The Swannanoa Gathering: Teaching and Learning Music in the Mountains
“...the main attraction is the awesome community of musicians that shows up there for the week to teach, learn tunes, jam, and enjoy amazing concerts and dances. As a teacher I especially appreciate the relaxed schedule that allows everyone time to digest their new tunes, get to know each other, sample local beer, and of course, jam!”
That’s fiddle player and singer Lissa Schneckenburger talking. She’s speaking about the Swannanoa Gathering, a series of music weeks which take place every summer on the campus of Warren Wilson College near Asheville, North Carolina. Twenty-one years ago, then president of Warren Wilson College, Doctor Douglas Orr, invited folk musician Jim Magill to lunch and asked if he’d like to take charge of getting such a summer program off the ground. “I said yes!” Magill recalls, and two decades later, Orr’s vision and Magill’s leadership have helped shape an ongoing series of classes that draw students and instructors from across North America and around the world.
Each weekly session focuses around one heritage music subject: there’s a fiddle week, where Schneckenburger teaches alongside musicians including Cajun master fiddler Michael Doucet, innovative Irish American player Winifred Horan, and rising star Duncan Wickel, among others. There’s a week devoted to traditional song, one which features contemporary folk, a guitar week, one for old time music and dance, a Celtic week, and new this year, a week devoted to banjo and mandolin.
The Gathering’s location in the the North Carolina mountains, and the fact that students may sign up for two or three or even four classes during a week, are both part of why it continues to thrive, but Magill knows another factor is at work. “The instructor staff,“ he says, “has the biggest part to do with that.”
Each week has an instructor roster of twenty or so people. Magill looks for three things. “There needs to be some name recognition, because we draw students internationally. Then, they need to understand what it is we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to pass along folk culture. We’re educating the next generation of folk tradition bearers, and the folk audience. The third thing is, they have to be able to teach.“ Teaching experience is varied, he points out, ranging from those musicians who include it as a regular part of their practice to those who’ve never taught before “and are scared to death when they say yes! But we put them in situations they're comfortable with, and they usually do very well,” he says.
The instructors enjoy the Swannanoa Gathering experience as much as do their students. Top Irish American singer and songwriter Cathie Ryan teaches classes in Irish folklore and mythology and in traditional singing during Celtic week. “With the singing class,” she says, “I love knowing that they are going to come away with songs they love, songs they have built up confidence to go out into the world and share because they’ve built up that confidence by working with them in class. There’s a line in the song Wildflowers, which I have on my album The Farthest Wave, that says ‘they were here before you, they’ll be here after you.’ Helping people know that this is *their* moment with a song, that they have something to bring and to share, to see that light go on for them -- it’s a joy to be part of that.”
Jon Vezner agrees. The award winning songwriter and his wife, Kathy Mattea, have both taught at the Gathering. “Kathy has taught twice. This will be my fourth year...hard to believe. The first thing that really impressed me about the Swannanoa Gathering is the sense of community,” Vezner says. “Many of the students come back year after year and have established long friendships.” Like Ryan, he loves sharing a sense of discovery with his students. “I love to see the light come on in someone’s eyes when they reach down inside and pull out some magical nugget - either lyrically or musically or both.” There’s another aspect instructors and students both look forward to: the learning that takes place outside the classroom. “I love the late night jams where the instructors and students trade songs and stories,” says Vezner “It’s wonderful.”
“We bring people together and we put them in a situation -- and after that it’s out of our hands,” Jim Magill reflects. “But it works. It works in a way that’s -- magical.”
Classes for the summer of 2012 have already begun at The Swannanoa Gathering. While many classes fill up quickly, there are no registration deadlines, and events run through early August, so you may find a place that would suit you this summer -- or want to begin your plans for next year. There’s more about all this at The Swannanoa Gathering's web site at
you may also wish to see:
Lissa Schneckenburger - lissafiddle.com
Cathie Ryan - cathieryan.com/tourhtmlsite.htm
Jon Vezner - jonvezner.com
Kerry Dexter is Music Editor for Wandering Educators
You may find more of her work at Strings, Perceptive Travel, The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, Music Road, and other places. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com
Feature photo: Lissa Schneckenburger, by Dick Goldsmith
Cathie Ryan photo courtesy and copyright Kerry Dexter