium, Hawkins Hall, SUNY Plattsburgh. ADMISSION: $18 general admission, $6 college students. Tickets available at the information desk in Angell College Center or at the door. RELATED EVENT: "Believe It or Not! Bluegrass Is Back." 5 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20, third-floor reading room, Feinberg Library. Eric Gibson of the Gibson Brothers bluegrass band and Dr. Steve Light, associate vice president for academic affairs at SUNY Plattsburgh, present and perform. Part of a new Feinberg Library series. CONTACT: For more information, contact Cerise Oberman at 564-5184 or


(c)2013 the Press-Republican (Plattsburgh, N.Y.)

Visit the Press-Republican (Plattsburgh, N.Y.) at

Distributed by MCT Information Services

A service of YellowBrix, Inc.

For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters