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Nurturing Children and Music -- Making it Work

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Sleepy Man Banjo BoysI've watched many youngster grow within the music biz and it has been exciting to watch them evolve into some of today's top artists. I followed a young boy playing mandolin when the instrument was much bigger than himself and a young fiddler playing the local and regional festivals and both are tops in their field today. I've watched while some succeed and others do not. I've seen top talent go nowhere and seen others get well into the popularity ring. The dynamics of what works and what doesn't could take volumes to cover in depth.

To start off with, let me express that I primarily focus on acoustic music which includes old-time, Bluegrass, Americana, roots, some blues and some mountain music. That being said, the caveat to this article is that I have not had the exposure to every genre out there but, of those I watch being properly nurtured, it is always rewarding to see them receiving another Grammy or on the Tonight Show or wherever their music takes them. Artists I've watched evolve include Chris Thile, Alison Krauss, Sierra Hull and more. Today, I'm watching a band called The Sleepy Man Banjo Boys with some kids starting out with their own record deal before age 12!

Chris Thile is awesome by all standards. He worked at it, and eventually jammed with the likes of Bill Monroe, the father of Bluegrass music. He surrounds himself with the best of the best that works with his music. Chris, now with Punch Brothers, grew up through the ranks of local, then regional and finally national and global recognition. Today, he's a consummate master of the mandolin.

Alison has collaborated with scores of artists from all genres and styles. She has more Grammy awards than any other female artist and her first album on Rounder Records was cut when she was just 16. That award winning album was followed by more award winners and she's still going strong today with her most recent project, "Paper Airplane." Both a fiddler and a singer, the curly haired teen has evolved into the realm of super-star and has a closet full of Grammys to back that up. As of 2012, she has won 27 Grammy Awards from 41 nominations.

Young Sierra Hull plays multiple instruments and is settling in on the mandolin. She's already cut multiple albums -- some produced by Grammy award winner Ron Block. She's performing on the national circuit and tours regularly. Her peers and fans all love her and her unique style.

The Sleepy Man Banjo Boys comprised of Tommy (Guitar), age 15, Robbie (Fiddle), age 13 and Jonny (Banjo) age 10 are gathering no dust as their career explodes. The Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, a Bluegrass trio of brothers, became an overnight sensation in 2011 after practice recordings for their grandparents went viral on YouTube. These videos have now collectively topped over 12 million YouTube views. It has garnered the band multiple television appearances, a recording contract and they are constantly in demand to perform.

I make no judgment on the music, how its arranged or played. I focus on professionalism and treating the music business as just that -- a business. Those that learn that as they improve their playing and performing skills have a much better chance at success than those who just "play for fun" or to "jam". Also, I prefer young artists that do not copy others but, rather, create their own unique style that has an agreeable edge to it. That something that grabs you and then holds you. Today's young musicians can certainly do that. Doing it with consistency takes a bit of work.

I've participated in the garage bands as I play banjo and guitar. I am not, however in a real band as I don't have the time to dedicate to that endeavor. That being said, time is a critical element in being totally committed. It is the musician -- not their parents -- that need to make the commitment early in their careers if they are to be the next headline act on the national or world circuit. Getting there takes dedication, time with their instrument, and of course, parental support all the way.

In addition to dedication, it takes getting out there. They should be exposed to every local, regional or organization based festival. Get them on the stage and better yet, back stage where the better and more experienced artists are. This esposure is a major element in a young artist's growth. While you're getting them to perform at local events never do it for free. Even just a few dollars but not for free. A professional musician does not play for free. This is what separates a hobbyist from a professional artist. It is a big factor. Anyway, play the festivals. Jam with the best you can in the campgrounds or parking lots. Get out there. Get exposure. Network to the hilt. You never know who is watching and it may be who creates your next big break. Experienced artists generally love to help the younger ones succeed. They will drop tips, hints, advise and critique. That's the value of back stage exposure.

I have written about young artists for nearly a quarter century. It is exciting to watch those who succeed and try and figure out what makes them "special." I've come to the conclusion that there is no single magic potion. It is the proper mixture of many magic potions. Then, they need to be blended together into the right mix.

Timing isn't just for music. It is knowing when to jump to the next level. Is it when you need a professional booking agent complete with the legal contracts necessary for talent buyers to work with you? Is it when you need to seek a publicist instead of rolling your own? Is it when to seek legal advice regarding recordings, royalties, songwriting copyrights and such? Yes. It is and all of these are part of being a professional artist. It is a lot more than just getting on stage and performing. Also remember that the family lawyer who wrote your wills is probably not someone you want working with you on the business of music.

Who identifies you or your band? It better be YOU! Do you want some blog or social networking site giving you an identity that you may find to be totally distaste? Certainly not. You need to create your identity and sell it, promote it, and use it. You also need to be creating your own image too. Trust me, image is almost as important as the quality of the music produced.

Parents can certainly help get the ball rolling while the child is young. But, they too need to know and realize when they are over their head. The last thing any artist wants is a bad rap and I've seen it happen way too many times when double bookings occur or word-of-mouth "contracts" get forgotten. Music as a long time career path is not a hobby. While it is certainly fun, exciting, rewarding and creative, it is still a job -- work, if you will.

Go to a Bluegrass festival today and observe the audience. It is comprised of people from all walks of life. It is also comprised of people of all age groups. This is encouraging and is probably the result of the new young talent which keeps the Bluegrass blood flowing. This generation of Bluegrass musicians are bringing with them a new generation of listeners. More importantly, they're bring a new perspective to the music.

The garage bands, front porch bands, the backyard picking sessions, the basement jam sessions held by a new generation of young musicians who are experimenting with traditional forms of music are the heart of the genre and the organ that keeps the blood flowing. Blues, Jazz, Folk, and yes, even Bluegrass. These young musicians have a true appreciation for the complexities of the music, the lyrics, and vocalization of Bluegrass music today.

