Savannah Music Festival: Education in the Spotlight

by Kerry Dexter /
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Jan 18, 2016 / 0 comments

The city of Savannah, Georgia, has been a place where cultures meet and mix and mingle ever since its early days centuries ago. Blues, bluegrass, country music, jazz, gospel, and Celtic music are local traditions in music that continue to flourish in Savannah. Over the years, it has also become a crossroads for classical musicians, those who work in opera, and musicians who bring their native traditions from many parts of the globe. The Savannah Music Festival celebrates and encourages all these aspects of music. This year, as the SMF marks its twenty seventh season from March 24 through April 9, artists will come from all across the United States as well as from Denmark, Zimbabwe, Mali, Spain, Serbia, Brazil, and other places.

KASSÉ MADY DIABATÉ. Savannah Music Festival: Education in the Spotlight


The program of more than one hundred concerts, which will include world premieres, first collaborations, and unique pairings on an evening's bill, as well as the return of festival favorites and musical meetings of old friends, has dimensions beyond the concert stage, though. Education is one of them. The festival's education director Jenny Woodruff points out that "it's really a cornerstone of our mission at the festival-- it always has been. We are, as our executive director Rob Gibson likes to point out, a three legged stool: using arts to stimulate the economy, presenting quality artistic productions, and educating and engaging audiences."


SMF's main educational programs are three fold, as well. Two take place during the run of the the festival and are national in scope, and another with a regional focus has a year around component.

"We have a high school band competition, Swing Central Jazz. We get bands applying from all over the country and then twelve finalists come to Savannah during the festival to study with Marcus Roberts," Woodruff says. Roberts, an award winning jazz pianist, is also one of the festival's associate artistic directors. Bands qualify to come by first sending in a letter of interest, from which a number of groups are sent an original piece composed for the festival and invited to send in a recording of it. A panel of judges then selects the twelve finalist bands who come to Savannah in the middle week of the festival to work with Roberts and other top jazz musicians, this year including Jason Marsalis, Steven Riley, and Wycliffe Gordon. Among other things, each band performs a set along Savannah's famous River Street at Rousakis Plaza and then spends a day facing off in a battle of the bands finale concert. Later that same evening, the three top placing bands will open the evening before Wycliffe Gordon conducts a 19 piece jazz orchestra in his original score of the 1920 silent film concerning racism, Within Our Gates.

The last week of the festival is the time for acoustic string players to learn and to shine as they attend SMF's Acoustic Music Seminar. Application is open to any string musician up to the age of twenty-two. The seminar's director, multi instrumentalist Mike Marshall, chooses sixteen players to come to Savannah. One of the aspects of the application, and of the seminar, is that each student proposes a tune of his or her own to work on. "There are so many camps and workshops and things for acoustic players," Woodruff says, "but what makes ours really unique and fun is that the students bring their own tunes and then they have a week to workshop them with Mike Marshall and other professional musicians. Each student has the chance to be a band leader and then to become a side man or side woman for the other students. It's different from any other camp," Woodruff points out. "It's really more intense." In addition to Marshall, this season students will have the chance to work with top level artists including Bryan Sutton, David Grisman, Darrell Scott, and Brittany Haas. They will be learning from each other as well, as students typically come from backgrounds as diverse as blues, classical, jazz, and Celtic music. The end result -- or one of them, as students and instructors both say the effect of this intense week is lasting -- is a finale concert. "We select the dozen or sixteen or fourteen tunes -- however many we have time for -- and they are performed in a ticketed concert. That really is the most exciting event of the festival, I think," Woodruff says. It can be a time to catch rising stars before they are stars, and to catch creative enthusiasm as well. "We do have people who come to that concert and then come back for it the next year and the next," Woodruff says.


The Savannah Music Festival has long been involved with local and regional schools in varied ways, arranging for visiting artists to give concerts or talks to students, for example. Last year they began a new program called Musical Explorers, focused on students in kindergarten through second grade and modeled on and in partnership with Carnegie Hall's Weil Institute. "In New York, their aim is to introduce students to the wealth of music available to them in New York City: here's Chinese music at your doorstep, Greek music at your doorstep -- we have a different scope here in Savannah, so we've adapted the idea to southern indigenous stuff," Woodruff points out. There is teacher training in person, online, and through written material and recordings. Those teachers then work with their young students, helping them connect with both music and the artists who make it. 

There's more to know about the Musical Explorers program and about the Savannah Music Festival itself. Stay tuned for a future article here, and in the meanwhile you may want to visit the festival's website  and catch up with some of the best performances from the last five years at Georgia Public Broadcasting's weekly radio Savannah Music Festival Live, which also available online.

Pink Martini.  Savannah Music Festival: Education in the Spotlight

Pink Martini


Kerry Dexter is music editor for Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com.

You may also find her work, mainly about music, the arts, history, and travel, in National Geographic Traveler, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, and other places online and in print, as well as at her own site, Music Road


All photos courtesy of the artists