Glenville State College – Bluegrass Bachelors And Beyond

Mike Lawson • Choral • March 20, 2017

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Located in the center of West Virginia, close to three hours south of Pittsburgh and 15 miles off Interstate 79, sits Glenville State College.

Founded as Glenville State Normal School in 1872, GSC serves a student population of 1,641 spread over 32 four­year degree programs and five two-­year ­degree programs. Situated in the heart of Appalachia, the student population of Glenville State College is reflective of this and the surrounding areas of Gilmer County, WV. Pell grant recipients, an indicator of the percentage of low income students at a post­secondary institution, make up 70% of the GSC student population against a national average of 38%. In addition, the percentage of students that are the first generation in their family to attend college accounts for 65­70% of the GSC student population against a nation average of 30%. For students that have the combined burden of being both low income and first generation, the six­year graduation rate is currently 11%. That being said, the makeup of this student population makes this institution so unique, and allows our graduates to break out of this cycle.

Among the 32 four­year degree offerings are some unique choices housed within the Department of Fine Arts. In addition to graphic arts, studio art, music education, music performance, and music technology, Glenville State College also offers two other majors within this department ­ a bachelor of arts with concentrations in bluegrass music and jazz and commercial music. Existing at somewhat opposite sides of the musical spectrum, it is these unique performance and degree opportunities that set the music program at Glenville State College apart from many others. To be fair, the city of Glenville is no stranger to music. The Glenville State College Percussion Ensemble has been performing sold out shows to the community for over 30 years, the local high school is home to the Division A State Champion Marching Titans, and every year the town serves as the host of one of the longest­running folk festivals in the country. The town, as well as the state of West Virginia, is where many incredibly talented young people call home. Whether picking a banjo with their grandfather on a porch in rural Clay County or learning Led Zeppelin guitar licks in more metropolitan Huntington, the unique programs at Glenville State College allow these talented individuals the opportunity to parlay these skills into a four­year degree. Whereas to many of our students entering college following their successful completion of high school was not even on their radar, providing the chance to take the skills they possess and use it to experience the benefits of a college education is an opportunity for which these students are truly grateful.

The newest major at Glenville State College, the bachelor of arts concentration in jazz and commercial music, will start in the fall of 2017. The purpose of this degree is to prepare the student for possible careers in performance as well as entry into a graduate degree program. Unlike many other jazz studies programs, however, this major does not limit itself to the study of typical jazz styles. Included within the scope of bebop and swing are the study of rock and R&B as well. Students will learn how to accurately phrase and create solos ranging from the earliest ragtime tunes to the most contemporary of styles. In addition, this concentration involves intense studies in music technology as well as recording and engineering. In addition to training students to become the most marketable and diverse performers possible, this degree will also effectively train students to work at live music and theater venues as sound and lighting technicians or recording studios. Courses in the history of jazz and popular music are also a requirement, thus ensuring that each graduate has an adequate knowledge of the creation and evolution of American popular music. In addition to jazz big bands and combos, GSC music students also can participate in percussion ensembles, marching band, woodwind and brass ensembles, concert bands, and various choral ensembles.

The creation of this major is the result of an increase in student interests regarding this musical idiom. It is hard to justify an interest in jazz and commercial music in this area. Located in a somewhat isolated part of Appalachia and several miles from the nearest major metropolitan area, students from this part of the country very rarely get exposure to any live jazz performances unlike many music students from more diverse parts of the country. A big part of this interest lies in the music education they receive in public schools prior to entering college. Over the past several years, unique jazz elements such as syncopation and improvisation have been increasingly included among the educational music standards for public schools across the country. It for this reason that an interest in the history and performance of America’s music is able to thrive in New York, Chicago, Miami, and Glenville, West Virginia.

Officially launched August 3, 2007, the Fine Arts Department at Glenville State College also houses the first bachelor of arts degree in bluegrass music. This degree offering was the brainchild of then ­department chair professor John McKinney. Seeking to create a unique niche to take advantage of the school’s Appalachian setting, McKinney sought out the assistance of West Virginia native and Nashville mainstay Buddy Griffin. Throughout the late 1990’s Griffin provided applied bluegrass instruction for interested students. This culminated in the creation of the Glenville State College Bluegrass Band along with a bluegrass certificate program in 2002.

 The Glenville State College Bluegrass Band spends a great deal of time on the road each year playing various music festivals and in the studio recording albums. According to current bluegrass director professor Megan Darby, the reason this program stands out is due to their dedication in preserving the traditional sound and culture of this genre. In addition to numerable performances throughout the school year, students working on a degree in bluegrass also take courses in bluegrass and Appalachian history, music business, and participate in various internship opportunities. An obvious question might be “Well, what can I do with a degree in bluegrass?” This program boasts a slew of successful alumni. Elizabeth Long, the program’s first student, currently fronts a band called The Lizzy and Little Roy Show. Another graduate, Luke Shamblin, spent time on the road playing with Melvin Goins. After interning with RFD TV, Toni Doman has found employment with the company, while her classmate and fellow GSC bluegrass student Laiken Boyd successfully completed a graduate degree in Appalachian studies at Appalachian State. Last but certainly not least, alum Rebekah Long is now head chief of recording at the legendary Tom T. Hall recording studio in Frankfort, KY while at the same time maintaining an active performance and recording schedule.

Jason Barr is currently the director of jazz and commercial music studies at Glenville State College. In addition, he also teaches courses in music theory, applied woodwinds, and music appreciation and is director of the GSC Woodwind Ensemble. He also maintains an active performing schedule both on and off campus.

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