Orchestra Appalachia Takes Off

What began as a Covid experiment is gaining local, regional, and national attention
From left: Orchestra Appalachia members Rhiannon Anderson, freshman; Django Burgess, freshman; Ryon Johnson, junior; and Emily Walker, junior; take time for a photo at the Rhythm and Roots Festival in Bristol, VA--the birthplace of country music.
From left: Orchestra Appalachia members Rhiannon Anderson, freshman; Django Burgess, freshman; Ryon Johnson, junior; and Emily Walker, junior; take time for a photo at the Rhythm and Roots Festival in Bristol, VA–the birthplace of country music.
Photo courtesy of Orchestra Appalachia
Orchestra Appalachia performs at the Birthplace of Country Music, Bristol, VA. (Video courtesy of Orchestra Appalachia)

A one! And a two! Orchestra Appalachia starts to fill the room with bluegrass and gospel music

The Orchestra has picked up momentum and has been touring this semester. 

“Orchestra Appalachia began as an online course in the fall of 2020. Participants gathered weekly to practice and learn a repertoire of old-time, bluegrass, and gospel songs,” said Performing Arts Professor Emily Blankenship-Tucker. “Special online jam sessions and workshops hosted by guest artists helped us to build a sense of community–even while we were still meeting exclusively online.”

At the end of the first semester, members of the class collaborated by creating individual performance videos, which were edited together to make a virtual online concert,

As Covid restrictions loosened up more in 2021, it allowed the orchestra to perform live.

“Participants in Orchestra Appalachia began meeting in person in the fall of 2021, and hosting weekly public jam sessions. The group performed its first live, in-person concert in the spring of 2022,” Blankenship-Tucker said.

This fall, every Monday evening, the Leo Scott Pavilion becomes the scene of an open bluegrass jam thatOrchestra Appalachia hosts. As the weather has turned, the event has moved indoors.

Now, weekly jams are held at the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum every Monday evening at 7 p.m. These events are free and open to everyone. They are well attended by members of the campus community as well as folks of all ages from Franklin County and the surrounding area,” said Tucker. 

How does one join the Orchestra? What if someone is trying to learn a new instrument?

They have it covered.

“This group is open to anyone who is interested in learning and performing regional music styles. No audition is required,” Blankenship-Tucker said.

She also said that in the brief history of the group, there have been several students who joined the ensemble and learned to play new instruments.

“Students who participate in Orchestra Appalachia become part of our local musical community through jam sessions and performances,” said Blankenship-Tucker.

The orchestra has many different types of music and dances. It’s never the same thing when they hit the road and perform at different venues.

“In the spirit of regional musical traditions, Orchestra Appalachia draws some repertoire from community music making in non-performance settings, like the jams, where musicians, singers, and dancers of all backgrounds and ages get together to enjoy making music together in an informal setting,” Blankenship-Tucker said.

To that end, rehearsals are dedicated to creating arrangements, making musical choices, and creating the unique sound of the ensemble.

Orchestra Appalachia has been collaborating with the college’s newest ensemble, Bluegrass Brass, to develop a new field show for performance during halftime at home football games.

Members of Orchestra Appalachia have spent hours rehearsing the new show each week this semester with the intention of creating an exciting and very unique new performance. This fall’s field show, entitled “Struttin’ to Ferrum”, features the title tune, written by local banjo legend Gene Parker, as well as “These Boots Were Made for Walkin'”, by Nancy Sinatra, and “500 Miles”, by the Proclaimers”. 

Audience feedback is something crucial for individuals or groups to let them know if they are doing well or need improvement somewhere, and Orchestra Appalachia is no different.

“The feedback from our audiences overall has been wonderful this semester,” Blankenship-Tucker said.

At the Bristol Rhythm and Roots festival, for example, the group played to a packed venue at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

Following that performance, members of the group were stopped on the street throughout the festival, even hours later, by appreciative audience members.

“It was definitely different from anything I’m used to. Knowing that people enjoyed our music made my heart happy. Some musicians go on stage and then don’t hear any feedback from the audience, but we did. It’s a phenomenal experience,” Rhiannon Anderson, freshman, said.

The current group includes: Django Burgess, freshman, upright bass; Emily Walker, junior, guitar; Layla Newman, freshman, cello; Anderson, freshman, mandolin; Bluegrass Brass Artistic Director Rachel Blankenship-Tucker, clawhammer banjo; and Emily Blankenship-Tucker, fiddle.

“Back in high school band, I had several (flute) solos that I performed in front of numerous people, so I have gotten used to it,” Anderson said. “However, my confidence in playing the flute is different since I have years of experience. Playing the mandolin is definitely very distinct, but it is so much fun to play in front of a crowd beside the rest of the orchestra.”

Burgess compares being in the Orchestra to the similar feeling that players feel on a sports team.

“Being a part of the Orchestra means you’re on the team,” he said. “Orchestra Appalachia is a close group; we need to be comfortable failing and learning in front of each other.”

He also said a lot of the time the group has to bring its own sound equipment.

“In those situations, everyone is expected to help out and work together, and we do. Because we enjoy what we do, no one has a problem putting in the work and time. It quickly feels like you’ve known these people your whole life,” Burgess said.

Performers might get nervous or anxious no matter how long they’ve been getting on stage, and for Burgess it’s no different.

“I’ve been acting since I was 6, so performance isn’t a big deal. It is still very nerve-racking and exciting, but it doesn’t cause me to freeze up or forget my material. I feel very happy when performing for people who want to listen,” he said.

In those performances, the group likes to add a couple new tunes each show.  

“We usually will play the same songs, but we add at least one or two new songs to our set list every performance. We like to provide a variety, and we are open to learning new songs,” Anderson said. 

Anderson summed up the performances in one word.

“Exhilarating!” she said then elaborated.  “There is a huge rush of adrenaline and happiness once the final chord of a song is played, and it is not like any other feeling.”




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    RebeccaOct 25, 2023 at 7:10 pm

    I’m so proud of these folks! Great job, y’all!