Bluegrass takes to the road

When the Denison Bluegrass Ensemble headed to the international Bluegrass conference, there was learning and music on all sides.

For the third year in a row, the Denison Bluegrass Ensemble headed to Raleigh, N.C, to represent the college’s ever-growing presence in the bluegrass world. Director Andy Carlson was accompanied by his students Grace Gilbert, Aidan VanSuetendael, Dominic Pfister, Brandon Mendoza, Brandon Shull, and Rob Lee on this journey to the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual conference in September, 2016.

The convention is attended by more than 100,000 people each year from all over the world. It consists of performances, a trade show, master classes and workshops and an award ceremony. The convention is an unparalleled opportunity to be immersed in the bluegrass culture.

“Being able to see and meet the original artists that really shaped the music, such as Del McCoury and Bobby Hicks, and talking to the newer artists they inspired, shows how this music is always growing and evolving, and it’s really exciting to be a part of that process,” said guitarist Grace Gilbert ’17.

“Through the past three years at IBMA, I’ve made friends, met many of my musical heroes, and represented my school among the top programs in the country, and I know I’ve grown as a musician because of this incredible opportunity,” she added.

I know I’ve grown as a musician because of this incredible opportunity.

Read more student reactions below:

Rob Lee ’18, bass: “Traveling to Raleigh, N.C. to participate in the IBMA festival with my band mates and fellow Denisonians gave us opportunities to see things we would never have seen otherwise. Driving nine hours each way, playing two nights, and spending all of our free time together jamming and listening to others’ performances gave us the chance to develop as individual musicians and as a band. Seeing other college students perform was exciting because it demonstrated bluegrass music’s growing popularity with younger crowds. We were motivated on stage to perform our best, not only to match this sense of excitement others displayed, but also as a chance to represent Denison and show how bluegrass music is reaching different geographic regions throughout our country. This festival allowed us to see youth performers, up-and-coming professional musicians, and legendary performers gather in one place to share in the love and fun of this music.”

Brandon Mendoza ’17, fiddle: “My experience at the IBMA World of Bluegrass conference was fundamentally life-changing. While the musical training I’ve received from my classes and ensembles at Denison has definitely pushed and challenged me here at home, getting this opportunity to go out into the real world and see what the leaders in the field are doing has completely changed my perspective. On one hand it validated all of our hard work by placing it in an objective context, but on the other it challenged us with the standard of what is expected in the professional world. Also, having the opportunity to meet up with other Denison alumni while we were there really helped me see past my four years at this institution and begin to consider how I’ll fit into the world post-graduating. It invited me to consider perspectives I had never even though of before and challenged me to think of how I can craft a career in music once I graduate. Being personally undecided on my next step in post-Denison life, this experience was particularly helpful because it provided me an insight into how the commercial music industry works (which, coming in as a classical musician, I was completely unaware of). It broadened my horizons and empowered me to realize that such a world is completely accessible if you really set your mind to it. This is exactly the type of experience that I will look back on was emblematic of Denison’s commitment to providing its students not only a good theoretical education, but a practical one as well. I don’t know of any other university that does such things for its music students, and can happily say that this is just one more thing that sets Denison far above the rest.”

Dominic Pfister ’17, mandolin: “Going to IBMA, I was intimidated by the level of performance I knew that I would find there. When we finally got down to Raleigh, it turned out to be as intimidating as I thought it would be, only in a totally different way. The major source of difficulty I found down there didn’t come from other players, it came from within myself. I psyched myself out, particularly on our first performance. What I loved about going to Raleigh was that we got a second chance on Saturday night to do things the right way, to play the show that we really wanted to play. And the reception we got that second night, when we were able to play without our first night jitters or stabs of overconfidence, was so rewarding because we had earned it. And that was my big takeaway from IBMA, that earning it feels so much better than playing a show and having the audience give you feedback and praise that feels false, somehow.”

Brandon Shull ’19, fiddle: “Our performances were great fun and practice, but I enjoyed listening to others playing out and about just as much. Del McCourey and his band were probably the highlight of the trip for me. Every one of them seemed as if there was nowhere in the world they'd rather be than up on that stage.”

Aidan VanSuetendael ’18, banjo: “I am so grateful to Denison for providing the opportunity to attend the 2016 IBMA awards. This is my second year attending, and once again the experience was so valuable for me as a performer and music student. IBMA provides an opportunity to network with both accomplished and up and coming bluegrass musicians and members of the bluegrass community. It also gives us a chance to bring recognition to Denison’s name and presence in this music through performance and presentations as well as to meet with students and instructors from other universities in attendance. This is an experience that was so beneficial to me.”

October 11, 2016