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Virtual Bluegrass Workshops: 20 Workshops in 20 Weeks

Donald Teplyske  |  November 3, 2020

With COVID-19 restrictions limiting gatherings and, for much of the world, preventing in-person festivals, what does an internationally recognized bluegrass festival do while awaiting return to musical normalcy?

Invite the world-wide community to come together in a series of free workshops instructed by some of the biggest names in bluegrass and acoustic music!

20 workshops in 20 weeks, turning something that has been consistently fairly awful—2020—into a positive. And they have just the right connections—with Blue Highway's Tim Stafford, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage's Hunter Berry, The Grascals' Kristin Scott Benson, IIIrd Tyme Out's Wayne Benson, Tristan Scroggins, and more—to make it happen!

Like many festivals, Stony Plain, Alberta's Blueberry Bluegrass—the International Bluegrass Music Association's 2019 Event of the Year—wasn't able to move forward this past summer due to restrictions around crowd gathering size. Blueberry President Anna Somerville felt there was a need to facilitate connectedness within the bluegrass and acoustic community.

"When COVID hit, we couldn't figure out exactly what to do as an organization. Without a festival to keep us focused, what was our purpose?" Somerville asked. Looking ahead, and realizing restrictions could possibly keep her festival and others on the shelf for another year, Somerville looked at her decade coordinating the neighbouring, Edmonton (Alberta)-Northern Bluegrass Circle Music Society annual acoustic music workshops for inspiration. Was there a way to bring the community together on a repeated and regular basis virtually for workshops?

"I wanted to help keep our membership engaged, and keep not only us—Blueberry—in mind, but all the other small, volunteer, independent music clubs moving forward. The folk clubs, the bluegrass clubs, and the acoustic music clubs that have supported live music year-after-year."

Often operating on shoestring budgets, it is apparent that live music presenters have suffered as a result of the worldwide pandemic. Somerville's plan started to come together. "I looked at it as nurturing relationships, letting people know that we are still here, and still interested in them and what they are doing musically." With membership and audience at the social and financial core of music clubs, Somerville identified a challenge: how to keep the ticket-buying audiences engaged when events are suspended?

Blueberry wanted to offer clubs the opportunity to take care of their membership. There is no catch. "To participate in 20 in 20, you have to purchase a membership of one of the clubs—$15, $20, $25, it is up to the associated local club, or make a donation, and then members can get something back, participation in a series of incredible workshops." has all the details. It is pretty straightforward!

The way Somerville views things, this is an opportunity for Blueberry Bluegrass to assist folk and bluegrass clubs. "There is no cost to the clubs; they retain 100% of the membership fee or donation. Blueberry Bluegrass is paying all the costs to help clubs fulfil their responsibility to their members—clubs need to offer something, and here it is!"

Entertainment Director Carolyn Hotte, building on twenty years of bluegrass relationships, has attracted some of the most notable names in bluegrass and acoustic music—including multiple IBMA award winners like Kenny Smith, Jake Workman, Kristin Scott Benson, Tim Stafford, Rob Ickes, Hunter Berry, and Louisa Branscomb—as well as Canadian fiddling legend Calvin Volrath and others to lead the workshops.

"Carolyn has put together a great list of musicians, singers, and songwriters to lead the weekly Thursday evening sessions, but just as great an attraction is all the people who want to pull together and spend time together." This vision—that the music is more than the performers, it is the participants and the audience—is vital to the 20 in 20 concept. "It is not just the workshop, but we want people to come together and collaborate, and give people a reason to renew or purchase a club membership. The Zoom room will be open an hour before and an hour after the workshop, allowing people from around the world to collaborate, to talk and share."

"Northern Bluegrass went virtual via Zoom this fall," Somerville continues, "We did three days of successful, live instructional workshops in October. I realized that when we pulled the workshop attendees together, they started to feel like a community again. It turned out very positive- we had people from New Jersey, Florida, Ontario, and locals, and it came together so well."

Somerville's enthusiasm for the project is contagious. "We've pulled 20 in 20 together in a month. Now is as good a time as any—we're heading toward winter. We would love to see more than one hundred register and participate with Kenny Smith's Guitar Workshop November 5, and we hope to keep growing."

While there is no charge for the workshops, one must be a member of a participating music club to participate. The good thing is, Blueberry has offered this opportunity to Canadian, American, and International music clubs.

"We have several Alberta clubs participating, the Manitoba Old-Tyme Music Association, the Victoria Bluegrass Association, Washington Bluegrass, the Yukon's Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Fesitval, and we are hoping more will contact us to participate," Somerville adds.

When members have little reason to renew memberships, the 20 in 20 workshops provide motivation to keep the clubs alive and vibrant, offering their membership something tangible.

Somerville is excited about the possibilities virtual workshops offer the wider community. "People were raving about the fall workshops we did, and we just want to keep the momentum going. We are all separated by circumstances, but even when we are locked into our Zoom boxes on the laptop screen, we can still be connected. We can bring people together from around the world to experience the music, together."

Always one with a vision, Somerville is also philosophical. "All music clubs need to have concern for their audience, the people footing the bills; we spend most of our effort trying to fill the seats year-after-year. If we don't take care of our supporters during these challenging times, what will happen to them? Where do they go? And if the audience drifts away, how do we ever reconnect with them, and bring them back when we can get together again for a festival or concert?"

"No one is organizing the audiences right now, they are just drifting away, so...Blueberry has some money, the clubs need membership. 20 in 20 is a great win-win."

"Hopefully this will be one way in which we can all stay connected."

Blueberry Bluegrass' 20 in 20 kicks off November 5 at 7:00 PM Mountain Time, and continues Thursday evenings until April.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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