Jan. 25, 2020 — “The only thing better than two fiddles and an awesome bluegrass band is two fiddles and an awesome bluegrass band — and a disco ball!” shouted fiddler Annie Savage, who, along with Greg Blake and Real Country, opened the 18th annual Winter Music Festival Thursday at the Florence Events Center.
The players consisted of Greg Blake on guitar and vocals, Savage on fiddle and vocals, Isaac Callender on mandolin, Nico Humby on bass and Miles Zurawell on dobro slide guitar. The second fiddler, who came out as a special treat for the well-behaved audience, was Louise Steinway, Callender’s wife.
Each year, the Winter Music Festival begins with the Kiwanis Kids Concerts for elementary students from Siuslaw, Mapleton and Reedsport.
Festival organizer Rachel Pearson and Florence Mayor Joe Henry welcomed the students.
“What an awesome group of young people. It’s great to see all that energy. Do you know what one of the best things about being mayor is?” Henry asked.
He was answered by kids in the audience yelling out, “What?”
“I get to go out into the community and attend events such as this one,” Henry continued. “This is one of my favorite ones each year.”
He warmed up the audience by encouraging the students to shout out “Thank you!” to Florence Events Center staff, event volunteers, bus drivers, teachers, school staff “and all the other people who got you here and help make this event possible.”
When Pearson spoke, she encouraged the students to get into the music.
“Follow the lead of our wonderful performers,” she said. “They’ll tell you when to clap, when to sing, when to snap, when to wave and when to do a round of applause. Follow their lead.”
As the band played, they taught students about their instruments and bluegrass as a genre.
For Savage, “Bluegrass sounds a little like how it feels to be on a train. It’s kind of like chuck-chicka-chock, chuck-chicka-chock and I think a lot of bluegrass sounds like that train.”
She talked about the railroad and its influence on America’s music, something that many teachers had emphasized in their lessons before the concert. Students learned about some of the songs and then colored a variety of coloring sheets, which are part of the Winter Music Festival decorations this weekend.
Afterwards, Siuslaw Elementary music teacher Amanda Sarles said the lesson was one of her favorite parts of the concert.
“I loved how the program was set up to show how our culture in America has been connected by the railroad system,” Sarles said. For a lot of our students, riding the train is not something already in their mindset. They don’t consider it one of the main modes of transportation or part of our culture, when for so many decades it was. This was great to introduce them to that and the music that was thriving during that time of our history, and how music is telling the stories of our history, our society, our togetherness and our unity. It’s just a wonderful message for our students to hear.”
Savage, Blake and the other musicians also told the audience about how they got into music. Several have been playing since they were very young and each is a master of their craft. They talked about their instruments, including the mandolin and the dobro, two instruments that students had a hard time identifying. Both are mainstays of the bluegrass genre.
“I absolutely loved the diversity of instruments that they used,” Sarles said later. “They were introducing our students to instruments that are native to America and our American culture. That was exciting to be able to celebrate our heritage through music.”
The musicians also encouraged the students to find a steady beat, clap along with their music and sing along with the songs that were familiar to them.
“When you listen to bluegrass, do you notice that we are tapping our toes a lot?” Savage asked. “Sometimes when you listen to music, you feel your toe moving. That might be a sign that you’re a real-life musician.”
Near the end of the show, she said to the audience, “I love playing for you. Maybe we’ll have some real-life musicians who will see us play and say, ‘Oh, I want to do that!’ That happened to me when I was in third grade and I went to a show. … I was like, ‘I want to do that with my life forever.’”
For Sarles and Siuslaw Elementary, “We’re all musicians, we all have musical abilities, we can all express ourselves. And that’s the philosophical stance I have taken as a music educator in 2020,” she said.
Sarles said she based her music philosophy on German composer Carl Orff, who believed that children could learn complicated, exciting music if they have the right instrument. In her classroom, those instruments are wooden pitched instruments, like a xylophones, metallophones, glockenspiels and contra bass bars.
“These are our children’s ensemble instruments,” Sarles said. “Any child can be successful playing them. Every kid can hit something with a mallet and feel that steady beat, recognize the harmony part and feel the rhythm. And it’s fun.”
By working with the students in an ensemble, Sarles teaches them “how to hear different textures of the sound, how to listen across the ensemble, how to do scales and pitch sets, how to sing, move and play all together, and how to improvise. … We use these instruments because they fit our bodies, fit our hands and fit our abilities across the board.
“Any student can feel like a musician and feel like they’re contributing to an ensemble.”
The ensemble instruments were made possible through donations from the community, namely Florence Elks Lodge #1858 and the Florence United Methodist Church, as well as an anonymous community member.
“I have to give our community credit for donating all of our instruments to our program,” Sarles said.
Ultimately, students may go on to pick up other instruments, but what they learn from music class will build into their future skills and presentations — such as Florence Community PTA’s upcoming talent show.
“We emphasize that it is the ‘Brave Kids’ Talent Show because it’s all about being brave,” Sarles said.
She works with students on their selections and encourages them in their abilities.
“Look what you do have. You can sing, you can dance, you can create something with your friends,” she said.
The Florence Winter Music Festival continues all weekend at the Florence Events Center, 715 Quince St. It is presented by the Friends of the Florence Events Center and presenting sponsor Sea Lion Caves. For more information, visit wintermusicfestival.org.