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Songwriters teach their craft to students in First Verse program
Bruce Adams plays a few songs for students in the First Verse Program at Chestatee Middle School. The Program was created by the John Jarrard Foundation to spur kids’ interest in song writing. - photo by Emily Perry

If music hath charms, then it’s certainly working its magic at Chestatee Middle School.

An after-school program for kids interested in writing songs called First Verse, created by members of the John Jarrard Foundation and introduced to Gainesville High School last April, is now at CMS. About 30 students are part of the program.

"It’s just amazing how some of these kids who are introverted (and) you get them involved in a music situation or writing, and they just come out," said Jody Jackson, executive director of the John Jarrard Foundation.

First Verse was introduced to CMS by the school’s chorus director, Eric Elliott.

"I only opened it up to those kids in my program because I know their musical ability, and I know that they have at least some general knowledge of music," Elliott said.

"I wanted to make sure that the kids who were coming were kids that I knew, kids who were going to sit down, going to work and truly want to be here."

Gainesville resident Mark Miller’s son, Seth, is an eighth-grader and member of the Chestatee chorus.

"It’s really been his musical outlet. Seth wasn’t interested in playing anything, but the chorus really brought out his musical prowess," Miller said.

"I think First Verse showed him more of the creative side instead of the performance side. This is a place where you find somebody like Eric doing something a little extra that spawns an interest that makes school that much more attractive. It’s something to look forward to every day."

Seth Miller attended both sessions of First Verse and wrote his new song with local singer-songwriter Alex Hall. Besides getting a chance to be creative, he said the program has done a lot for him.

"I feel more confident about my singing," Seth Miller said. "People who like to sing, I think they should go to First Verse."

The program offers students a chance to create lyrics and new music for songs written with the help of songwriters. During a session, volunteers bring acoustic guitars and break into groups with five or six students for a 90-minute creative session.

The program is designed for eighth- to 12th-grade students interested in creating music vocally and instrumentally.

Expansion into other schools in Hall County as an educational tool is the goal, Jackson said. The foundation has enlisted the help of Julia Lackey, Gainesville High’s chorus director, to develop guidelines.

"We’ve just about finished our curriculum. Teachers and (choir) directors can see what the expectations are for a First Verse session and the reason we’re doing it," Jackson said.

Jackson attributes the idea to songwriter Bruce Burch, board member of the John Jarrard Foundation and Gainesville native, who has spent his life working in the country music industry.

Burch said First Verse was created because his daughter had once been a part of the Country Music Hall of Fame program called Words & Music offered to fourth-graders in Nashville’s schools.

"They’ve been doing it at least 25 years, and I thought ‘what a great idea, song writers going into schools,’" he said.

Elliott, who has been at Chestatee since 2001, said he has enjoyed bringing songwriters into school.

"I’m a choir director and we get stuck in ‘choir world.’ If you’re a band director, you get stuck in ‘band world.’ But to me, music’s a whole lot bigger than just one of those two programs," he said.

"I think it’s important that we understand that we’re not here just to teach people how to sing, but we’re here to teach people how to be musicians, which is just great."

Local musician Bruce Adams began volunteering for First Verse last fall.

"Being a songwriter I thought how great it would have been if something like that was an opportunity when I was in school," Adams said. "That’s what really led me to do it. My conscience really would have bothered me if I didn’t."

Burch said he would like to see the program, which is free to the schools, expand statewide.

"It’s a tool that’s not being used in education. In fact the one thing that worries me about the cuts in education is usually the first thing to go is the music program," he said. "That’s the other thing — we thought we could use our resources which is song writers because we know a lot of them."

Eighth-grader Olivia Buice and her mother, Andrea, are passionate about First Verse and chorus at CMS.

"Music is as important as math to me. Sometimes it just completes your soul," Andrea Buice said.

Buice said after Olivia attended her first session last month, "when she got in the car, she’s like ‘that was the greatest thing I’ve ever done. That was so cool.’"

"Some of these kids who want to pursue song writing in the future, (we can) at least give them a little jump start. They’ll have some experience with song writers about what to do and where to go," Jackson said.

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