The Joy of Music - playing in the Great Groove Band

[Update of an earlier version published in SING OUT! Magazine, Fall '99, © Donna Hébert]

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Old Songs 04 performance

Liza Constable, Stuart Kenney and Jane Rothfield lead the Great Groove Band on the Main Stage at the 2004 Old Songs Festival, Altamont NY. (D.Hebert photo) (more 2004 photos)

Kids love music. From the youngest ages, they move in time, sing in tune, write their own, if we give them half a chance. Those of us who love folk music often wonder how to provide opportunities for our children to love it as much as we do. What could make more sense, then, than including a hands-on instrumental music program for children at a folk festival?

For six years, I've organized and coached young players from the Northeast in the Great Groove Band at Old Songs Festival, held the last weekend in June in Altamont NY. Some musicians use written music, others learn their parts by ear. We begin on Friday afternoon and practice a selection of folk music for a total of four hours with musical coaches Liza Constable and Stuart Kenney (backup skills), Jane Rothfield and myself (strings), with help from generous parent and teen volunteers.

Reassembled after rehearsing in sections, the group plays together in a slow jam setting over two days, taking the tunes from very slow up to nearly dance tempo. Later in the weekend the Groovers play their new tunes in concert on the main stage. In 2004, there were 42 young musicians on stage. Players covered a range of skills from low intermediate (0-2 yrs experience), needing more attention from parents and coaches, to highly experienced players who are helping us coach others.

The Great Groove Band came out of my fiddle teaching and band coaching in the Amherst MA area. Sitting in with the band is a great way to help musicians find their groove;this program puts the kids "in the band" and "in the groove" with us." Working with guitarist Liza Constable, fiddler Jane Rothfield and bassist Stuart Kenney, we've developed a program tailored to strings (violin, viola, cello, harp, piano, guitar, mandolin, banjo), flute, and percussion. I write arrangements graded in skill level, and we have them sing one piece (in 2004, it was "Cluck Old Hen"). We added a Teen Ensemble in 2004 with more accomplished players; they played the contradance with Stuart and Liza

Andy Spence, director of Old Songs Festival, thinks The Great Groove Band is an excellent opportunity for children to participate hands-on at the festival:

"Today, a folk festival must teach as well as entertain. The music we love is only a small part of the music scene today and we must preserve it and carry it forward to each generation. The schools require a child to learn an instrument in 5th grade, and they can choose from a selection of band instruments. Most schools do not have orchestras anymore, but children who get involved with the Suzuki method are enthusiastic string players. The music learned is mostly classical or band music. Our project with the Great Groove Band provides these children a chance to take an instrument they already play and learn to play fiddle tunes..for with fiddle tunes one can play for dancing, and one can play in ensembles with others. These two abilities are the ones that promote the playing of music at home for a lifetime. The Great Groove Band at the Old Songs Festival provides the opportunity for young people to learn how to enjoy the simplicity and lasting quality of fiddle tunes and to share it with others and hopefully pass it on."

Sally Boards, mother of teen fiddler Jon Bogardus of Greenville NY, said
"The Great Groove Band is a great way for kids to build self-esteem by playing in front of large audiences!"

What are the most important things to remember if you want to include a program like "The Great Groove Band" in your local, regional, or national folk festival?

In addition to being excellent "grooving" players themselves, the musicians hired to work with kids ought to have experience doing just that, and also be musically literate, i.e., write and read music and chord charts, and be able to arrange on the spot. Liza Constable taught young guitarists how to read and follow a chord progression. My string arrangements come out of years of dance fiddling and teaching, and like Lise's horn arrangements and Liza's progressions, are often reworked to fit the group needs that day. Some of our arrangements were written by my young students.

Ahead of time, festival committees should include information about the young band in all their festival PR [prominently, please!] with contact information for registration. They can also send brochures to local area school and private teachers and music departments, and possibly get flyers to area schools' end of year music concerts (for a summer festival). Most young players at Old Songs Festival are registered for our group by parents attending the festival for the weekend as campers or volunteers. They are going to be there already, and they already play an instrument.

What do you want to know about players when they register? What instrument do they play? How long and how well? How old are they? Get a complete address/email if possible so coaches can communicate ahead of time with families and young musicians and know what sort of arrangements to prepare, especially for horn players, who require transposed arrangements. Make sure they know to bring music stands, extra strings, reeds, etc. Coaches provide music, and let registrants know time and location of scheduled workshops at festival.

Each year we have some beginners and some advanced players , with the majority in the middle. We have graded arrangements for them, with lessons in style for advanced players and chord charts for the backup guitarists. Writing arrangements for new tunes each year is a labor of love. We pick tunes we love to play ourselves and want to pass along, then create several levels of the melody for players of various skills to play. Then we add harmonies, bass and rhythm lines so it sounds authentic.

It's very important for coaches to be dedicated to not losing anyone. We're always looking for strays when we play with the kids, making sure they don't get lost. We'll move around, making sure we help those who need it, and stand next to the waiverers so they can cop our groove, which, is after all, the whole point. NOTE ABOUT SOUND: With such a short time available for us to work with them, young players need to hear the coaches. Make sure your festival teaching areas have at least one mike for rehearsals, or coaches could be shouting over 40 kids.

From the first Great Groove Band, parents have helped get their young band members prepared and ready to perform onstage. Some help very young players to stay focused and feel safe in a large group, others help tune instruments, coach sectional rehearsals, and generally help us prepare 40-60 school-age musicians for a half-hour performance (after a total of only four hours of rehearsal!).

So what is "groove"? It's the heart of the music, the inner rhythms of the tune that pulse in our blood. How do you find it? Someone shows you how, usually, and takes you there. That's what we're doing. We start slow and work tunes up to speed, playing along with them s they can copy our groove. We know that playing in the groove is a motivation for continuing to play music, so why not show young musicians how to find it for themselves? Once they do, they'll never stop playing music - just like us!

For more information about including this program or one like it in your festival, or information about joining the Great Groove Band at Old Songs Festival June 24-26, 2005, please email Donna Hébert.


Donna Hébert
Donna Hébert
Donna Hébert


Donna Hébert is an extraordinary fiddler and backup musician, able to find the heart of any piece and play from there. Adept as well at helping others to find their musical groove, she teaches fiddling to individuals and groups at schools, conferences and festivals. A recognized master of Franco-American fiddling, she has worked under state arts council sponsorship with fiddle apprentices from CT and NH. Adjunct fiddle instructor at Amherst and Hampshire Colleges, Donna is also completing an extensive fiddling guide for string players, fiddlers and teachers. Fiddling Demystified's first volume includes string arrangements of 30 tunes set authentically in regional styles, with audio instruction for each tune. Fiddling Demystified will be available online at late in 2005.



site, design, all recordings © 2005 Donna Hébert / Fiddlestick Graphics.