I currently reside in the rural west Tennessee community that I grew up in. We raised cotton, hogs, and a large garden. We were poor people like most in the community. We had music and making music to fill the hours that chores and the cotton patch didn’t require. Yes, I know too much about hoeing and picking cotton by hand. No complaints though, it built a strong work ethic.
At 67 and now retired for seven years, you get plenty of time to reflect on things (and music is one of those that has made my to-do list off and on), but a lot of years were absorbed working and rearing children.
To begin with, music was always a part of my Dad’s family even though neither of his parents played instruments or sang. Gone before my birth, it was said my grandfather Levi John Eli was a fiddler but he died before my arrival. My dad’s siblings, six in total, sang and or played. Family gatherings always included a few hours of music…singing, mandolin, and guitar but no fiddling. My dad had an old Harmony guitar that had given up the ghost but was still a little playable. It wasn’t beginner friendly and was falling apart. My sister, Nancy, was taking piano lessons at school from Ms. Kate, who was a rather large old maid who gave piano lessons for a $1.00 per month. Nancy stayed on the piano stool from the first grade through graduation. The piano was one of the household treasures as it had been purchased by my maternal grandfather for his wife in the early 1900s. He purchased it from New York and it made the trip to Saltillo Tennessee by river barge. It’s a beautiful old upright with walnut, and cherry woods and features a fourth pedal said to be a banjo/honky-tonk tone. I wanted to play but it wasn’t cool for boys to take piano lessons…only the girls and a few sissy boys took the lessons.
I got the bug for a guitar and my dad gave me the proceeds from selling one of our hogs which I fed before and after school. Loaded with $35 to spend, we ordered a Montgomery Ward Airline from the catalog and awaited its arrival. It took a month and came by rail freight from Chicago to our county seat, Lexington, TN. It was a lot of money to spend but far less than the $100 for a new Gibson J45 at Wright’s furniture store in Lexington. We were ecstatic to get the Monkey Ward special. It was like fretting a fence to quote “Doc Watson”, so my ever-handy Dad improved the action with some adjustments on the bridge and nut. My dad acquired an old Kalamazoo mandolin from one of my uncles who had quit playing. The mandolin had supposedly made a few trips to the Opry stage with the John D. Springer quartet back in the day. My dad was a good rhythm guitarist and had seconded many fiddlers at square dances as well as his brother who was a really good mandolin player. The high school years passed with my brother and I learned to play rhythm behind my dad’s mandolin playing. Sally Goodin, Ragtime Annie, Milk Cow Blues, Chicken Reel, Wednesday Night Waltz all still ring in my head (with my dad questioning why we couldn’t hear the chord changes). Finally, we learned to hum the tunes which opened the door to hearing the changes.
On to fiddling, our little town of 300 had a 1 through grade 12 school that I attended and graduated from with my fellow 22 classmates. An annual event and fundraiser for the school was the West Tennessee Fiddlers Contest. It ran for 50 years before ending in around 1999. In 1968, I attended my first contest and heard live fiddling for the first time. It lit a fire in my soul that has never died. The judges required a playoff to determine the winner. Wayne Jerrolds, who eventually had a short stint with Bill Monroe, played Listen to the Mockingbird while his opponent a young man from Corinth, Mississippi played Blue Moon of Kentucky. I can still hear the soulful crying notes from Blue Moon of Kentucky and the shuffles from Listen to the Mockingbird. I was forever hooked to those sounds.
Our neighbor, Henry Bivens, a retired blacksmith, owned a fiddle and was a poor to fair player according to my Dad. I never heard him play. Henry routinely enjoyed adult beverages and dipped snuff with a sweet gum toothbrush. He and his wife Hattie sat on the front porch of their home dipping snuff and sometimes with their feet in a pan of water for cooling in the summer. They both passed away around 1969. My dad bought Henry’s fiddle for me when their possessions were auctioned.
Armed with mandolin tunes, we all attempted to play the fiddle with little success. Lessons or money for lessons didn’t exist. The fiddle stayed in the dilapidated case but I counted it in my prized possessions. Soon it was off to college. The day before leaving home for college I got my most memorable lessons for life words from Dad. I had gotten loans and scholarships to pay the way but he told me the day before I left as we stood in the side yard looking at the fields, “don’t go off and act a fool or your ass will be back here in that g**dammed cotton patch”. Properly motivated, I graduated with honors holding a chemical engineering degree. After graduating I packed my fiddle, guitar, and two suitcases with the rest of my junk to begin work with Dow Chemical. Music for the most part was on hold except for a beer-loving band that I played in while with Dow. I soon began job-hopping and relocating to enhance my career.
