NEA Arts Magazine

School for Blues

Alabama Blues Project's Music Programs


A young vocals student performs

A young vocals student performs at the Alabama Blues Project after-school Spring Camp Open House, where children perform in front of a public audience of their friends, family, and other members of the community. Photo courtesy of Alabama Blues Project.

The Tuscaloosa-based Alabama Blues Project (ABP), a 2004 Coming Up Taller finalist, nurtures approximately 80 nascent blues players each week throughout the school year. Working with children and youth ages 8–18, ABP provides after-school training in four areas: guitar, harmonica, drum, and voice. Each year ABP also presents in-school residencies -- to the local community and beyond -- and a week-long intensive blues summer camp.

Performance is an integral part of the ABP class experience; students study and perform in bands at beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels. Assistant Director Rick Asherson said, "We give a final presentation to the parents and local community where we have 15 drummers and 10 harmonica players and it's a tremendous organized chaos. . . . But it works surprisingly well and sounds great."

Alabama Blues Project depends on the help of 15–20 teaching artists, many of whom are visiting blues musicians. NEA support makes this program component possible. Asherson explained, "We really appreciate the arts funding from the National Endowment for the Arts because they help us bring in other artists. One of our missions at the Alabama Blues Project is not to take our teaching artists, particularly folk artists, for granted."

Like the teaching artists, ABP's students come from diverse segments of the community. The program, however, has resonated particularly with at-risk students. Executive Director Debbie Bond said, "We'd be in schools and teachers would comment, 'You are reaching kids that we can't reach.' . . . I think our kids that were having problems and had some heavy things that they needed to express and wanted to express were drawn to the music and found an outlet."

Asherson added, "Playing blues music is one of the rare opportunities where difficult kids are allowed to showcase themselves. They can express themselves emotionally in a way that's appropriate and can be entertaining. To my mind, the program is equally comprised of music and bringing the blues and arts to our children with the support of the life skills and trying to introduce a very positive element into their lives."

The life skills curriculum is a key component of the ABP classes. Asherson explained, "We're very fortunate to have on our staff [a harmonica player] who's also a licensed, certified social worker, who deals specifically with troubled youth. We take about 20–30 minutes each week, and he'll introduce and talk about a different topic with the kids, issues like anger management, resolving disagreements, and being positive about other people's achievements. It's all perfect because the kids then move toward playing together as a group. We try to encourage all our instructors and youth workers to really pay attention in the life skills formal presentation because there are always a million opportunities to bring those lessons out in practice."