By Tim McCoy
“I find myself a man at peace, with a knowledge of self and of place which makes me the songwriter and musician I am today. Whether it is my own composition, or an old tune played on the Mitchell Family fiddle, or singing my heart out for the audience, my words and music come from the journey, singing of the destination.”
That quote, taken from the homepage of Mike Mitchell’s website, captures my experience meeting the man who started the Floyd Music School and who sparks the magic of musicianship in his students. I interviewed Mike at the “Mountains of Music on Main” festival in Christiansburg, just as the rain moved through and bought relief from the summer afternoon heat. With the sounds of fiddles and guitars warming up for the evening performances, we found a relatively quite corner to chat.
Mitchell, who comes from a deeply musical family, still plays his great, great, grandfather’s fiddle, which has a history so rich, it could be a story of its own. That story includes a near century sabbatical following damage in 1909. With repairs from a luthier in Floyd, and rehab work by Mitchell, it now makes appearances with the Mike Mitchell Band when weather permits. He graciously played the first song of his set on “Grandpap’s fiddle” and it was remarkable to hear an instrument that had seen so much history.
Mitchell, a conservatory trained musician, moved to Virginia 20 years ago to be a session player at Tom Ohmsen’s Flat 5 Studios. He played with bands that longtime residents of the Roanoke music scene will surely remember: Radar Rose, Murphy Blue, Phil Norman, and Red Weather, to name a few.
“Tom, and John McBroom [current players in Blue Mule] played mandolin and bass, respectively, in the first Mike Mitchell Band,” Mitchell shared. “We lived together in a van and drove all over the country.”
Now, Mitchell makes his home in Floyd where he founded the Floyd Music School, in 2005 with his now wife, Jennifer “Jenny” Brooke. The couple now teach some 70 plus students, ranging in age from three to 89. Current technology allows Mitchell to give video lessons not only around the region, but around the globe. From North Africa to Thailand, there are students learning traditional mountain music from the heart of the Blue Ridge. Mitchell and Brooke also teach a bevy of students via Skype, extending the reach of the school. At the heart of his work, are the young students whom he helps spark their passion for music.
During our interview, I wanted to get at the heart of how he makes music fun for his students and keeps them engaged.
“Events like this help,” Mitchell said. “Everyone loves applause, and the gratitude of the audience lends a credibility to their effort.”
Mitchell understands the rush of audience appreciation at a young age, and described his “defining youth performing moment”, which occurred when he was 13 and part of a gathering of youth orchestras in Banff, Alberta. “The symphony had 300 – 400 kids, and we performed the “1812 Overture” with live fire cannons hitting those booming bass notes.”
He endeavors to bring that joy of performance to his students, sans cannons, as he recalled that learning the instruments was not always a joy for him.
“My teacher was a real task master, and very strict, and learning was just no fun. It was about as much fun as math when I was a kid. But, that was a different day and age. Now, I live in a small town and it is twice as important that people have a good experience, parents and kids alike. I am happy to say that the kids look forward to coming.”
Mitchell is quick to credit and commend the parents of his students who do the work and have the patience at home to encourage the kids to keep practicing.
Another thing that keeps the kids engaged is Jenny, who teaches piano, flute and harp. “We have a real family atmosphere in the school, and keep things light.“
Family is at the heart of all they do in life. Balancing the busyness of teaching, touring, and maintaining a household can be challenging. But, Mitchell draws inspiration from those experiences.
“Sometimes we work five straight 10-hour days. It can be hard, but it is a labor of love. Everyday we wake up, and we excitedly talk about where we are with the school and what is next for us.”
Mitchell now teaches all the bluegrass instruments, as well as classical violin, and he is quick to point out that they “never said we’re full. There is always room for someone who truly wants to learn.”
So if you or your children, have been harboring a notion that there is a bluegrass musician lurking inside of you, who wants the chance to come out and play, there could be no better spot to learn than the Floyd Music School. Visit the school’s website to learn a bit more about them, and be sure to catch Mitchell and his students playing in out and about in Floyd. Mitchell will also be at FloydFest, where the Mike Mitchell Band will be playing the Deschutes Stage (Friday at 5:00; Sat at 5:00; Sunday at 3:00). Additionally, during the day the Floyd Music School will be offering workshops for kids in the children’s universe.