In two of my 13 relocations, I got the opportunity for fiddle lessons but they were short-lived. The first in Huntington, West Virginia in 1977. The instructor quit after two lessons and the second came in Columbia TN circa 1982. He quit commuting from Nashville after four lessons. I did learn from the second teacher that the old fiddle was really not very playable…..Back in the case!
I continued guitar noodling off and on through the1970 to 2013 period. No serious pursuit with the guitar as chemical plant management and children took all my time. Upon retiring and acquiring an iPad I discovered YouTube. We had moved from Nashville and were living in our weekend getaway planning to build a home. I ran across Bryan Sutton playing Beaumont Rag and immediately discovered all of the music tutorials and aids on the internet. I bought a ton of books from Steve Kaufman’s parking lot picker series and practiced all my fingers would allow. I got to a reasonable intermediate level in two years and decided to attend the Kaufman flatpick camp. I got some great guitar tips and a few tunes but the highlight came when I attended a class offered to any and all attendees hosted by Barbara Lamb, who played a short stint with Asleep at the Wheel. The class was titled, “So You Always Wanted to Play the Fiddle”. I left the class knowing I wasn’t too old and that the better my instrument for learning, the easier it would be to get a good sound. I bought a violin and bow a few weeks later in July 2018.
After four torturous months of trying to play by ear and internet tutelage, I bought Brian Wicklund’s American Fiddle Method Book and started at the beginning. I couldn’t stand more than 30 minutes a day but I finally made progress and got comfortable holding the instrument and making recognizable tune noise. I acquired an online teacher and learned a good bit but she didn’t play the way tunes are in my head. She made beautiful music but her real forte was classical.
Along the way, I discovered Fiddle School and Katie Glassman playing the Eighth of January and must have watched that free video 200 times. There was the sound I wanted. I joined fiddle school and haven’t looked back. I try to practice 3 hours a day but seem to lose focus if I go too long and I’m scared of learning bad habits. I’ve set a goal to play pretty well by age 70 or quit. I don’t know if I would really quit but I’m presently loving the journey. It is such good medicine.
I enjoyed penning most of this but I got a little weepy thinking about my dad, sister, and brother, who all met the Cancer foe. The best of my memories with them were around music. The piano my sister played is still at home with my mother, Henry’s fiddle and the old mandolin are resting in my living room. My old Montgomery Ward guitar is sitting in an outbuilding on the farm…..maybe I’ll bring it home to rest too…..
We often discuss the loftier aspects of musicianship, but today we’re getting into the nitty gritty: how should you care for your fingertips, and nails? These simple things can make a big difference.
Where should I expect calluses to form? As your calluses form for the first time, you’ll feel some initial fingertip discomfort from the friction and pressure of pressing down the strings. Hang in there through the discomfort. In a couple short weeks, you’ll notice your fingertips begin to develop calluses and playing will quickly become more comfortable. You might even get a callus on the tip of your right thumb where you hold your bow. Many folks also develop a “fiddle hickey,” which is a mark (and maybe a rougher skin texture) just below the left side of your jaw where you hold the fiddle.
These changes are all part of the deal, but muscle pain in your hands shouldn’t be. If you notice aches and pains beneath the surface, it’s worth reexamining your technique so you can nip bad habits.
How long should my nails be? We see you, manicure-lovers, but we’ve got to break it to you: there’s really no place for long nails in fiddling. When your nails extend past the tip of your fingers on the left hand, you won’t be able to push the string down and you’ll get nasty, buzzy sounds instead of that clear tone we all want. Clip your nails close to the quick, but be careful not to hurt yourself. If you’re nervous about cutting them that close, you can also use a file. You should expect to clip your nails more often than you’re used to, probably every few days or so, including the thumbnail on your bow hand.
How should I take care of my calluses? Calluses often don’t require much maintenance at all, except for regular practice. It’s normal for them to peel off every once in a while and reform, too. What about when you have the opposite problem: calluses that are too thick? You can tell your calluses have gotten out of hand (eh?) if they begin to crack or they cause your fingers to touch other strings inadvertently as you play. When this happens, you can soak them in warm water and then use a pumice stone to slough off some of the extra skin. Try not to get rid of all of the protection that’s built up, only as much as you have to.
Fingertip care often goes unnoticed but is one of the most basic and essential things you can do for yourself as a fiddler. Now go give yourself some TLC!