This music isn't just limited to the Eastern U.S. or the South. Its being played all over America and the world. A style of music which was once only a part of the cultural southern music scene has spread around the world in places like the Czech Republic, Japan, Europe and even Brazil! In addition, its audiences are not just listening to the music, many are starting to participate in the music. They are learning to play Bluegrass. These new artists are making their own arrangements of traditional Bluegrass music and they are taking popular and modern songs and adapting them to the Bluegrass style.

Bluegrass is important because it has evolved into a "participant genre." People who listen to Bluegrass also want to play Bluegrass and there is no doubt that a very significant number of fans are also pickers. Probably more than any other genre, Bluegrass fans play the music. They go to regular jam sessions and every festival has some place for the pickers to break out their instruments and join in the fun. From beginner to stage artist, they can all be found performing around camp fires or outside their campers.

These young musicians and future artists enjoy the ability to take huge risks and to test the boundaries of the music. Take for example, Sierra Hull's album "Daybreak." Sierra and her band incorporate songs from the entire spectrum of Bluegrass styles. Not only do today's young artists have the courage and talent to attempt such an undertakings, they give these songs a fresh air and a new life of their own. This young artist is breaking new ground by applying the Bluegrass style to a new realm of material which has heretofore never been attempted. Sierra's music is alive, fresh, based on tradition while being her own with her own recognition.

Sierra is already a veteran of the Bluegrass scene. This is the new young energy this old music style needs to keep it alive. The young talent is bringing in that young fresh energy and the results are outstanding and wonderful. The best part is that this young generation of Bluegrass artists are entertaining the world while they're having fun. Having fun and music just naturally go together as well they should.

These young artists show others interested in music that it can be done. If you've got the talent, you will be recognized. From the young winners at competitions like Walnut Valley's nationals and internationals to Fiddle Fest and on. Festivals always have a bit of the local, regional and national acts. Those that keep being asked back have what it takes. They got that way from a dream and dedication. They are always playing at every opportunity or, just practicing at home. If they don't have an instrument in their hands, they're not comfortable.

Church groups and after school groups are popping up across the nation. These young artists will find anywhere to play even if its just a private jam session, garage band or visiting with other musicians. They play. This continued playing is also practice. Even though many do not go on to profession careers in entertainment, enough of them do to keep the spirit alive. The spunk is still in the Bluegrass style. Even Bill Monroe has said that these new young groups know how to play Bluegrass and that is a grand complement from the master and father of this style.

Music stores and 'guitar' stores are providing lessons to this new generation of pickers. The instructors at these stores know the music, know the instruments, and know the difficulties in playing this style. Now, online education web sites offering individual attention and instructors who are master of the instrument are popping up. is setting the standard and offers a variety of styles, instruments and combinations. Festivals offer workshops which are usually full of young people learning the style from previous generations.

The music's foundation is built and solid and the new artists are seeing just what they can do with it. Learning this style of music at a young and impressionable age is probably easier than it is to those who have been exposed to a style for an extended period of time. It is for this reason that I believe it is the young artists who are going to keep this music pushing forward at a driving pace.

The Bluegrass style is not for everybody however with today's youth wanting to try out new and exciting things, this style is ready for them. The style is also portable as it doesn't incorporate any electric instruments. Parents should encourage their children to learn to play an instrument. If you also play one yourself, it is a good example for the young musician. Don't force the child or they may never want to play but, if they grow up in a musical house they may very well make one for themselves. Acoustic music doesn't require fancy amplifiers to have fun. Just pack an old guitar, go out and relax for the afternoon. You can have music everywhere you go and it doesn't have to be prerecorded or aired through some electronic device.

When I was young, my parents introduced me to the piano. I got very good at it but, a piano is not a portable instrument and small electronic ones would not come into existence for decades. If your child wants to learn to play an instrument, I highly recommend they start on something "portable." This way they can play at jams, events and get out there playing with others. By high school, I had dumped the piano for my first 5-string banjo. Later, I got a better one and a guitar or two. These, I can take with me to where ever the music is. It was a big step forward in getting to know more people in the biz.

Keep the young people playing music. Go and hear them and participate in this fun style of quality entertainment. If, by chance you run across a group you find exciting, help them out and encourage them. Sometimes its as simple as a simple thank you or the purchase of their early material. Just keep them coming as we need more. They need more.

The exposure to professionals is fundamental to professional artist development. There are many reasons but talking to those who have made the path to success will open insights and possibly doors with information that just isn't taught in schools. Youngsters can learn a lot from those who have already traveled the rocky and bumpy road to success. A little info here and a bit more there and, over time, a successful method evolves. One size certainly doesn't fit all. What worked for Chris Thile isn't the same route that Alison Krauss took but both ended up at the top of their respective domains.

The music industry has completely transformed into something new in the past thirty years. What worked then doesn't work today. Learning the business is a constant evolving process. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace didn't even exist years ago. Neither did iPods, SmartPhones, and MP3s. Royalty payment organizations have also evolved and the laws certainly have changed. By the time a book on the subject is written and published, it is possible that it is already obsolete.

Setting the tone and attitude for professional artist needs to come early. The dedication and drive should already exist. There has to be a love of the music and it most certainly has to be fun. Support of all kinds is necessary to nurture the future artist. Open the doors of exposure and opportunity at every chance and even create them if necessary. There will be costs involved as there are in any educational endeavor. The rewards at the end will be the result of talent and opportunity and, knowing when to move up another notch. Every artist performing today got started at the bottom. Every one. Someone doesn't just pick up a guitar and become an Eric Clayton, Taylor Swift, or whomever. Most started when they were young.

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