New program encourages children to play musical instruments

A group of artisans are hoping in the next 18 months Montgomery County students will want to JAM after school. JAM stands for Junior Appalachian Musicians and introduces music to children grades 4-8.

Last week Sue Farrar, a member of the Montgomery County JAM board of directors, introduced the program to the Christiansburg town council.

“JAM is an after-school music education program for children to learn old-time and bluegrass music of the Appalachians,” she said.

Farrar, who is also the executive director of the Montgomery Museum, is excited about the effort.

“We saw an opportunity to bring it here and see this as a way to help youngsters with their self-esteem,” she said.

The Montgomery County JAM group consists of Angela Hagwood, music instructor in the county’s school system; Cord Hall, Christiansburg town council; David Reemsynder, the Crooked Road Executive Board; Ellen Stewart, town of Blacksburg; Ginger Wagner, old-time musician; Jean Haskell, Mountains of Music Homecoming; Lisa Bleakley, Montgomery Regional Tourism Director; Mike Larkin, President of On Main Street; and Farrar.

“I feel we have a great board of directors that can get this off the ground,” Farrar told council.

The initial program was started in 2000 at Sparta (North Carolina) Elementary School, and interest spread like wild fire with assistance from the National Endowment for the Arts, N.C. State Arts Council, Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and the Crooked Road—Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail.

Currently there are 40 locations in North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee providing this experience to more than 1,500 children. There are 10 JAM programs in southwest Virginia.

Helen White, the founder of JAM, said it’s not really about developing the next superstar. Instead it’s about building a community.
“We want these kids to feel proud of who they are, feel proud of their heritage, and we want them to have a place to belong all their life,” she said.

Typically those instruments used include the fiddle, banjo and guitar. Each JAM organization is individually operated and funded, and is eligible to receive support and resources from the parent group.

Often JAM instrument instruction is augmented by dance and vocal instruction as well as string band classes, which introduce the children to additional Appalachia culture and history.

According to Farrar, schools that have music programs have an attendance rate of 93.9 percent compared to 84.9 percent in schools without music programs.

Statistics from the National Association for Music Education tends to agree as young children who take music lessons show different brain development and improved memory over the course of a year, compared to children who do not receive musical training.

But the problem lies in the lack of funding for such programs as many schools have faced decreased funding for music education.

White said the traditional music education offered by JAM also benefits communities at large by integrating parents and grandparents with activities and performances.

Montgomery JAM is hoping to jumpstart the program by the spring of next year but some form of it could be up and running by this fall.

“We will need some financial support from local government and the private sector to buy instruments, provide a stipend for instructors and possible hire a local coordinator,” Farrar said.

The program will also have to figure out the logistics of transportation so students can be brought after-school to a centralized location at the former Christiansburg Baptist Church that was recently purchased and renovated by Ignite Academy’s On Main.

An exhibition concert will be performed by the Floyd JAM group at the June 17 Mountain of Music celebration in downtown Christiansburg.

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