Banjo Curriculum for Public Schools

Creating a Banjo-based Music Curriculum for the Septima Clark Public Charter School in Washington DC


I have been asked to create a banjo based music curriculum for an innovative charter school for boys in Washington DC. This will be administered and taught by volunteers who love the banjo and seek to serve the community.

The inspiration for this project comes primarily from my experience as a volunteer with Jam Pak Blues 'N' Grass Neighborhood Band, a neighborhood band in Chandler Arizona. Anni and Vincent Beach began teaching music out of their home to neighborhood children over 15 years ago. I have been a volunteer banjo teacher with Jam Pak for eight years. The Jam Pak band is a featured act at virtually all bluegrass festivals in Arizona.

Jam Pak founders, Anni and Vincent Beach

 For information about Jam Pak please refer to the website at


Jam Pak Band onstage at a bluegrass festival

Jenny Du Fresne, daughter of Anni Beach, is the Founder/Head of School at Septima Clark Public Charter School for boys, in Washington DC. She would like to create a music program in her school based on traditional music with an emphasis on the five-string banjo.

Why banjo?

African-American artists such as Otis Taylor, Sule Greg Wilson (Sule is an advisor on this project), the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Ebony Hillbillies all agree that the time has come for African-Americans to embrace the banjo. Otis Taylors's recent project "Reclaiming the Banjo" is a prime example. Taj Mahal has been an important banjo player for decades. The banjo because of its open tuning makes it possible for young players to make music immediately.

Note that the curriculum developed for this initial project will be applicable in any school. Due to the particular circumstances of Jenny's school, I will address the connection between the banjo and African-American traditions and history.


Jam Pak has never received any grants or public funding. Jam Pak has never sponsored a fundraising event. However, based on the good work and good will of the community (the bluegrass community in particular) it has received instrument donations and money spontaneously.

This does not preclude seeking funding, but the basic model for success depends upon volunteerism.


It is essential that a predictable curriculum be established and distributed to volunteers. This will make it possible to distribute the task of teaching and keep lessons on a consistent path. I will create a curriculum based on the consensus of those who have volunteered as advisors and offer lessons on DVD. It is possible that, in a pinch, lessons could be administered by a non-banjo-playing teacher or volunteer by using the DVD as an instructional tool.

Sule and I agree that the lesson plan should lead to performance of clawhammer playing style. Clawhammer is more closely associated with the origins of the banjo than styles employed in bluegrass.

The curriculum will emphasize songs that can be sung and students will be taught to sing and play. The repertoire will include American traditional tunes embraced by both white and African-American traditions (e.g., Old Joe Clark) and possibly African and African-Caribbean songs.

The Septima Clark school currently has djembe class and it is possible that the djembe students and banjo students could collaborate.

Banjo History

Banjo history should be taught in such a way that it instills pride. Anyone familiar with banjo history will know that, for African-Americans, this history has painful aspects. I spoke with Sule Greg Wilson specifically about this, but I am still trying to understand the best way to teach banjo history. I will endeavor to get a consensus from key advisors.

Septima Clark Public Charter School

Septima Clark is an innovative charter school established by Jenny Du Fresne. It is for boys only. Children are enrolled at three years of age. Each year the school adds one more grade level. Currently the school is preschool through third grade.

Please refer to the school website for an overview of the mission of the all boys school and the information regarding socio-economic conditions under which the school operates.


Jam Pak had no instruments when it started. Mrs. Beach invested in "canjos" which can be built for $15. A canjo is essentially an Appalachian dulcimer fingerboard with a soda can as a resonator. Over the years instrument donations have trickled in and now Jam Pak has enough banjos, fiddles, guitars, mandolins and upright basses to support a band of over 35 children.

We can't wait for the 26 or so donated banjos we need (although I already have a commitment of two donated banjos). I am considering making inexpensive instruments with a wood top instead of a plastic head to avoid the expense of banjo hardware. These instruments will have a full scale banjo fingerboard.

Below is a drawing of a prototype I will build soon using a paint bucket lid for the sound board.

A famous business motto is "nothing succeeds like success." Once Septima Clark demonstrates success with the initial starter instruments, donations are sure to follow.


When possible the repertoire of African-American banjo players will be used as a reference. I spent some time listening to recordings of Otis Taylor (a modern African-American banjo player) and Joe Thompson (an elder traditional African-American banjo player). I did not detect any fundamental difference in the right hand technique between their styles and what may be considered the basic clawhammer approach. Because of this, I am confident that any intermediate or advanced clawhammer player would be a suitable teacher for this project.

Sule Greg Wilson, a key advisor for this project, suggested that we include African and Afro-Caribbean material. We experimented with banjo and percussion and the blend was dynamic. Since the school currently has a djembe teacher it may be possible to bring banjo and djembe into a unique blend.

Kickoff Meeting

I suggest that there be a kickoff meeting at the home of Bruce Hutton, who lives in Mt. Ranier, Maryland, on February 10th. Bruce has been a fixture in the old time music community in the Washington DC area for decades. Bruce plays virtually every instrument associated with old time music and has, for many years, demonstrated banjo and other instruments to school children as part of cultural enrichment programs. Bruce has been a personal friend since high school and I was delighted that he enthusiastically supports this project. Bruce has agreed to forward information about this project to his network of friends and associates.

Bruce and I are available to visit the school on the 10th and/or the 11th to meet the children, introduce  and demonstrate the banjo at the discretion of Jenny Du Fresne.


Mark Hickler