I started playing the violin with the Suzuki method when I was 6 years old. When I was 10, I had joined a local youth orchestra, but I was always interested in more kinds of music than classical. At a summer camp I learned about fiddling. At about that age, I remember searching on the internet for violin contests and found a fiddle contest hosted by the National Western Stock Show. I was always a competitive kid, and a fiddle contest sounded amazing!
To prepare for the contest I asked my dad to find sheet music for fiddle tunes that I could easily learn in the month leading up to the contest. I competed in the Novice division where I played Cripple Creek and Wizard’s Walk by Jay Unger. To my great dismay I didn’t win. I stopped playing fiddle for a while. I had decided that if I couldn’t win right off the bat then what was the point?
Later that year at the same summer camp from the previous year, I met Katie Glassman. Katie got me hooked on the fiddle. She made it look so fun! Shortly after, I began taking private fiddle lessons with Katie. What an experience! Till then, I never realized how different Classical playing and fiddling were. I had thought that because classical was so much “harder” than any classical player could easily play the simple fiddle tunes. I was so very very wrong. I spent about a year with Katie in person where I worked on learning the “basics” of fiddling, the feel, and the bowing patterns. (I must admit I still am searching for the feel of fiddling.)
When I was 11, with my family, I made my first trek up to Weiser for the National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest. I was fired up to compete in the Jr. Jr. division with other kids my age. I thought I was going to beat everyone. Once again that was not the case…. at all. I had never realized how competitive fiddling was, and really didn’t understand what it meant to be an “advanced player”, even after my many trial and errors.
That same summer my family moved to Pittsburgh. I continued taking lessons from Katie but online, through Skype. Skype brought a new sort of learning curve I had to overcome, there was no way for Katie to move my arms into correct positions, it was harder to show me how to make technical changes, and not to mention the shotty internet connection. Altogether there was something lost when doing online lessons.
When I was about 13 I began to lose interest in fiddling. The contests in Pittsburgh were an entirely different genre than the Texas-style I was used to. They also lacked the sense of community I had found at Weiser. I struggled in lessons and I wouldn’t admit it at the time but I wasn’t working nearly as hard used to. I began to listen to my peers who told me that I should just quit because what was the point? This struck a certain bell with me and once again I began to think “What’s the point in trying if I’m not going to win?” I convinced myself that I now hated fiddle.
The only thing that kept me playing was Weiser. When I was 15 I got an opportunity to travel to Europe with my Orchestra over going to Weiser. This allowed me to lose all (if any) focus I had on fiddle.
Later that Summer my family once again picked up and moved to Boston. While we were trying to buy a house in Boston there were many conflicts and we ended up being homeless! Luckily our family friends offered us one of their cabins in Vermont. Even though I wasn’t excited about it at first, Boston has proved to have many opportunities.
I continued to try to convince myself that I “hated” fiddle. I continued to not prepare for lessons. Thankfully things began to turn around. That Fall Katie came to visit us and gave me and my sisters a fiddle intensive. While she was here she would pull me aside from my sisters to talk with me. She encouraged me to continue playing and told me that she could tell that I was still in love with the fiddle. No matter how hard I tried, Katie had reconnected me with a part of myself I had shoved deep down. I began to pick my fiddle up a little more, began to play guitar, and listen to fiddle music. Though I did all this where my parents and sisters couldn’t see me. I didn’t want them to know that I had begun to reconnect with the music I’d worked so hard to distance myself from.
That Winter I worked up the courage to ask my Dad to check out some books about the King of Western Swing Bob Wills. I read as much about him as I possibly could. He had me hooked, not only on him as a person but his music. Around the same time I got these books I began to surf the internet in search of fiddle videos. I found Lyle Dixson’s channel where he recorded every fiddle contest imaginable and posted it on YouTube. I would spend hours upon hours watching and researching fiddle. I was once again (whether I liked it or not) hooked on fiddle.
That summer I, unfortunately, was unable to make it to Weiser again. This time for financial reasons and as far as my friends know I missed Weiser because I had rowing practice. Lucky for me, the contest was being streamed. I stayed up late every night to watch the Junior and Championship rounds. I admitted to myself for the first time in 3 years that I very much missed openly enjoying fiddle.
