Learning Music in the Mountains: The Swannanoa Gathering

The voice of a singer telling an old story. The sound of a master playing notes on a guitar, and a student playing it back to him. The ring of a banjo — and then more banjos joining in. The voices of fiddles speaking in accents of Ireland, Scotland, Cape Breton, the southern mountains. Voices joined in song — and in laughter. All of these are what you will hear at the Swannanoa Gathering. “What we’re doing here is passing along folk culture,” says Jim Magill, director of the Gathering. “We’re trying to educate the next generation of tradition bearers — and their audiences.”

The Gathering, which is held every summer on the campus of Warren Wilson College near Asheville, North Carolina, comprises a series of weeks of instruction each focused on a different musical subject. Fiddle Week, Contemporary Folk Week, Celtic Week, Guitar Week, Traditional Song Week, Old Time Music and dance Week, and new this summer, a week focused on mandolin and banjo, comprise the offerings, but unlike many music camps, those who sign up have a range of choices within each topic. There are three or four class periods in each day, so a student during Celtic Week, for example, might sign up for Cape Breton fiddle in the afternoon after a morning spent learning about Irish mythology or the songs of Robert Burns — or both. “We always try to advise people to give themselves time to take in what they’ll be learning,” Magill says. “So much stuff comes at them. We try to advise people to take maybe two classes instead of filling up every class period, because they are just going to be bombarded by all the stuff coming at them. There’s need for time to practice, to to take in what they are learning, to absorb it all and them take it home and work on it for the rest of the year.”

This material is coming at the students from the teaching of world class musicians, people who not only know their music but live and breathe the traditions they pass along, as well as, in many cases take them on to the next step for the twenty first century. That’s a big reason, Magill thinks, that the Gathering is going strong as it begins its twenty first summer. “Asheville is a beautiful place and it’s easy to get to,” he says, “but really, Doug Orr [then president of Warren Wilson College] had the vision to start and guide this thing. We had a grant for our first year, but after that, it was the college’s money, and we had to start being self sufficient, If registrations hold this year, and I think they will, we will have been in the black for twenty of our twenty one years. A big reason for that is the quality of our instructors.”

There are always top award winners in all the genres the Gathering teaches, which is important for drawing and serving students who come from across North America and often further afield. The Gathering isn’t a performance, however, but a focused time for these musicians to step back from touring and presenting to spend a week sharing their gifts with people who are deeply interested in learning from them, and these artists relish this.

Cathie Ryan teaches traditional singing as well as Irish music and folklore during Celtic week. “Last summer, my mythology class — they were so involved, so switched on, loved mythology and had done so much reading… the conversations just got deeper as the days progressed,” Ryan reflects. Joe Craven, who teaches during Mando and Banjo week this year, adds “The Swannanoa Gathering beautifully celebrates the strength of individuality and community of all people by connecting them to the importance of informal learning and sharing.” Lissa Schneckenburger, who teaches during fiddle week, concurs. “ 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!”

Those after hours jams, conversations, and sharing of music are, Magill points out, as important a part of learning as are the classes. “There is something magical about what happens here during the summer, especially during the evenings, “ he says. “We have people who’ve come here from all walks of life, and they sit together late at night, and nothing matters but the music. That’s the common language.”

This year Traditional Song Week begins on July 8th, and the final week, Mando and Banjo Week, kicks off on August 5th. While they begin taking registrations in the spring and many classes fill up quickly, there are no registration deadlines at the Gathering, so you may still find a place this summer — or want to begin planning for next year.

photographs of Joe Craven and Cathie Ryan are by Kerry Dexter, and are copyrighted. thank you for respecting this.

You may also like to
read about Cathie Ryan’s thoughts on teaching tradition
learn about visiting Asheville

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  1. Alexandra June 22, 2012
  2. ruth pennebaker June 23, 2012
  3. Jane Boursaw June 27, 2012

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