Music has been a part of Emily Morrison’s life from the very start. Coming from a family of performing musicians, the desire to learn and play music followed her into her adult life. Wanting to learn to play the banjo beyond the tutelage she had received as a child growing up in Appalachia, she looked for new musicians and teachers who she could learn from. This desire to explore the creative process and build on fundamentals, she realized, was something relatable to music-lovers of all ages. From that spark, came The Front Porch. Established in 2015, The Front Porch is a roots music school dedicated to the education and promotion of traditional cultural art forms, fostering creativity, cultural exchange, and community wide learning.

 

Located on the historic Charlottesville Downtown Mall, the Front Porch currently serves more than 100 students each week in its on site music education programs, and more than 2,500 people of all ages per year through performances and workshops.

OUR ROOTS

Our mission statement reads, “Through a dynamic folk music education program that includes lessons, jams, dances, and performances, The Front Porch fosters creativity, cultural exchange, and community-wide learning.” The Front Porch (TFP) is a roots music school that educates and promotes traditional cultural art forms, principally music and its varied techniques and styles. Our talented instructors offer private and group lessons in a variety of genres, including acoustic blues, folk, old time, bluegrass, and traditional world music. We host a diverse array of performances, workshops, dance opportunities, and weekly jams. Although The Front Porch is a relatively new organization, the school has realized significant social impact in its two years of operation. Beginning in the founder’s living room in 2015 and now located on the historic Charlottesville Downtown Mall, the Front Porch currently serves more than 100 students each week in its on site music education programs, and more than 2,500 people per year through performances and workshops. This number is rapidly growing as we plant our roots in downtown Charlottesville. As a non-profit organization, The Front Porch strives to be inclusive, affordable, and accessible to all. To that end, TFP offers scholarships to those who demonstrate need, and our classes are priced at a level that is below the national average without compromising the pay scale of our teachers. TFP provides appropriate materials for the all classes, including instruments. TFP hosts numerous free community jams each week, as well as a variety of free and donation-only musical events throughout the calendar year.

A CHILD OF APPALACHIA

I was raised in a musical family in southern Virginia. My parents were educators as well as performing musicians. My mother was a piano teacher, church music director, and a music teacher in the public schools; my father was an elementary principal who moonlighted as a singer/ songwriter and played in bands with my mom. My brothers and I played instruments and sang in church together from an early age. The performing arts became my passion — I spent much of my youth playing piano, singing, dancing, and participating in musical theater. I became a new banjo student at the same time that I took a job as the music, dance, and drama teacher at my daughters’ elementary school. My teaching methodology centered around encouraging creativity through folk music. I’m not a trained music teacher, so I just taught what I learned as a child growing up in Appalachia.

 

Simultaneously, I found myself yearning for other beginner banjo or old-time players to connect with. Many of my friends/ family had been playing for years and I didn’t know how to break into the scene as a newbie. I realized that what I was doing with my students at school — encouraging them to be brave participants in their own creative process — could be useful to people of all ages.

“I realized that what I was doing with my students at school — encouraging them to be brave participants in their own creative process — could be useful to people of all ages.”

IN THE BEGINNING

I had been talking about this idea with friends and family throughout 2014. In early 2015, with a little nudging from my friend Chad Ratliff who was the Director of Innovation for Albemarle County Schools, I pitched the concept at a StartUp Edu event at Monticello High School. This hackathon paired computer developers with founders. The Front Porch was selected by a panel, and I spent 72 hours over a weekend hashing out the concept and developing a website. Soon after, we started hosting classes, lessons, jams, and a few house concerts at our home in Belmont to test the concept. I figured we’d do it for 6 weeks just give it a try. Six months later, people were still coming to my house every week for lessons.

 

We were accepted into the i.lab at UVA that summer, where we built out the structure for The Front Porch as a non-profit. Chad’s wife Cay Lee Ratliff, my childhood friend from Franklin County who also lives in Charlottesville, participated in the i.lab with me as a founding board member. Our organization officially launched in the fall of 2015 in a building that we rented on the campus of Mountaintop Montessori. After a year there, we had the opportunity to move to our location downtown.

 

Our biggest obstacle was financial — we had a budget of zero when we started, with no loan or outside funding whatsoever. We’ve had to make smart decisions that maximize our mission to build community through music without breaking the bank, like prioritizing paying our teaching staff a living wage and treating visiting performers like guests in our home. I worked a full time job as a school administrator until this past December. We have enjoyed the support of the Charlottesville community along the way. An initial Kickstarter campaign, reduced rates on rent, engagement with local foundations and businesses, and successful partnerships with other non-profit organizations helped put us on the map swiftly.

FORWARD THINKING

We started a pilot program this summer that we are calling the “Roots and Wings Project” that takes our programming to local community centers and schools. Our fiddle teacher Malia Furtado and I spent time this summer in two of our local Boys and Girls Clubs teaching literacy lessons through folk music. We have developed treasured partnerships with International Neighbors, who facilitate music education at The Front Porch for refugee children, and the local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter, whose little sibs attended summer day camps at TFP. We are excited to deepen and expand these connections with these and other service providers in the coming years.

