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Montessori students sound out the basics of bluegrass

St. Cecilia Music Center program teaches about music and its history

Hayes Griffin and band perform during a folk music assembly at Grand Rapids Montessori Academy. The concert was presented by St. Cecilia Music Center

Grand Rapids — It all starts with a “boom-chop,” a “boom-chicka” and a “picky-picky.” 

If that sounds like nonsense, ask students at Grand Rapids Montessori Academy about it. They’ll tell you those seemingly silly onomatopoeias are the building blocks of bluegrass.

Students learned all about it during a recent assembly brought to the school by St. Cecilia Music Center as part of the historic music education organization’s Jazz and Folk, In School and In Concert Student Experience.

Bluegrass artist Hayes Griffin and his band visited the school to give students a breakdown of how the genre works, from counting out beats to miming the sounds of various instruments. The “boom-chop’ is the work of the standup bass and the mandolin; the “boom-chicka” comes from the versatile guitar; and the “picky-picky” is the banjo at work.

As Griffin performed, he asked students to play a part in the music by vocalizing the sounds for each instrument. About 90 students attended, and the group was divided into fourths, with each quarter responsible for shouting out the sound of the bass, mandolin, guitar or ukulele.

“I liked the boom,” second-grader Nasir McIntosh said shyly, speaking about the bass. “I liked the whole concert.”

His fellow students felt the same way.

“It was really fun,” said third-grader Dean Hettinga. “I really like the mandolin. I like how it goes so fast.”

Dean wasn’t the only mandolin fan in the group.

“I feel like it’s cool. It goes fast and it’s a cool beat,” second-grader Lucchese Kelly said.

Roman Walczak, a third-grader, said his favorite part of the show was Griffin’s guitar work, and Tom Sutherland’s bass.

“I really liked the guitar,” he said. “I also liked the bass.” 

He said his father plays bass in church, and he’s currently trying to learn the instrument himself. 

“It’s a little tricky to learn as a kid, but it’s pretty fun learning it,” he said.

‘It was so cool to see the kids kind of get fired up about learning the elements that create a bluegrass groove, and they were really quick to pick it up.’

— Hayes Griffin, bluegrass artist

Cultural Impact

In addition to teaching the fundamentals of how bluegrass sounds, Griffin also tried to touch on the social and cultural elements of the genre.

“Bluegrass, like jazz and rock and hip-hop and all other styles of American music, has a blues element at the core,” he said, stressing the importance of teaching a “musical lineage” to students.

The lineage of bluegrass is particularly significant for Michigan, Griffin said. The genre’s musical history is linked to the path taken by many in the 1930s and ‘40s from the American South to places like Detroit, in search of economic opportunities.

“A lot of people in Michigan can trace their roots back to that migration,” he said.

The blues came, Griffin said, likening it to the base of a tree from which jazz, country and folk music sprouted. Bluegrass, he said, groups many of these components together.

He added that the history of the music has educational value, particularly with respect to social history. He’s happy to tell students about it, and they were happy to learn.

“It was so cool to see the kids kind of get fired up about learning the elements that create a bluegrass groove, and they were really quick to pick it up,” Griffin said. 

Folk musicians recently visited Grand Rapids elementaries for an educational concert. Pictured, front row, from left, are students Nasir McIntosh, Roman Walczak, Lucchese Kelly and Dean Hettinga; back row, musicians Hayes Griffin, Tom Sutherland and Jason Wheeler

He said he was surprised that a hand shot right up in the air when he asked students to identify the mandolin. Often, elementary-level students aren’t familiar with the instrument, but one student knew it immediately during the visit to Montessori. Griffin was impressed.

“You guys are good at this,” he told the group. “I think we have a bluegrass band here today.”

Interactive, Educational, ‘Amazing’

St. Cecilia partners with elementary schools in the Grand Rapids Public Schools system to offer these assemblies, which bring music lessons to life for young learners.

Griffin and his band stopped by the three GRPS elementary schools participating in this year’s program: Montessori, Palmer and C.A. Frost. Prior to that was a similar workshop focusing on jazz, held in February with the Doc Sawyer Combo, also appearing at all three schools.

The program will culminate in a concert on April 16 at St. Cecilia, 24 Ransom Ave. NE, Grand Rapids, involving the jazz and folk musicians, as well as students form the three elementary schools. 

This is the second year St. Cecilia has hosted the assemblies and concert, according to Cyndi Betts, education and community engagement director, who sang the praises of the program following the Montessori workshop.

“It’s interactive and educational,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

During the April 16 event, St. Cecilia will “pack our 600-seat hall with kids” for back-to-back performances of jazz and folk music.

St. Cecilia focuses mainly on GRPS schools, but expanding the program to other districts is “not out of the question,” said Betts.

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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