Learning Roots Music at the "Front Porch"

Nov 9, 2015

Earlier this year, a Charlottesville woman opened her home for students interested in learning roots music — bluegrass, folk, acoustic blues. And interest in that little program far exceeded her expectations. Now, to her family’s relief, the lessons have moved out of their home and into a bona fide music school. It’s called The Front Porch, and WMRA’s Emily Richardson-Lorente recently spent an afternoon there.

[Fiddle music heard from outside the building]

The Front Porch Roots Music School doesn’t actually have a front porch … but the sounds drifting through the open doorway here ARE reminiscent of the kind of music you might have heard on front porches in Virginia a century or two ago.

[Fiddle playing]

EMILY ROBEY MORRISON: I want it to be fun and I want people to feel like they're learning something that feels really valuable to them.

Emily Robey Morrison runs the Front Porch. She’s happy to talk about how music brings people together and the important role it plays in our culture, but there’s another more practical reason she started the nonprofit earlier this year:

MORRISON: I started learning how to play the banjo when I was about 35, and became acutely aware of how mortifying it is to go to a jam and have no idea what you're doing. So, it was sort of like I wanted to start something that I wanted for myself when I was a new banjo student in Charlottesville. 

[Mandolin music]

And Emily got what she wanted. The Front Porch offers private lessons in banjo, dulcimer, mandolin and a variety of other instruments traditionally used in roots music.

PETE VIGOUR: How about that? That’s pretty good, first shot.

STUDENT: Yeah.

It’s also offering about a dozen group classes — from a folk choir for kids to something called “New Old Time Guitar.”  Many of those classes are held in the large, sun-filled living room on the 1st floor. Here you’ll find a comfy couch covered in a handmade quilt, a grand piano, whimsical animal paintings on the wall (by Colombian artist Ali Sullivan), and a circle of folding chairs. At the moment, one of the Front Porch’s 17 teachers is sitting on one of those chairs.  Pete Vigour is leading an intermediate fiddle class.

[Fiddle playing]

PETE VIGOUR: That’s first phrase….

Pete says someone who wanders off the street into the Front Porch might feel a little confused at first …

PETE VIGOUR: Because there are people milling around, and chatting in the living room and making a sandwich in the kitchen, and other people playing, and other people trying to have a private lesson.  It’s a little more informal way to teach and learn music. 

[Fiddle class]

One of the fiddlers learning here today is 11-year old Will Tilman.

WILL TILMAN: It's very entertaining, I have to say and I really like it, so … 

REPORTER: If you had to describe the Front Porch to one of your friends who was thinking about taking music lessons, how would you describe it?

WILL TILMAN: You may think it will take up your time, but it really doesn't, and when you're done, you're just like wow, we did that much in just so little time. You get to learn a lot.

Will’s actually NOT the youngest student in this class today. Seven-year old Pachee had a private lesson with Pete Vigour earlier, then stuck around to join the fiddle class. Pachee is a small man of few words.

REPORTER: What do you think of Mr. Vigour?

PACHEE: Pretty good.

REPORTER: What do you like best about him?

PACHEE: Everything basically.

REPORTER: And what’s it like to come here for classes?

PACHEE: Fun, I guess?

Pachee’s mom Michele Bonham has more to say on the matter.

MICHELE BONHAM: Well, you know, I bring him here because he's got a great teacher, and I think that really makes a difference in playing and having that motivation to want to continue to play after, you know, the first month where it can be kind of hard to get kids to practice.

Adults too, for that matter. In today’s class, the kids are learning fiddle side-by-side with a young professional woman and an older woman of, let’s say, indeterminate age. That mix of ages is one of the many features that sets the Front Porch apart from other music schools.

MORRISON: We have as many adults as we have children taking lessons here. And we have absolute beginners of all ages -- to students who have been playing for 25, 30 years who are interested in refining their skills and becoming more fluent on their instrument of choice.

[Singing and music]

After the lessons end in the living room, an evening jam session begins there. There’s half-a-dozen grown-ups in attendance, along with a couple of kids. Their dad Seth Morrison is the guy on the big bass violin.

SETH MORRISON: I can’t think of any place else where I would be able to sit around with my 9 and 11 year old and they could play whatever they want to play and feel at home with the people here.        

And that’s maybe the best thing about the Front Porch.  At a time when each of us can easily customize our own music channel on Pandora or Spotify, and a family car trip may involve a set of ear buds and a separate mp3 player for each passenger, the idea of learning, making and enjoying music together is, well, kind of old-school.

John Frazee, jamming here on the mandolin, gets it.

JOHN FRAZEE:  It’s so much different than playing, you know, alone by yourself. It’s been really great. This is a really special place.