Reluctant fingers are coaxed into unfamiliar positions on guitar necks; vocal cords strive for sure notes of melody and harmony; hands and feet create rhythmic patterns to keep the beat — it’s Monday night at the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley, and Community Music Jam is underway.
In these weekly sessions, local professional musicians mentor less-experienced participants within a relaxed, informal band setting. The program began in March and is in the midst of the first of what will be four 10-week series.
“We didn’t quite know what to expect and who would show up,” said Center Executive Director Julie Baker. “But it has exceeded our expectations.”
Participants arrive one by one, divide into small groups to work on respective instrumental and vocal parts to a selected song and assign volunteer soloists. Everyone gathers on the main stage to play together — rhythms are kept, chord changes made, voices raised, and solos are expressed via voice, violin, flute, clarinet, dobro, mandolin, harmonica and guitar. What had arrived individually, with expectation and occasional apprehension, becomes a collective explosion of musical joy and exuberance at the end of the evening.
For Carla Cipollone, after undergoing several surgeries to heal a career-ending back injury, Community Music Jam is an opportunity to strengthen her guitar skills and make connections with other people who enjoy playing informally.
Cami Beckerdite comes from a musical family with four siblings.
“There were no drummers, and I always wanted to play,” she said, explaining her attraction to percussion.
Cami helped pique her friend Lori Stitt’s interest in the bass guitar, and after a few lessons, Lori is on stage swaying happily and helping provide a foundation at the low end of the musical spectrum.
“I get to live my dreams,” Lori said, adding that not even stepping on a garden rake and giving herself a black eye has prevented her from showing up. Lori and Cami often play together, referring to themselves as “The Rhythm Method.”
Leading these structured “jam sessions” is a team of local musicians who have performed in many different genres and venues. Lorraine Gervais is the program coordinator, and Kelly Fleming, Tony Unger, Craig Thomas and Ty Smith are her co-mentors with able assistance from Charlie Faber and Jenn Knapp.
“All the mentors feel very lucky to have this opportunity to interact with people in this way,” Lorraine said.
With the whole group gathered on the main stage for the final hour’s performances, Lorraine is a blur of energy- dancing barefoot to the music, counting in intros, cueing soloists and vocalists, ably evoking the description on her business card of “groove hostess.” Lorraine watches participants courageously confront their fears about performing and make connections with other people through music.
“To watch people blossom every night is my biggest joy,” she said.
To participate in Community Music Jam, one must be at least 16 years old and have basic knowledge of an instrument. (No prior experience is needed to sing or play percussion.) Participants span all ages and include Margie Kopp, who is 91 and adds her voice to the chorus and draws pencil sketches of other participants when she isn’t singing.
“It makes me feel good,” she said.
The program is free to participants and has received some initial funding. The final date of the current series is May 20. The second series begins this fall, followed by two in 2014.
Whether you’re an individual interested in participating, an organization interested in partnering or a potential sponsor interested in helping ensure that this program becomes fully funded, please visit the Center’s website at http://thecenterforthearts.org/community-music-jam for complete information.
Stepping off stage at the end of the evening, Terry Lux says, “It’s fun when we’re trying to learn. Then you just play. It’s magic. It just works.”
Nancy Barnes, who plays flute, agrees.
“That’s the thing about music. It makes everybody so happy,” she said.
Robert Fulghum observed that “music is far too important to be left entirely in the hands of professionals.”
At Community Music Jam, something very special is nurtured in everyone involved — and they can carry it on and share with others.
Steve Schurkey, Prospector Correspondent at large, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.