Despite Vermont’s reputation as a jam-band haven, traditional music has been a cultural force here since European settlers arrived in the 1700s. The genre gained momentum in the 1960s, when hippies hauling six-string flattops, Doc Watson records and African drums settled among Québecois fiddlers, church singers and guitar-pickin’ dairy hands. The Americana movement of the ’90s and oughts brought further attention to old-timey tunes.
So it makes sense that the Summit School of Traditional Music and Culture has found a niche in central Vermont. Trad fiddle player and singer Katie Trautz and folk aficionado Rebecca Singer were founding directors of the school, which opened its doors in 2007. Their goal was to help musicians learn to play and sing the music of Appalachia, the British Isles, Québec and even West Africa. Since then, the school has offered six-week courses, weekend workshops and showcase concerts in downtown Montpelier.
From the start, Summit has attracted skilled instructors and enthusiastic students. Yet it has also faced fiscal challenges. The modest fees Summit charges for classes and other events provide critical operational funds, from teacher salaries to rent. And the local business community has offered both financial and in-kind support. But Summit faces a classic chicken-and-egg scenario: In order to deliver more impact, it needs to attract more cash; in order to attract more cash, it needs to deliver more impact.
With a new director on board, Summit may be looking forward to a brighter future. Trautz stepped down last year to place more emphasis on her music career. Singer had left earlier for personal reasons. Summit’s search for a replacement ended in September 2012 with the hiring of Lake Elmore’s Mary Collins, a folk-music performer with 30 years of experience as a Vermont radio producer, jingle writer, on-air personality and marketer.
Trautz, who still holds a seat on Summit’s board, says Collins is just the kind of candidate the school was looking for.
“One of the main reasons for hiring Mary was her experience in marketing and promotion,” Trautz explains in a phone interview. “We wanted to bring someone on with more of a business outlook.”
Since she started, Collins has been working “more than full time” to raise Summit’s profile. A strategic thinker with a penchant for playing the long game, she employs a small, smart approach.
“What we really need to focus on right now is sustainability,” she says, citing the desire to increase the breadth and depth of classes. “We need to introduce new instructors and new course content. And we need to make new efforts to participate in the community.”
One such effort is Potluck Thursday, which allows would-be students to sample Summit’s offerings without committing to a full-scale class or workshop. Hosted by the school’s instructors, potlucks typically include performances, music instruction, industry tips and, of course, food. The suggested donation is $20, and a portion of the proceeds benefits the Vermont Foodbank.
According to Collins, recent potlucks have included a harmony fiddle session with Pete Sutherland and Oliver Scanlon and a talk about the indie-music business led by songwriter Gregory Douglass. In May, Mark Struhsacker will give a talk on traditional bluegrass and country guitar. Patrick Fitzsimmons will offer insights on percussive guitar techniques.
Summit has also begun working to attract a younger audience via in-school residencies and Saturday-morning kids’ classes.
“Kids have music in school, but oftentimes they don’t get into the folk and traditional music, which is, I think, a little more accessible and can reach kids of all traditions,” Collins says.
Last weekend, Summit stepped into the world of literature with PoemCity’s Summit Songs event at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library. Summit students and instructors took poems submitted by local writers and set them to music ranging from classical piano to bluegrass to jazz guitar.
Bringing nationally known musicians to Montpelier for intimate workshops and performances continues to be part of Summit’s game plan. On Saturday, April 27, Massachusetts-based “hardcore Americana” player, teacher and ethnomusicologist Tim Eriksen will visit Montpelier for a Sacred Harp singing workshop and a performance with his Trio de Pumpkintown, which performs folk songs from a fictional New England village.
Eriksen, who has explored everything from South Indian classical music to Afro-Cuban jazz, shape-note singing and punk, says organizations like the Summit School play a necessary role.
“There are a lot of kinds of music that wouldn’t be thriving as much without some institutional support,” he says in a phone interview. “There’s a community focus that can happen when there is a place people can look to for a vision.”
Collins’ broader vision includes finding Summit a home of its own. The school currently resides in the former St. Augustine’s convent at 46 Barre Street, sharing the building with several like-minded organizations, including the Monteverdi Music School.
“We’ve been treated well,” Collins says. “But it’s a busy place and we are not the main tenant, so we have to be flexible.”
A tour of 46 Barre reveals serious physical shortcomings, including dingy corridors, tiny rooms — once the nuns’ cells — flaking plaster, and walls that lack the insulation necessary to sonically isolate one classroom from another.
“What I’d like to see is a center where Summit School has its own facility, with a studio where people can learn to record, and a nice performance space,” Collins says.
In the short term, an effort by other building tenants may provide some relief. Having formed a partnership, they are piecing together financing to purchase and refurbish the building to transform it into a regional center for arts education and performance.
Meanwhile, Collins says she’ll be working hard to help Summit grow, in part because old-time music provides a necessary balm.
“We can easily get lost in technology and the busy-ness of our lives. And that, to me, is all the more reason to slow the chatter, circle up the chairs, and get out the instruments,” Collins says. “Traditional music is not a lost art. It’s very much alive. And I’m lucky to be a part of it.”
Tim Eriksen leads a shape-note-singing workshop and performs with Trio de Pumpkintown at the Bethany Center for the Arts in Montpelier this Saturday, April 27, 1-4 p.m. (workshop) and 7 p.m. (concert). Tickets in advance: $15-30; at the door: $20-40. summit-school.org