Billie Jean Osborne, known as “Miss Billie” to the thousands of students she taught during her 30 years as a music educator, longed for a place where the children could come to learn music, its heritage in the hills, and to perform. The dream began in 1990 with the founding of the Billie Jean Osborne’s Kentucky Opry and the Kentucky Opry Fiddlers and Junior Pros and materialized in 1996 when the Mountain Arts Center (MAC as it is referred to by locals) opened its doors forever changing the cultural fabric of the region. And the dream continues in 2009 as this beautiful state-of-the-art facility provides music, education and related programming to the children and adults of eastern Kentucky.
The cornerstone of the Mountains Arts Center’s programming promotes local talent and artists through various presentations particularly the Billie Jean Osborne’s Kentucky Opry and Kentucky Opry Fiddlers and Junior Pros. The only performing arts venue in the state of Kentucky which has its own in-house groups, the MAC presents these shows throughout the summer and Christmas seasons. The Kentucky Opry, comprised of 16 adult members, including its very own comedian known as “Munroe,” presents a Branson style show celebrated for both its high quality entertainment value and its positive promotion of the Appalachian region. Its benefits include allowing local performers to stay at home while still performing music and providing traditional mountain music to tourists. Each of these performances opens with the Fiddlers and Junior Pros, a group of talented young artists ranging in age from 6 – 16 who perform different musical genres and promote traditional Appalachian music. These two groups selected through auditions and created as a feeder program and training ground for the Kentucky Opry, represent the finest young talent in the region.
Music education comes to the forefront for these groups as professionals within and outside of the Kentucky Opry organization train younger members in vocals or instrumentals. Individual and group lessons and performing in a professional setting with live musicians and an audience - something that is an uncommon opportunity in the region - are key components of the educational process. This program allows these young musicians to take full advantage of showcasing what they have learned through the performance opportunities.
Music is not the only thing taught or learned in this very unique program. Participants build self-esteem through positive social interaction between the youths and professionals training them, as well as a sense of accomplishment in a job well done. The youths feel better about themselves and the region they call home; are more community minded and better equipped to engage in public performance and speaking (either as part of a group or solo); and understand and responsibly adhere to the process of rehearsals and performance schedules. In addition, the proper training in vocals and/or instrumentals provides a greater skill level and enhances preparation for college and professional music experiences, a prime example being Rebecca Lynn Howard, a former Junior Pros member and now country music star!
More than Music
So, what else makes the MAC different than other performing venues? The answer lies within its innovative outreach to schools and communities and its willingness, despite economic downturns, to offer free music and educational programming. Included in this programming is the Mountain Arts Center’s School Matinee Series. These presentations are vital to a region where one-half of its rural schools lack a music or art teacher. Students remain inadequately exposed to the arts and humanities as a result of budget cuts which affect arts instruction in regional schools and reduce school field-trips to arts related performances. In addition, cultural exposure influences the amount of participation in programs like ballet or opera. The MAC addresses this through partnerships with the University of Kentucky, Morehead State University and others to make those events free of charge. According to Keith Caudill, MAC Executive Director, the events are certainly worth the extra effort. “Of course,” Caudill says, “this does not help our bottom line, but what is more important, having 250 students attend a ballet and make a few hundred dollars, or offer the program for free and have 2,000 students see the ballet . . . many of whom may never have a chance to see live ballet for the rest of their lives.”
Ballet, however, is not the only presented artistic form. Dance, storytelling, drama, music, visual arts and even civics are showcased in the Arts 101 lecture/demonstrations school shows. A direct approach to preparing for Kentucky’s statewide accountability test known as “CATS,” these presentations began in March of 2006 as a proactive measure to assist schools in addressing core content in arts and humanities and in providing educators with valuable resources and educational opportunities. Shows, such as “Dancin’to the Core,” not only target Kentucky schools’ core content in a particular artistic discipline but also enhance the educational experience of the region’s students through such activities as learning about dance terminology, the elements and purposes of dance and demonstration of various dances assessed in the statewide test. Schools also receive, free of charge, a packet of resource materials including a MAC created and produced DVD relating to the artistic discipline being presented and a study guide for educators. To date, almost 20,000 students and their teachers have benefited from this ground-breaking program with an increase in CATS Test scores relating to the arts and humanities in 70% of the schools which attended.
Keeping Traditions Alive!
And that’s not the only presentation to benefit students and educators! The Kentucky Highland Folk Festival, the oldest folk festival in Kentucky, is held every September at the MAC. The festival was created by a local citizen nearly fifty years ago to honor the Scots-Irish influence on the culture and music of the region and to share those traditions with others. In 2008, the Mountain Arts Center expanded the festival to include a “School Day” where schools could come to the festival and see master artisans demonstrate their skills in wood carving, furniture making, basket making, dulcimer making, and homemade crafts, as well as demonstrations in fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, Appalachian folk tunes, clogging, and dulcimer. Each demonstrator discussed the history of their particular instruments or artistic discipline and provided students with hands-on activities and opportunities to participate in the demonstration.
Is this all the music or education the MAC offers? Certainly not! Recipient of the 2000 and 2008 Partner in Music and the 2009 Partner in Education awards, the Mountain Arts Center’s Arts Education Department offers year long arts instruction. Arts education classes offer classroom instruction in arts, music, drama, dance and photography. Individual instruction is offered in voice, piano, banjo, violin/fiddle, mandolin, guitar and visual arts. These private lessons give children and adults the opportunity to work one-on-one with a highly qualified instructor while perfecting their natural abilities. There are currently 11 instructors with an enrollment of over 250 students who weekly come to the MAC. Individual instruction students participate in local, regional, state and national competitions consistently winning or placing in the Top 3.
The Dream Continues
Eastern Kentucky is a region rich in natural resources and talent and has a strong arts tradition. Artists, including Patty Loveless and Loretta Lynn, reflect the region’s musical heritage. Accessibility to proper training in the arts is limited due to a lack of funds and qualified instructors. There are few opportunities for those in the region to perfect and perform the craft due to a lack of performance opportunities and performance space. The MAC preserves and expands the arts tradition and cultural heritage through various programs and allows a large segment of the region’s youth access to multi-disciplinary education providing much needed training and preparation. In addition, the Mountain Arts Center finds youths with that special talent in music or the arts and gives them the necessary training and opportunities to develop their talent. Now, almost 20 years later, the MAC fulfills Miss Billie’s vision and keeps the dream alive this time for its greatest asset – the children of eastern Kentucky.