That summer things got tough, rowing was grueling, my favorite dog passed away, and I was in a sort of funk. All my time was spent at rowing. I woke up at 6 to get to practice and wasn’t home till after 5. When I got home I’d shower, eat, and go to bed. I was way too tired to practice. Luckily in August I finally got a break from rowing. I picked up my fiddle and began practicing again. This time I approached my practicing with the attitude of if I’m going to spend time doing something, I may as well do it the best I can. I took a deep dive into fiddle music. I spent hours listening to Terry, my favorite fiddler. I began to get tired of playing songs I had learned the previous spring and wanted to learn something new. I learned a few parts of Say Old Man off of a Terry recording. During my first fall semester lesson with Katie I played her the parts of Say Old Man I had learned. She seemed so happy that I had taken the initiative to learn something on my own. I’d never done that before. That got me even more hooked. From there I began to pick up speed with my learning. I was very hungry to learn more and to more importantly make up for all the lost time.
I continue to read and watch fiddle videos. I sometimes sneak my laptop into my room at night to watch videos of Terry or other famous fiddlers. I am once again playing fiddle for the joy of playing!
Practicing fiddle is like stretching your muscles: it lets you notice areas that need attention and give them extra care until you notice improvement.
For many people, the area that needs a lot of special attention is their left hand, where tension commonly builds up. To counteract this, you should consciously and consistently relax your hand.
“Sure, relax,” you say, probably doing the exact opposite of relaxing as you read that piece of advice for the hundredth time. “But how?” I hear you. It’s not always intuitive, so we’ve created a simple warm-up structure designed to help you release tension in your left hand. Look at this warm-up as some targeted TLC for the days when your left hand needs it (and sometimes, that’s every day.)
1. Begin with the Popcorn Fingers exercise.
To do this exercise, begin by getting your left hand in position with an open palm, straight wrist, and curved fingers. Then, beginning on your A string, pop one finger at a time down on the string so that you can hear the “plunk” of each pitch as your finger lands. Try this on every string with every finger. Since you don’t have to focus on bowing at the same time, you can monitor your left hand closely to notice tension and release it.
2. Move on to thumb taps.
Reset your left hand posture before you continue to this exercise. The reset is important because, even if your hand “feels right,” you might be reinforcing old habits you don’t even know you have. After you reset your hand, you’ll love how simple this warm-up is. Take your left thumb, where tension is often stored, and tap it gently three times on the neck. Then place your first finger on the fingerboard and tap three times again. Continue this process with each finger on each string. Practice pushing your fingers down without gripping in your thumb. Thumb taps are also great to mix in throughout your practice to keep your hand relaxed.
3. Practice neck slides.
Again, reset your left hand posture. This time, practice sliding your left hand toward you up the neck and then back down to where it began. Then pop your first finger down (lightly) and repeat the slide process. Go through the steps again with each finger on each string. Remember, we’re not using a bow at all for these first three exercises. That’s because the goal isn’t to sound good (or sound at all.) The focus is solely on calming your left hand, so put all your attention on that.
4. Play mindful scales with a mirror.
By now, you’ve gotten some good practice being mindful of your left hand. You can always return to any of these exercises throughout your practice session when you need to release tension again. To finish this mini-warm-up, let’s combine what you’ve worked on by playing scales in front of a mirror.
You’re probably accustomed to watching your right hand when you practice in the mirror, but right now your left hand is still the star of the show. Before you begin, be sure your left wrist is straight, your palm is open, and your fingers are poised to land on their tips. At a very slow tempo, play a scale (I recommend G or A), still focused on just your left hand. This is the first time in this sequence you’ve used a bow, so fight the urge to spread your attention too thinly. Only focus on your left hand. Keep it soft and open as you play on every string, and play through the scales several times. Check the mirror repeatedly to see if your hand is doing what you want it to.
Voila! You’re cured. Wait, what’s that you say? You did the warm-up and your left hand is still tense? Before you get down, know that you’re not the only one who has a hard time with this. It takes time to change habits, and left hand tension is an especially sticky habit. Despite that, it’s a challenge that you can overcome. I promise, no matter the shape of your hands or the history of your fiddling, you can get to a place where great left-hand technique feels second-nature to you. Trust the process and you’re on your way.
by Celeste Johnson
Let me guess: you’re reading this from home.
Hopefully, you’re also wearing your favorite pair of slippers and sipping a good cup of something. But even if you’re happy to hibernate at home for a while, some of the changes in our routines can be hard to navigate, and music is no exception. That’s why we’re spending some of our time in quarantine writing this Fiddle from Home series!
In these posts, we’ll give you strategies, support, and inspiration to help you navigate your new musical routine while everything’s topsy-turvy. This series is here to support you, so tell us: how can we feed your fiddling right now?