SUCCESS

When I see cross-cultural intersections happening at The Front Porch that I don’t normally see just walking around town, I feel like we are truly doing something special. I got weepy the first time I sat in on the West African Drum Circle one Saturday morning, witnessing the diverse gathering of people celebrating peace through music. It was overwhelming to me! Our reggae dance parties inspire the same, because the audience – and the band – look like the whole world. When our space is full to bursting with people singing sacred harp music, or with kids performing their original songs, or with folks dancing together to forms that date back many hundreds of years, or listening to performers making an ancient tune fresh and new…I feel profoundly grateful and humbled to even be part of this organization. It is awe-inspiring to me. I don’t think there’s a special formula to becoming a great entrepreneur. To each her own! My formula looks like family+friends+community+love+mission=good work. My definition of founding is the process of gathering creative energy and directing it toward a clear pursuit. Children inspire me, and I was born with a positive attitude. I have a lot of strong nets surrounding me.

FAILURE

It doesn’t cross my mind that much, to be honest. I suppose if people decided they weren’t that interested in the The Front Porch, I would think okay, what now? Because I have grown so much as a person through this process, I really see only gain.

SETBACKS

Losing our lease at Mountaintop Montessori could have been seen as a setback. It was certainly a challenge renovating the space we landed in on Water Street — the Old Michie Theater is wonderful, but it was in rough shape when we signed the lease! It was also a complete joy to infuse life into a dusty old room, and doing so became a true community project. Volunteers helped a ton. Jack Horn from Martin Horn, Inc personally saw to it that we had a space that was worthy of our mission. They generously donated a lot of their time and materials to the cause. Giant props to Martin Horn!

CVILLE

I came here for a job teaching English at Western Albemarle High School in 2000. The births of my children in 2002 and 2004 rooted me here more than anything. I can’t imagine a better place to raise children. We have begun the important work of community organizing through the folk arts. We are not alone in this important endeavor! There are lots of great organizations doing this in Charlottesville and throughout the country. By having good working relationships with places like and the Virginia Folklife Program, The Prism Coffeehouse, Blue Ridge Irish Music School, the Charlottesville Friends of Old Time, and through local radio stations WTJU and WNRN, we have been able to breathe life into a space that was previously unoccupied in terms of music schools, but certainly not neglected. Joining with our friends who are on a similar path has been really important for us as an organization. I’ve been able to visit some other established folk schools around the country who have been instrumental in helping The Front Porch get established, including Passim in Boston, 317 Main outside of Portland, ME, and the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. It’s helpful for me to see the way these important institutions are impacting their communities to help develop a vision for our own.

 

By offering space for creativity, creating nurturing relationships between teachers and students, encouraging learning in a community setting, fostering creative expression through music and dance, supporting and promoting local talent, and serving as a hub for traditional arts, especially work sourced in Virginia, our impact can be felt broadly throughout the region.

CHARLOTTESVILLE AND ITS ENTREPRENEURS

Charlottesville is a highly networked community with a strong sense of civic responsibility, which makes starting something new feel like a joy and a privilege. We are contributing to a landscape that is verdant with creative go-getters — and rather than feeling daunted by the competition, my philosophy is more is more! Building new ideas generates more patronage and spreads the work in concentric circles outward.

 

Regarding what the City could do better: arts and cultural attractions comprise a huge part of the local tourism budget. The City government could invest more in the creative sector.

“My definition of founding is the process of gathering creative energy and directing it toward a clear pursuit. Children inspire me, and I was born with a positive attitude.”

NURTURING OUR MUSICIANS

Musicians are our culture bearers. I read recently that it’s been theorized that our species made music before we spoke. The ancient bards and songmakers were revered as gods. It’s staggering how much humans rely on this effervescent form of expression that exists purely in the moment. But we do, and for important reasons. Most notably it is because we are all, at our core, musicians.

 

In that sense, Charlottesville is incredibly nurturing to musicians of all ages. The school-based music education programs are excellent. Both of my daughters benefit from participating in the Youth Orchestras of Central Virginia. The jazz scene in Charlottesville is amazing, stewarded by the gifted teacher and mentor Jon D’earth. There is a deep well of talent here of superb teachers who are also professional musicians, and the community benefits from their commitment to teaching as well as performing. In terms of life as a performing musician here, it’s also a great place to be. Venues of varying sizes cater to a diversity of genres throughout the region. I love the growing winery/ brewery scene that supports musicians/ songwriters. Local spots like Fellini’s, the Whiskey Jar, Tin Whistle, and C-ville Coffee are doing great work to make live music accessible to everyone. Central Virginia is home to many wonderful festivals, Tom Tom among them! And the multiplicity of spaces that bring in nationally touring acts is staggering for a city our size. I will say, making a living as a performer ain’t easy, anywhere. Local government can always do more to support artists. I tell people all the time to make it a priority to see live music! See live music, people! We owe musicians our time, attention, and resources, for they stitch society together in a way no other art form does. Plus, we are all musicians, even if it’s just with our ears.

“We owe musicians our time, attention, and resources, for they stitch society together in a way no other art form does. Plus, we are all musicians, even if it’s just with our ears.”

2017 FOUNDING CVILLE SPONSORS

FOUNDING SPONSORS