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Wednesday, 11 July 2012 08:00

'Allowing students to learn in a personal way' An interview with Kelly Wells of the Folk School of St. Louis

Kelly Wells, second from left, and the Lulus Kelly Wells, second from left, and the Lulus
Written by Blair Stiles
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The Folk School of St. Louis' Executive Director Kelly Wells knows something about making music. As a member of St. Louis band the Lulus, Wells has developed the art of folk musicianship.

The Lulus flit between traditional compositions and originals imbued with the genuine, word-of-mouth beginnings of folk. The Folk School of St. Louis has a similar aim. Through eight-week sessions, the school transmits tradition to contemporary society. Using an array of group classes to share folk musicianship and arts, the school stresses community to foster a collective spirit. Students can spend the day discovering the banjo's roll and drone technique and strike down a dance floor in a clogging lesson by night.

The Folk School of St. Louis (which has recently merged with KDHX Community Media) has spent over 10 years dedicating itself to teaching, renewing and perpetuating the art of traditional music. It's safe to say, Wells knows what she's doing.

I chatted by email with Wells about the school's curriculum, teaching folk music and this week's performance for the Thursdays at the Intersection concert series, presented by PNC Arts Alive, Grand Center and KDHX.

Blair Stiles: How did the idea of the Folk School begin?

Kelly Wells: The Folk School was inspired by a couple of pre-existing Folk Schools like the Old Town School of Folk in Chicago. The vision was to create an environment where people could learn to play music together, creating community- based learning as opposed to individual learning.

How does the Folk School decide on its instructors? With many folk musicians around town, it must be difficult to choose.

Folk School instructors are carefully chosen based not on just their proficiency in playing, but their teaching experience and community mindedness.

How do people react when they learn you are teaching folk music?

A firm understanding of folk musical forms is a perfect foundation for exploring more contemporary genres. Underneath the umbrella of folk music falls any number of genres like bluegrass, old-time, country, swing, blues, jug band music, Klezmer, Irish, jazz and more.

What is it like to teach folk music?

Teaching folk music is a very organic process. We focus on the aural/oral tradition of passing down musical information (songs, tunes, etc...) from person to person keeping with the folk process and allowing students to learn in a personal way.

Are there times when a student would be better suited for a different genre?

An understanding of folk musical forms is a perfect foundation for exploring more contemporary genres, like rock, pop, reggae, etc...

Who is your typical student? Is there such a thing?

No such thing as a typical student. Our students come from all walks of life. It's not unusual for a 12 year old to be sitting next to a 70 year old in class.

If I wanted to play folk music, where would you recommend I begin in your program?

If a student doesn't know what instrument they would like to play or they are unsure where they fit into the Folk School, they can have a consultation with me and I can help guide them into a class. Instructors are also available for consultation and input.

Your instructors teach a variety of instruments, from the banjo to the mountain dulcimer. How do you decide what kinds of instruments are taught?

We offer classes in instruments common in various folk traditions. While we offer a core curriculum, we also have a steady rotation of different instruments and we are always looking to add more.

How do you decide on a curriculum? What thoughts go into that?

For each instrument that we offer, we carefully examine what skills students need at each level. We seek to familiarize each student with the folk forms of music and then offer them levels to attain proficiency.

Will the Folk School be planning another festival like Folk & Roots?

Yes! The Folk and Roots Festival was an exciting way for us to reach out to a wider community and showcase folk music from its earliest beginnings to its newest forms.

It's noted on your website that instructor Paul Anderegg has an "Appalachian" style. Do all folk music and styles harken back to a geographical source?

Folk music and dance styles have historically had regional characteristics and variances.

How did you become involved in the Thursdays at the Intersection series?

KDHX asked the Folk School to provide the music this Thursday and it's a great opportunity to showcase the styles of music we teach.

What can the audience expect from this Thursday's performance?

We have two great bands performing: The Buckhannon Brothers and Jeff Burke & Friends. The Buckhannon brothers play old-time dance tunes and rags that are rooted in Missouri tradition. Jeff Burke & Friends will bring your favorite bluegrass standards and a few originals. If you're lucky, you'll hear a banjo or two!

The Folk School of St. Louis, featuring the Buckhannon Brothers and Jeff Burke & Friends, performs at Thursdays at the Intersection at Strauss Park in Grand Center, St. Louis on July 12.

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