In office hours, emails, and social media, all the questions and curiosities you share help us create content that meets your needs and nourishes your musical life. Let us know how we can support you by sending your topic suggestions, questions, hurdles, and eureka moments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this first Fiddle from Home post, let’s talk about six ways to energize your playing while we’re all cooped up at home right now.
1. Read a book. Although it’s indirect, reading is a great way to incorporate new meta-concepts into your musicianship. especially if you’ve been stuck in a rut or frustrated with music lately, which happens to all of us. I love reading when I feel this way because it feeds the part of my brain that loves to understand the process of how things work. If I can see how successful, motivated people approach their craft, I feel much better equipped to look at mine in a positive, motivating way too. Need book recommendations? Check out our Fiddle School Reading List under the resources tab in the Fiddle Lounge and drop your own suggestions below!
2. Reorganize your practice. The way you practice makes a difference. If you feel like you’re not progressing as quickly as you’d like, it might be time to overhaul your practice routine. By streamlining your practice, you can use the natural structure of the learning process to your advantage and become more efficient to boot. If you don’t know where to start, check out our article about how to use a practice journal.
3. Listen to new music. And I don’t just mean fiddle music. Listen to whatever gets you jazzed, even if it seems like it has nothing to do with fiddle. Just the act of listening to something new inspires me and makes me curious to discover my instrument all over again. If you feel frustrated with your practice, this is a lovely way to remind yourself why you fell in love with making music.
4. Buddy up. One of the best parts of fiddling is the community that sustains the music. That community sustains us musicians too, but it can be hard to feel connected when we can’t play together.Now more than ever, it’s important for you to know that you’re never alone on your musical journey. The best way to remember this is to find a fiddle buddy. You can decide what you do together: maybe you Zoom every couple weeks and show each other the new tunes you’re working on, or maybe you swap new listening recommendations. Maybe you just check in with each other every once in a while. Do whatever works best for you. If this idea sounds a little awkward, step out of your comfort zone and give it a try. It might be just the jump start you need.
5. Change your strings. Every time I put on a new set of strings after a long run on the old ones, I feel like my fiddle’s just had a spa day. I hear my fiddle anew, as if I’ve somehow been playing underwater for weeks, and the crisp, clear sound makes me want to practice for hours on end. If you’ve been playing on the same set of strings for a while, do yourself a favor and switch them out.
6. Connect with your local fiddle organization. Are you part of your statewide fiddle organization? Good! Reach out to them and see how you can support them and stay involved (can you make a donation? write them a publicity blurb for the local newspaper? attend their next meeting?) Since many summer fiddle contests are getting canceled, these organizations are feeling the burn and can really use support and involvement from the communities they serve right now. If you’re not a member of your state’s organization, now is the perfect time to join.
I hope these tips help keep you inspired and remind you that we’re still part of a strong, vibrant, passionate musical community. We can still be here for each other, even when we’re not with each other.
You know the little forks in the road that completely change the course your life? Crossroad moments that, if they hadn’t happened the way they did, would have left you a completely unrecognizable person? Maybe it’s the story of how you found the love of your life at a party you almost didn’t go to, or the time you traveled to the other side of the globe with someone you met when you went back to school on a whim, or that time you encountered a wizard on the street and discovered that you yourself have magical powers far beyond what you ever would have expected… I digress. For me, it was a chance happening like this that began my journey as a musician. I often find myself wondering how my life might look if that lucky encounter hadn’t occurred. Would I have become a scientist, or a politician, or a really good juggler? Or was I always destined to fall in love with music? I’ll never know, but I’m glad I dodged the bullet on the juggling thing, at least.
This divine moment of serendipity happened when I was only five years old, walking down Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado with my family. The street was full of interesting novelties: colorful kites, jugglers, bustling shoppers, candy stores. And then, amidst all the chaos, I saw her: a street musician sitting humbly behind her case, playing something beautiful on her violin. I paused and stood there for what felt like an hour until my parents gently pulled me back into the real world. But for the rest of the day and months afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d heard. Even today, I sometimes think back with gratitude and send thanks out into the universe to that musician.
Later that year, when I wrote my letter to Santa to tell him what I wanted for Christmas, I begged him to please bring me a violin. As long as that happened, it didn’t even matter if he ever brought me any other presents ever again, I said—big talk from a five-year-old. And lo, on Christmas morning, a quarter-size violin appeared beneath the tree (thanks, parents, for heeding my constant babbling). I kept opening and closing the case all day, running my fingers over the orange varnish and plucking the strings. I even tried playing it once or twice, but the instrument’s immediate complaints made both me and my parents believe that perhaps, if anyone were to go on living without a constant headache, it would be best to seek out a teacher to help me get started.
