Frank Hamilton School: The Story
HISTORY OF THE SCHOOL
A SEED PLANTED IN CHICAGO…
The Frank Hamilton School is modeled on Chicago’s highly successful Old Town School of Folk Music, founded by musicians Frank Hamilton and Win Stracke in 1957, at the dawn of the folk music boom of the early 60s. Frank was a young and promising musician who had studied under Bess Lomax Hawes (sister to noted folk song collector Alan Lomax) and the school’s first teacher.
From a modest beginning (a few students gathered in the living room of a local home), the Old Town School grew to an enrollment of around 6,000 students, both adults and children, and helped launch the careers of many notable folk music artists. In addition to classes, the school hosted performances by well-known folk musicians, creating and supporting a vibrant folk music community in a large urban environment. After 60 years, and its share of ups and downs, it is still going strong.
…IS TAKING ROOT IN ATLANTA
After a long and successful music career that included an early stint with the legendary folk group The Weavers, Frank Hamilton eventually found himself in the Atlanta area, and realized that the timing was right to start a new school based on the teaching methods successfully used in Chicago. “There is a tradition of music that runs through the South,” says Frank, who maintains that “Georgia is a musical place” with a strong ongoing musical tradition. The climate was right, there were already many local teachers and students working separately; why not provide a place where everyone could come together and create a thriving music community?
There had been talk of starting just such a music school here in Atlanta, but it took a collaboration between Frank Hamilton and local musician Bob Bakert to make it happen. Once again, two musicians served as the catalyst for launching a school – starting small and dreaming big. Bakert was not only a long-time musician but also a successful businessman, with a background in starting and managing a business, organizing, and booking musical acts. He was the ideal partner to make this dream become reality.
Like its Chicago forerunner, the Atlanta school started small, with a handful of volunteer teachers, administrative support from the Atlanta Area Friends of Folk Music (AAFFM) and four classes one night a week. But in its two years of existence it has grown to serve many more students, adding a second night of instruction and offering weekly classes in guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, ukulele, and vocal harmony, as well as specialty classes on a variety of musical topics. Some of these have included melody and improvisation, playing in a group, songwriting, and old-time music. The school has attracted instructors from all over the Atlanta metro area, with backgrounds ranging from roots music and folk to jazz and blues. Currently housed in Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, the school offers classes two nights a week for an eight week term. In addition to teaching, the Frank Hamilton School hosts workshops and concerts, bringing touring musicians to local venues. Students and teachers from the school perform as well, at venues such as AAFFM’s Fiddler’s Green Coffeehouse, local festivals, and the High Museum’s “Family Sundays” program.
EVERYONE IS A MUSICIAN
“Music is a natural birthright,” says Frank Hamilton– an ability, like speech, that “everyone shares to some degree.” The goal of the Frank Hamilton School is to create a close-knit musical community where all styles of music can be made available to everyone who wants to learn. The “folk approach” to teaching bypasses formal musical training, emphasizing instead the social and auditory aspects of music, where learning takes place in a supportive environment. Says Frank, “We wanted to see involvement by people who wouldn’t normally think they had musical talent, and bring out whatever they had.”
TWO HALVES MAKE A WHOLE
Central to this approach is the “Second Half,” an informal gathering of teachers and students that follows each hour-long class session. Structured like a community jam session, it provides an opportunity for teachers and students alike to share and make music together and learn from each other. Teachers usually lead a song or tune, although students are welcome to do so as well. Students are encouraged to join in at whatever level they choose: strumming chords, singing along, improvising melodies, or simply tapping their feet. While the first hour of class is devoted to studying a chosen topic or instrument, the second is an opportunity to share that learning with the community.
It has been said that anyone who can learn to speak a language can learn to make music. What better way is there to learn to make music than to share it with others? The Frank Hamilton School is helping to make this possible. Come on down and check it out for yourself.
by Vikki Ganger