MSU alumnus and former educator teaches music at local festival
Sounds of acoustic and fiddle music could be heard all around the East Lansing Hannah Community Center last weekend, as The Ten Pound Fiddle hosted the annual Mid-Winter Singing and Folk Festival on Jan. 13 and 14.
Performers traveled as far from Canada to East Lansing to teach, perform and meet local residents. The Ten Pound Fiddle is based out of East Lansing and is a non-profit, community organization founded in 1975.
Sally Potter, founder of the festival, said the festival started in 2003 and has had steady attendance each year. Each session was at or near capacity.
“It was just an idea that people want to participate more in singing, and the folk music world is pretty infamous for singing along with some songs,” Potter said. “I thought, why don’t we have a whole weekend where people get to sing all the words to all the songs?”
One of the performers was Ben Hassenger, an MSU alumnus and former MSU educator.
Hassenger led workshops at the festival that included a beginning ukulele class and a sing and strum class. He graduated MSU in the mid-1980s with a degree in elementary and special education.
Hassenger started playing piano when he was young and through his teenage years he switched to guitar. In his early 50’s Hassenger traveled to Hawaii, where he found his passion for the ukulele.
“I was in Hawaii, and who would have thought I stumbled upon a ukulele festival, right?” Hassenger said. “I go into this festival and there are hundreds of people there listening to Hawaiian music and women from Sweden ... and everybody had such a good time and I thought, ‘Wow, this is it.’”
Since that trip, the ukulele has consumed his life. In the fall of 2009, Hassenger started the Lansing Area Ukulele Group. The group meets at Sir Pizza in Old Town Lansing, 201 E. Grand River Ave. every second Saturday of the month from 10:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. He has also hosted many area festivals.
Hassenger’s background in education has helped him become a ukulele teacher. Hassenger worked in MSU’s Visiting International Professional Program, or VIPP, for a few years starting in 2008. The program works with professionals, students and professors from other countries to help them learn about American culture.
“Everything I do is teaching,” Hassenger said. “I learn as much from the students as they learn from me, I think. At VIPP, I was exposed to all these different cultures and all these students from different countries and I just soaked that up. I love learning about languages, customs, food and whatever else.”
Hassenger is no stranger to the music scene and its struggles. He encouraged students to play, listen and make music.
“I have been a musician all of my life, but I wouldn’t consider myself the greatest performer or anything like that, so what I did was look for other avenues where I can use my enjoyment of music and my love of music and channel it into some different things that I could make somewhat of a living at,” Hassenger said. “There's all kinds of avenues, it's not all just being Beyonce or something.”
Canadian performer James Keelaghan gave a performance workshop at the festival. Keelaghan plays guitar, writes and sings. He has been a full-time musician for about 30 years, has 12 CDs and tours on three continents.
Keelaghan said students should keep playing music, despite the challenges and uncertainty of future outcomes.
“If this is what you feel like you have to do, then you have to do it and you have to do it to the limit of your ability, and if it’s for you then it’s going to happen,” Keelaghan said. “It might not be million-selling albums. I mean, I don’t have million-selling albums, but I have a way of life that has allowed me to put food in the fridge, a roof over my head and raise my family.”