Guest Author - Chris Curtis
Five years ago, Mary Burdette tapped Michelle Kaminsky on the shoulder to start a new Kid's Academy with a focus on Cajun music at Rhythm and Roots similar to the successful Bluegrass Kid's Academy at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. The thematic change was designed to bring Cajun and Creole music to the forefront with the kids since Rhythm and Roots focus is on the dance music of Louisiana. Michelle was a natural choice given her extensive experience in teaching young students music and fiddle. Michelle is a 20+ year performing Cajun Fiddler with Magnolia. With those credentials plus a degree in education, extensive experience with Artists in Residency programs, and a private studio in fiddle instruction, Michelle is uniquely qualified for the job.
As director, Michelle has functioned in the multiple roles of directing, organizing (before and after the festival weekend), coordinating and teaching fiddle during the three day event. In 2009, Karen McGrath assisted Michelle who added to the program's success. In addition, a new fiddle teacher was brought on board. These changes allowed Michelle to "focus on directing the program more successfully, to work with the parents and to solve problems as they come up, and still really enjoy the rest of the weekend, including performing with Magnolia, and visiting with friends!"
The goal is to get a group, of however many kids sign up (some at the last minute), with varying skill levels, from many walks of life and after a mere 5 hours of instruction, ready to take the stage on Sunday afternoon to play a couple of Cajun dance tunes. According to Michelle "It is remarkable that in that short period of time, a group of kids can come together and make music. It's one thing to get each kid to play a song but another to get them to play in a group and be organized to get on the stage and get off the stage, and still think itís fun!. The kids do absolutely great. I think the kids really like it. What's astonishing is you take a bunch of kids who for the most part have never met before, ages 8 Ė 17, with varying amounts of experience who may never have listened to any kind of folk music much less Cajun music Ė it's just music to them." The success of the program is a tribute Michelle's hard work, and to the teachers, the kids, the volunteers who help, and the parents. The support of the parents is a critical part. For the teachers, it is an amazing experience.
While the program is fashioned like the Kid's Bluegrass Academy that has been so successful at Grey Fox, this program has some different challenges. One of the differences between the Kid's Cajun Academy and the Bluegrass Academy may be that there are many more bluegrass musicians jamming in the campground than there are Cajun, which gives the kids greater exposure to Bluegrass music and makes it easier for them to join in. Michelle thinks that "there are more kids familiar with Bluegrass music because in the bluegrass scene, there are lots of pickers, but in the New England Cajun scene there are fewer players and more dancers. When folks go out to dance, they often donít bring their children. What we have seen is that Cajun music is new to almost all of the students." However, the program does expose them to music in a different way and it expands their music capabilities. It opens up new horizons. Even if they don't stay in the Cajun realm, it opens their eyes as to other kinds of music that is out there.
Michelle enjoys trying to make the program successful. Itís a challenge and very rewarding when it comes off! She truly cares about the success of this program. It takes more than just a love of the music and a desire to teach it. Teaching is a skill. In order for the program to be successful, the teachers have to be on top of their game to be able to communicate with each student effectively. Leaders have to be attuned enough to recognize when something isn't working and have multiple ways to approach it. They have to have a lot of options in their language. So finding the right teachers is important for the program's success.
The success of the program can be measured by the reception of the Rhythm and Roots audience during the Sunday performance when the dance floor filled with happy dancers.