Glad to be home after a long day at Belinder Elementary, fourth-grade Matthew Boyer twisted the brass door knob on his dark blue front door and let himself into his living room. After bending over and sliding his backpack off his shoulders, Matthew looked up and saw his dad in the hallway, staring straight at him.
A hint of a smile moved up his dad’s face. His father eyed the leather couch next to the metal fireplace. Matthew turned and gasped. A rectangular case, fabricated with a green cloth covering, lay next to the haphazardly strewn pillows on the sofa. Matthew hurried over to the case, fumbled with the metal latchings, unzipped the black lining and opened it slowly.
A gleaming, polished new violin with a light brown body reflected his smile.
Years after receiving that first violin, Matthew practices with his family in the very same living room. Matthew, now a senior at East, leans back in a tan leather armchair as he plays the melody of “Angeline the Baker,” his eyes focused straight down on the fingerboard of his violin. His shoes softly tap the wooden floor in rhythm.
Jeff Boyer, Matthew’s dad, strums on his mandolin while Matthew’s mom, Liz, accompanies the two of them on her banjo. No words pass between the three of them during the piece. Just the music.
They may not be speaking, but they’re communicating. Eye contact. Facial expressions. Small jerks with their instruments. They’re techniques that they’ve developed in their time together as a family bluegrass band.
Born and raised on the East coast, Jeff didn’t have bluegrass in his childhood. When he enlisted in the army, he didn’t think that any of his musical tastes would change. But in 1972, he was proven wrong.
During a Fourth of July weekend off-duty, Jeff visited some relatives near Knob Noster, Mo. After spending the night with them, he decided to visit a music store in the morning. While exiting the store, he happened to see a bulletin board with a sign advertising a bluegrass festival. Interested, he invited a buddy to go with him.
After hearing all the big names in bluegrass perform at the festival, Jeff headed over to a table covered with flyers, advertising other upcoming festivals and performances. He grabbed one of each. A few weeks later, Jeff traded in his old folk song guitar for a finger picking bluegrass guitar. At the same time, he began learning mandolin.
When Jeff moved to Kansas in the 70s, he began performing bluegrass with Liz, who accompanied him on guitar. Years later, when Liz was pregnant with Matthew, she decided to start learning banjo.
“A guy had showed me [the banjo] a few years before, and an urge came over me to learn it in earnest,” Liz said.
She found the banjo easy to play, and began to play it in performances with the rest of her family. Matthew joined the band in fourth grade, filling in the missing role of the violin that their band lacked.
“I always liked fiddle, and my parents were encouraging it since age six,” Matthew said.
The family band consists of Matthew on the violin, Jeff on the mandolin and Liz on the banjo. Known publicly as the Prairie Pocket Pickers, they perform several local gigs and travel around the country to play at different festivals.Since his first days as a member of the Prairie Pocket Pickers, Matthew has enjoyed every moment as a part of his family’s unique hobby. He vividly remembers their first performance together.
Nervous while standing backstage, Matthew had played their two songs, “Angeline the Baker” and “Cherokee Shuffle,” over and over again in his mind while he absentmindedly plucked his strings to make sure they were still in tune.
“With two songs, there’s not a whole lot of room to mess up,” Matthew said.
But with Jeff leading the band with his mandolin, and Liz on banjo, no one missed a beat. Matthew earned a total of 10 dollars that day for performing, and was additionally rewarded with a free hotdog from the concessions stand.
Today, Matthew believes that bluegrass has really helped him as a person, and made him well rounded. He thinks it’s increased his ability to easily recognize patterns as well as improved his listening skills. Performing in his family band has given Matthew an insight into a type of music few people play.
“I always have the option of practicing at home, and my parents are there to help me grow as a musician,” Matthew said.
When he’s not practicing or performing with the band, Matthew is a member of the East Orchestra and takes classical lessons once a week from Laura McGill. He joined school strings in fourth grade, motivated by his older brother Dillon who played cello in orchestra and loved the experience.
Although Matthew plans to become a veterinarian after high school, he hopes to continue playing bluegrass on the side. McGill, who has gotten to know Matthew quite well in her six years of teaching him, is certain that he will never give his family’s special hobby up.
“I know he will always have music in his life.”
Written by Akshay Dinakar