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woman playing four instruments in four screens
Dr. Christen Blanton Mack has made videos her students can rehearse with, no matter what instrument they play.

Making music is a social pursuit.

In very significant ways, live music feeds our social culture, locally, regionally, and internationally. Many depend on it to make connections, whether they are casual listeners, avid fans, or performers.

What happens when the live, social part of music is removed for an extended period of time? It’s not something most Americans have ever experienced or even thought about. How can we have a music community if we don’t have each other?

School of Music faculty member and alumna Dr. Christen Blanton Mack is making sure the UNC Greensboro Old Time Ensemble stays connected during this time, and continues to rehearse, even if the connection isn’t face-to-face. See one of her inspiring videos below, where Mack plays four different instruments so that her students can rehearse with her from home. And read more about Mack’s time with the ensemble and the experience of going all-online through her innovative videos.

Old-Time music has been important in the culture of the American South and North Carolina for centuries. This semester, there are 35 musicians in the Old Time Ensemble, which is cross-listed as an undergraduate and graduate course. The players are a mix of music and non-music majors, and there are always a few faculty members as part of the ensemble, and often a few community members. Like most Old-Time ensembles, it’s made up of banjos, fiddles, guitars, bases, ukulele, and, this semester, autoharp. And as Mack says, “everybody sings.” They typically perform several times each semester, including at the Harvest Home concert with the UNCG Choral Ensembles.

Mack has been leading the Old Time Ensemble since 2016, when she began co-teaching with Mark Dillon. She also plays Old Time music with the Zinc Kings and has taught in the Lillian Rauch Beginning Strings Program and at Moss Street Partnership School. She currently co-leads a program at Leaksville-Spray Elementary in Rockingham County called Piedmont Instrument Classes for Kids (PICK), for third through fifth graders, which allows the elementary school students to receive free instruments and instruction from Old Time Ensemble members. As Mack says, “inter-generational learning and mentorship is a really important piece of traditional music.” She is currently preparing online materials for those students so they can continue the instruction they began in September.

Christen Blanton Mack performing with the Zinc Kings at the Festival of Lights

Tell us a bit more about the Old Time Ensemble and how it operates.

“We are a unique ensemble in the School of Music in that we don’t require an audition and anyone across campus can join the ensemble. Every term, I have people who live, breathe, and sleep Old-Time music and people who have never held an instrument before. Everybody’s success relies on everybody else’s support in the ensemble. I have people who have been in for four or five semesters, and everybody has helped each other at some point. Mentorship is important.

Old-Time music is not exactly in its element in academia, usually – it’s not really the natural habitat for Old-Time music. So, one important thing I can do is make sure that students have a lot of community resources, like knowing what jam happens every Monday or Thursday and where the festivals are in North Carolina – the natural habitats. What we set out to do in class is to create a community in our practice room, a microcosm of the Old Time community at large.

And right now, across the arts, we’re pulling out all the stops, all the bells and whistles for online content. For the Old Time Ensemble, we’re using the resourcefulness that Old-Time musicians thrive on. We’re going to let students know we’re thinking about them, and that they can still turn to other artists and musicians to improve on their craft.”

What are you doing in these videos?

“Old-Time music is about locking into playing music with other people – it’s more about with whom you’re playing than the music you’re making. It was really important to me that my students could still see my face. So, I’m using an app called Acapella. The video won’t be exactly like we are in class, but you can jam along. I play several parts on different instruments, and my husband is the bass player.

They do take some time to make. The ones I’ve finished so far were songs the Old Time Ensemble was going to be working on as a group, but I’m also doing individual videos for each instrument.

What’s the value of making them yourself?

“The people are the point. Social community connection is the point, more than having the music be perfect. Having them click on a video with someone they don’t know isn’t the same as having them click on me, see me, and know I care about them and want to play with them.”

What has been the reaction from students so far?

I’ve had people asking me for more already, for the jam-along format and individual teaching lessons. I’m using the Youtube page and also resources like Canvas Studio, where I can annotate it in the videos and the students can post videos too and we can interact and they can get one-on-one feedback and individual instructions.”

What messages would you like to pass on to any student or artist or musician?

“Don’t stop making music. Find a way to reach somebody else through art or music or dance. There’s definitely a way. Right now, we have to get really creative to make those connections, so look for those resources that make you feel connected to your community – even if it’s not about music. Reach out – and somebody will be there.”

Interview by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Videos and video still by Christen Blanton Mack
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications

 
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