Music Ed Majors Build Community Through Appalachian Exploration

“Strings are among the hardest instruments to get started on as a beginner,” says Jessye Bartlett. A fiddle player herself who began at the age of three, her knowledge of its difficulty didn’t dissuade her from recruiting a pair of sax-playing Panthers to take over her strings program for young people.

Corie Brown ’22 and Ethan Pruett ’22 planned a month-long curriculum exploring Appalachian music. They taught Monday through Thursday in January as part of Bartlett’s Fiddlehead Field music program, which runs out of the newly renovated Dole Mill in Campton, NH. 

Corie Brown ’22

Through her outreach on behalf of the New Hampshire Music Festival, Bartlett knew about Plymouth State’s music education program and its desire to have students go out into the community. She reached out to Director of Chorale Harmony Markey, who introduced the option to students.

“It’s highly suggested that music education juniors do a teaching apprenticeship over their early spring semester, but it’s proved more difficult due to COVID,” says Markey, whose advisees include Brown and Pruett. “Corie and Ethan dove right in and were the head instructors for this project, and got a very unique, very comprehensive opportunity to practice with real-life kids. This went way beyond the call of what these apprenticeships normally look like.”

Ethan Pruett ’22

The pair worked with 16 students, ranging from age four to teenage years. “What’s so impressive is that Corie and Ethan weren’t just preparing random lessons but a whole unit with progression for all of the ages,” says Markey. “They got a jumpstart as music educators, and now that they are starting the Elementary School Music Methods course, they will certainly be able to reflect back on the different methodologies and classroom management skills they used.”

The two saxophonists had the benefit of taking PSU’s required String Methods course, but, in other respects, it was trial by fire. “It was a little scary at first,” admits Brown. “I had never worked with other people’s kids in a group setting and we had to come up with everything ourselves. I would not have had that experience otherwise and I’m so glad I did.”

Bartlett helped guide some of her pre-orchestra learners (ages four to six) who had never touched an instrument before last fall, but the older, orchestral groups that could already read music were more fully under Brown’s and Pruett’s direction.

Appalachian Hymn
Three Fiddle Tunes

Planning was the most difficult part. “We hadn’t taken a class on that yet, so when the whole group was there, it was harder to keep everyone engaged in the whole process,” says Brown. Games such as rhythm bingo proved very popular, as did group singing, dancing, and exercises.

The Fiddlehead Field program is based on El Sistema, a publicly financed music education program whose motto is “Music for Social Change.” “We try to be inclusive as possible, so there are no auditions and no cost,” explains Bartlett. “The goal is creating citizen artists in the community, and Corie and Ethan embraced that in their lessons and discussions.”

El Sistema is very community focused and it was very cool to learn about it,” says Pruett. “We’re in the mountains and can relate to how small towns rely on everyone to get things done, so we tried to be sensitive and made culturally appropriate selections.”

“Music is inherently a community-building activity,” notes Brown.

The Fiddlehead Field students were introduced to Appalachian culture through the music they learned and other activities. String lessons were complemented by playing “canjos” that Brown and his dad built out of cans, guitar strings, and sticks, and by simple maraca shakers of tin cans filled with beans. A highlight of the culminating concert was a rendition of Appalachian Hymn, featuring a full string section of bass, cello, viola, and violin.

Canjos built by Brown and his father.

The experience strengthened and expanded the PSU students’ horizons. “I’ve always known that I wanted to teach music, but, prior to this, I hadn’t worked with younger kids,” says Brown. “Now I know that I could be satisfied with teaching any age group.”

“I’ve always loved music and knew I liked working with kids,” says Pruett, whose background includes work as a camp counselor. “I hadn’t had the opportunity to combine the two passions until now and this project reaffirmed that I love what I’ve chosen to do.”

Collaborating with PSU benefited Bartlett as well. “I was excited to learn from the students about the teaching methods they used,” she says. “They did such a phenomenal job and in just a month they put together an amazing program. My students loved them.”

Further musical collaborations between the University and Fiddlehead Field are being considered, perhaps as early as this summer.