Life in Our Foothills – March 2024 – The Message of Music – Violist Jan Daughtery on Folk Music and Music Education

Published 3:06 pm Wednesday, March 27, 2024

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By Emily Williams


The power of music has coursed through the veins of long-time Saluda resident Jan Daugherty since she was a little girl. Playing in her school’s orchestra at the age of ten, she quickly realized that performance was her passion. 

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Since those early days, Daugherty has become a highly acclaimed violist. After training for years with a noted teacher in her home state of Oklahoma, Daugherty attended Juilliard in New York and studied under the instruction of famed violist Lillian Fuchs. For over thirty years after graduating from Juilliard, Daugherty held positions as principal assistant violist in the Charlotte and Asheville Symphonies. She has also taught private violin and viola lessons to the youth in this area since she and her husband moved to the Foothills in the late 90s. Through the lens of her years of experience in the classical music world, Daugherty shares insight into the rich cultural history of folk music in western North Carolina and the value of music education for Polk County’s youth. 

Daugherty has taught at the Music Academy of WNC in Hendersonville, North Carolina since 2013, alongside many other reputable musicians in this area. At the academy, she employs the Suzuki teaching method, which involves the building of classical sight-reading and technical skills for stringed instrumentalists. 

“I love teaching,” says Daugherty. “I keep thinking about retiring, but when I’m in a lesson, it’s so exciting that I wonder how I could ever not want to do this.” 

Daugherty finds unparalleled joy in watching students come alive in their playing abilities as her lessons find footing in their minds. She also sees a necessity in musical instruction, especially for children. As opposed to the absorption-based cognitive learning children do in school, music forces a different cognitive learning process. 

“With music or sports, you have to do the physical work, train your muscles and train your coordination,” Daugherty says. “You can’t just know what it is, and that’s a critical thing.”

When students build this muscle memory skill, Daugherty says studies show learning and brain function are enhanced. 

“Both parts of the brain work together in musicians to an extent that they don’t in many people,” she says. “When a musician listens to music, they are experiencing the emotional response that everybody does, but they are also analytical at the same time.” 

The elevated cognitive performance is something that can be applied to multiple areas of a student’s life, and Daugherty sees that as valuable to cultivate in her students for their growth as individuals.

Daugherty has not only contributed to the music scene in western North Carolina through teaching students; she also owned a music shop in Saluda for ten years. The space was a place for locals to purchase a new stringed instrument or have one repaired, but the shop was also a refuge for folk musicians in the Foothills. Each Sunday afternoon, Daugherty would host jam sessions for anyone who wanted to join and create folk music by ear.

“At first, I did not know how to do that because I was entirely paper trained,” recalls Daugherty. “I learned really quickly that traditional musicians and classically trained musicians almost cannot communicate because one group plays almost entirely by ear, and the other one is reliant on reading the notes always. It’s rare that you find somebody who does both.” 

Daugherty had to overcome these communicative obstacles, but once she did, she realized, “if you can hum a tune and your fingers know where to go on the instrument generally, then you can play by ear.” 

For several years, Daugherty also hosted a weekly fiddle group for Polk County kids so they could learn the folk music culturally tied to the Foothills. Daugherty found it so valuable to have people in the Foothills come to her shop to play folk music because the form of playing has had heritage in Appalachia for hundreds of years. 

“It’s something that most everyone in the area can appreciate and participate in if they put in the least amount of effort. It’s just joyful; it’s fun, it’s freeing, it’s not constrictive in the way that some types of music are.”

She particularly loved the community built by the folk jam sessions. 

“It’s the social interaction—you get together to jam—there’s no rules, really. You just sit down to play, and everybody’s excited about it, everybody’s participating on all levels. It’s not just really good players; anybody can do it.”

Daugherty carried the mantra of “anybody can do it” with her to the Music Academy of WNC when she began to teach folk music and host folk workshops for her students. She claims she started this at the academy because many students do not know they hold the skills to play by ear. Daugherty believes “all you have to do is give them a little bit of information, and they can take it and run with it.”

Since Daugherty sold her business in 2008 due to the economic downturn, she has noticed that the musical artists of Polk County, adult and youth alike, have not had a distinct place to meet and collaborate. 

“Western North Carolina is steeped in all kinds of music and art,” she says. “The individuals are there, but they need a place to come together and express the art and appreciate each other.” 

According to Daugherty, Polk County’s citizens would greatly benefit from the establishment of community orchestras or ensembles that preserve folk music and introduce classical repertoire. An “anchor organization,” as she calls it, is vital for the musical flourishing of a community and meets the performance needs for an area in terms of music for special events or cultural advancement through public concerts. 

Polk County students would also benefit from the establishment of a youth orchestra because “there has to be a role model for the kids to see,” claims Daugherty. Her fiddle ensemble used to act as that role model for young children when they would perform at local festivals, “but unless you have that draw, there is no reason for kids to know that this is something they want to do.” One of the best role models Daugherty believes the children of Polk County can have is music and the character-building lessons it provides. 

“We have in our country a cult of celebrity,” states Daugherty. “People look at people who are famous and admire them, but I think they often assume that person just rolled out of bed that day and was a singer or an instrumentalist. Once you take an instrument and realize what’s involved, then you know it’s required that you put in a lot of effort to get to that point. So the people that you appreciate are not the ones that just by some stroke of luck have been thrown into the spotlight; they are people who have made the effort and accomplished something, and you can appreciate the accomplishment.” Daugherty believes putting in effort for the purpose of accomplishment and growth is the most important lesson a student can derive from learning an instrument. 

Playing an instrument is a way to tie people to their heritage, equip them with skills and encourage an attitude of hard work and perseverance. Jan Daugherty’s work over the years as a classical performer, folk player and instructor of aspiring musicians is a testament to her devotion to sharing the power of music with the Foothills.