By Liz Cunha
I grew up studying the Suzuki Method, participating in youth orchestras and eventually completing my undergraduate degree in violin performance and music education. I’ve always been curious about fiddling but in all my years of study, there has never been a real chance or a clear pathway to include or explore styles other than classical. I do recall feeling envious of fiddlers’ joyful presence and energetic toe tapping groove. Don’t get me wrong, some of my most treasured moments are of playing the “violin.” I am and will always be a violinist. That being said, while I cherish my years as a violinist, I think there has always been a fiddler in me waiting to get out and play!
Until 2020, my studio repertoire included Suzuki Method repertoire. As a music director, I led international student performance tours in Italy, Germany, Austria and England. While performing abroad I noticed that while audiences appreciated performances of Bach and Mozart they were most eager to hear music they associated with American culture, fiddle styles. This was evident in the boisterous responses to the simplest arrangement of tunes like “Boil the Cabbage.” This really spoke to me as an American musician and educator. I felt disappointment in my range of repertoire and reflected on my limitations as an advanced player and teacher of this instrument around everything fiddle.
I made efforts to explore fiddle styles and even rock violin but learning simple tunes out of books wasn’t rewarding so I sought out sessions at conferences and virtually during the pandemic. This is where I crossed paths with Katie Glassman, who introduced me to FiddleSchool.com and later her Texas-Style Tunes webinar classes. Little did I know how much this was going to rock my world. I had been looking for direction as an educator, a community to lean on, and music in the genre that would both excite and challenge me as an advanced musician. Once I discovered Texas-style fiddle I looked no further. I was hooked. The contest-style tunes provided everything I was looking for: creativity, advanced technical challenges, and a kind of rhythmic expression unique to the style. I quickly found joy in the work and the work has given so much back to me in return.
While I was motivated to learn, there have been moments of loneliness, feeling off-balance, less of a player, and very much out of my comfort zone. Texas style was a new skill set completely. Instead of redecorating the way I play it felt more like a complete remodel—tearing down walls and rebuilding for a totally different feel over the same foundation. At first I was pretty hard on myself. Why does it feel so difficult to do something I’ve spent my whole life making easier? I found myself taking inspiration from dancers who use their bodies as the instrument in completely different ways across styles. Is it possible for a dancer to perform ballet and tap at the same level? Of course, when each is approached with respect to the unique form, structure and use of the instrument needed to be authentic in the style. I realize I did not have the mindset to begin fiddling for a long time because I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable. My classical pride was getting in the way. I learned sometimes you must take steps backwards in order to move forward when you don’t you may find you’re standing still. Sometimes that’s just slowing down and sometimes it’s a whole lot more.
The real struggle of switching styles was one of mindset. What I needed was an open mind about who I am as a musician and what is possible. I learned to show up for myself with a readiness to grow by listening with curious ears as opposed to critical ones. This took self-reflection and unpacking of expectations, rules and perspectives I adopted along my classical journey. I had no idea the journey of transformation my sound was embarking on when I finally put my focus on fiddle in 2020. In quarantine, I was provided the privacy needed to become vulnerable, step and even dive backwards, experiment and explore in the discomfort of deconstructing my voice.
Learning by ear was not new to me. I grew up a Suzuki kid and eventually received my Master’s with a focus in Suzuki String Pedagogy. In this method students begin learning repertoire by ear as in fiddle styles. As a child I participated in Dalcroze Eurythmics classes and was required to learn how to sing each piece I studied using solfege syllables. There is no doubt this early training helped to learn tunes at a faster pace. For anyone switching genres, prioritize the listening and learn by ear (or at least mostly) when crossing over. It does feel like a slower process initially but there is no question that this way will last for years to come and never be tied to a page. I personally believe that no one can be their most musical self while reading from sheet music. As a strong reader, I absolutely reference the sheet music but the paper is not the meal. It’s more of a side salad I may or may not have a little of each time I sit down with a tune.
While my ears were quick to pick up tunes, I needed to re-train my ears to understand what to listen for. Most of all I needed to learn how to listen to my own playing using new filters with a growth mindset. While it didn’t sound like “me” at first, I gave myself permission to expand the character in my voice through fiddle. I’m still very much in training but leveling up every day! In terms of developing a strong fiddle ear, nothing has had a stronger impact than playing with others live, at jams, at contests.
Playing and working my fiddle tunes has become a part of my self-care routine. I’m nowhere near the end of my fiddle journey but I’m proud of how far I’ve come and excited about the music I’m playing and teaching and that is everything. Fiddling has created new opportunities for performance, travel, professional collaborations and personal relationships.
My advice for anyone switching styles is to practice showing up for yourself (regularly) with love. Celebrate the reward of leveling up with each variation, and engage with a community of people who embrace the music. They are out there.
In summary, if you are a classical player being called to fiddle, start today. You’re only getting older. No matter your level, or past experience, answer the call. Be excited. Be curious. Be brave. Have an open mind. Listen like crazy. Practice. Set reasonable goals for your mindset, your playing, and time management. Don’t read an article, take a class. Don’t read a tune, treasure hunt one. Listen like crazy. Talk to fiddlers about fiddle music. Don’t study or review tunes, spend time with them. Practice. Be kind to yourself. Make memories with tunes and they’ll be easier to remember. Gift them, share them. Listen like crazy. Practice. Back up other fiddlers. Find people to play with. Be patient. Listen like crazy. Play. Play for anyone. Play for no one. Play for yourself. Did I say listen? Let me know when you want to jam :)