Recognizing a Need
As a life-long musician and a long-time teacher, Andy realized that most of the venues where kids could perform music were competitive: instrument contests and even many school or community talent shows are geared towards someone winning. And, when someone wins, others loose. Not only can that be very discouraging for a child, it does not support the collaboration and community that are so much a part of performing music. So, in the late 1980’s, he set out to create non-competitive opportunities for his young guitar and mandolin students to be recognized for their achievements in learning to play an instrument.
I first developed the Acoustic Kids concept as a way to showcase my students who had the desire and the ability to share their talents with an audience larger than their family and friends. As a performer and educator myself, I wanted Acoustic Kids to be a positive experience for my young students. In the friendly and supportive environment that we provide, we have seen youngsters develop into wonderful performers.— Andy May
Andy developed a concept for a showcase for his young students that would encourage goal-setting and performance skills on their part and would provide them with support and recognition in the form of a welcoming festival audience. His student showcase debuted at Colorado’s 1990 Midwinter Bluegrass Festival (in Ft. Collins, CO, at the time). It was a great success: His students of all abilities enjoyed the experience of preparing for a performance and performing for a festival audience, and the audience loved seeing what the kids had accomplished.
Finding a Home
Bob and Kendra Redford of the Walnut Valley Festival (Winfield, KS) were in the audience and saw in Andy’s student showcase something they had wanted to bring to Winfield: a formalized, non-competitive showcase for kids who play music to show what they can do in a supportive atmosphere and to be recognized for their efforts and achievement. They brought Andy on board, and the resulting Acoustic Kids Showcases have been a Walnut Valley Festival favorite since 1991.
Andy brought the program to MerleFest (Wilkesboro, NC) in 2001, adding “Acoustic Kids Ambassadors,” a main stage set for professional-level young musicians, in 2014. Acoustic Kids Showcases debuted at Guitar Town (Copper Mountain, CO) in 2015, and returned each year until the festival, sadly, ended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program has also served as inspiration and a template for youth showcases at festivals around the nation, spawning a new generation of non-competitive performance opportunities for youth.
Most Acoustic Kids participants just play for fun and take part in the showcases because they want to have the experience of playing a festival stage. For many, it is the only chance they will have to perform at a festival, and it becomes a treasured memory.
There are others, though, who have made music their career. They include, among many others: Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, Jacob Metz, Presley Barker, Liam Purcell, Tray Wellington, Hudson Bosworth, Erin Mae Lewis (Scenic Roots), The Vogts Sisters, Evan Ogborn (Pretend Friend), Kyle O’Brien, Sadie Gustafson-Zook, Gwenyth Aggeler, Matt Greenwood, Giri & Uma Peters, The Burnett Sisters Band, Wyatt Ellis, Eliza Meyer, and Eli Yacinth.
You never know who you’ll see for the first time in Acoustic Kids!
Enduring friendships are born backstage at Acoustic Kids and grow as youngsters return each year to perform in the showcases. Occasionally, kids who met in Acoustic Kids have formed bands that continue on outside and beyond the Acoustic Kids program. Loyal fans, many of whom turn out every year in any weather to see the kids perform, are also an important part f the Acoustic Kids community. They support and encourage the youngsters as they grow and hone their skills from year to year, applauding their efforts along the way.