Grateful Bluegrass Boys and Mill Valley Middle School Bluegrass Club play fundraiser for the organization that supports the Mill Valley School District music program.
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The Mill Valley Middle School Bluegrass Club. Photo by Nikita Valejev.

Lori Adessa has been teaching music in Mill Valley School District schools for 23 years, but for the first 22, she was unable to link her profession with her passion for bluegrass music. That changed last year, when she and Mill Valley Middle School orchestra instructor Phoebe Dong launched the Mill Valley Middle School Bluegrass Club.

“It’s been my dream was to have a bluegrass club at the Middle School,” Adessa says. “It’s something I really wanted to do for a long time – we just didn’t have the students,” Adessa says.

The Club has grown to as many as 25 students this year, enough to populate three bluegrass bands that will be taking the stage at the venerable Sweetwater Music Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 11. The MVMS bands are opening for the Grateful Bluegrass Boys, a group of well-traveled bluegrass musicians playing classic rock songs from the likes of the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, the Eagles and Van Morrison, in a benefit show for Kiddo!, the 33-year-old juggernaut private education foundation that supports a vast array of music and technology programs within the Mill Valley School District.

Two members of the Grateful Bluegrass Boys, Aaron Redner and Bryan Thorne, came through the Mill Valley School District music program and credit Joe Angiulo, the hugely influential local music teacher who retired after 30 years in Mill Valley’s schools and now sits on the board of the Mill Valley Chamber Music Society, with first connecting them to the genre.

“Joe was the person who first laid out all of the instruments in front me,” Redner says. “I was drawn to the violin and Bryan was drawn to the cello. We are living examples of the Mill Valley public school system.”

Redner, who attended Old Mill, Park and the Middle School, credits Kiddo!, the district’s music program and Angiulo specifically for a career that has sent him all over the world playing 200 shows a year over a 13-year stint as a member of stalwart California bluegrass band Hot Buttered Rum. Redner and Horne first met in the Tam High Orchestra and played in Hot Buttered Rum together for many years.

Redner and Horne first bonded around the band Old and in the Way, a bluegrass supergroup that featured the likes of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, mandolin legend David Grisman, guitarist Peter Rowan, bassist John Kahn and renowned fiddler Vassar Clements. The band’s self-titled debut album is one of the best-selling bluegrass albums of all time.
As a violinist who got his master’s degree in classical music from the New England Conservatory in Boston, Redner was blown away by Clements.

“That was my beginning,” says Redner, who is now the director of the Valley Vibes Orchestra, a program within the Sonoma Valley Unified School District that is based on the world-renowned “El Sistema” music program of Venezuela, which serves hundreds of thousands of underprivileged youth each year in intense, free orchestra programs.

The beginning of the MVMS Bluegrass Club arrived serendipitously, when a Tam Valley student asked Adessa if her could learn banjo. Knowing that the student would later be going to the Middle School, she asked Dong, who was recently recognized as Teacher of the Year by the Marin Symphony and who is closely connected to the school’s string instrument players as the orchestra director. Dong signed off, and Adessa started spreading the word. It grew quickly from there.

“Bluegrass is in now,” Adessa says. “Whereas when I was playing, it was NOT in for most kids.”

The music itself is great for the students’ overall musical skills, particularly because each musician doesn’t play the melody at the same time. Instead, one musician plays the melody, often improvising, and the rest are playing in the background – and everything is memorized.

“I bring all of the ideas of how to perform and play the music as a bluegrass band, so it doesn’t sound like a bluegrass orchestra but a bluegrass band,” says Adessa, who will play all of the banjo parts with each of the club bands at the Sweetwater show.

Since most of the club’s musicians are also in the school orchestra, the club has participated in the school’s annual winter and spring orchestra programs to date, and at community events.

“Getting to play at this Sweetwater is huge for them,” Adessa says.

The 411: The Grateful Bluegrass Boys and the Mill Valley Middle School Bluegrass Club play the Sweetwater Music Hall on Wednesday, November 11, a all-ages benefit for Kiddo!. More info and tickets.

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