Thus, a couple months later, I found myself sitting across from Miss Carol, a wonderful woman with the patience of an old oak tree. She taught me in the Suzuki method for about a year and then she decided to host what she called a “fiddle boot camp,” a weekend during which she invited a local fiddle teacher to come give some workshops. From the moment I heard the first fiddle tune that weekend, I was hooked. The local newspaper even stopped by to get a look at all the musicians and snapped a shot of me (the one pictured above), my neck craned, jaw slack with awe as I looked up at the teacher towering feet above me. As you can see, my rest position was still a work in progress.
After that camp, I wanted nothing but fiddle music and its bubbling, joyful sounds. I stopped taking classical lessons and took up fiddle lessons with the teacher from the camp. She gave me recordings of jam sessions and contests that I listened to constantly: on my Walkman, in the car when my mother wasn’t already too “fiddled out,” at night before I went to bed and in the morning when I woke up. I couldn’t get enough.
After a year of fiddle lessons, I entered my first fiddle contest. I was terrified. My hands shook, my stomach turned, and it seemed like I couldn’t wipe the sweat off my palms often enough. But I did it anyway, because underneath my nervousness was explosive excitement. I met fiddlers my age and saw grown-ups in the contest who sounded like the recordings I loved so much. In fact, I met many of my great musical heroes at that contest in the coming years, including Dick Barrett, Texas Shorty, and Joey and Sherry McKenzie, among others. And of course, it was where I met Katie for the first time. But I didn’t know any of those big names during my first year there. I only knew that playing in the contest gave me a rush of excitement and happiness like nothing I’d ever experienced.
I started attending as many contests as I could over the coming years, first going to the smaller summer contests at county fairs and then working my way to bigger contests. I found fiddle paradise when I finally attended the National Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest in Weiser, Idaho. At least it felt like “finally,” though I was only ten years old the first time I went. When my time to play came, I played the tunes that I’d prepared, but my nerves jittered and the voice in my head was loud and discouraging. The pressure felt intense and I made mistakes that I never expected to make. When I came off the stage with hands shaking, I felt defeated. I had come so far just to do that? My cheeks flushed and my eyes watered. I was so disappointed in my playing. But even though the competition rattled me, Weiser blew me away. It felt like I’d stepped into a dream world where everyone loved fiddle just as much as I did. There were all-night jams, a week-long contest, and an entire town that celebrated “fiddle week” right along with the contestants. It was a musical home and a family, and more than anything, I wanted to feel like I was really a part of it. And so I found myself at another crossroad.
That year, I went home and practiced harder than I ever had. Some days, my mom had to tell me to stop practicing so that I could eat dinner with the rest of the family. The more I played, the more I loved it. On days when I skipped a practice, I thought I could feel an ache in my left hand, as if my fingers missed the feel of the strings. The next year, I went back to Weiser feeling different about it. I didn’t go to try and “do well” in the contest. I went because I loved the music and I wanted to be surrounded by people who loved it like I did. That year, when I played my rounds, I smiled, took a deep breath, and played with more feeling than I knew I could. And that year, when I stopped playing for a trophy and started playing for a feeling, was the first year I won my division. It felt incredible, but the best part was the support and love from my fiddle family.
A few years later, as I began high school, I took my first lesson with Katie, another crossroad. Katie had always always a fiddler I admired, but when I started taking lessons with her, my appreciation grew to a whole new level. She modeled an incredible drive and attention to detail that still awe me today, and she opened my eyes to new styles of music that I’d never explored. She was also one of the first and strongest voices of encouragement to nudge me to pursue a career in music. Throughout several years of lessons with Katie, I came to see a world of possibilities in music that I’d never seen before. I started playing in bands, grew my teaching studio, and began to explore genres outside of Texas style. It felt like a time of change and possibility in my music, a feeling that continues today.
I’m still at the beginning of my musical life story, and that excites me. I know I have so much to learn and discover. Some days that feels daunting, some days it feels exhilarating. But every day, without fail, I give thanks that I have music to carry me through life and all its crossroads, and I’m so excited to see where those crossroads lead next.
Written by Katie Glassman, Edited by Adam Kulakow
Not long after I started playing in 1988, people called me a fiddler. And I liked that. In fact, it became the central part of my identity as I began traveling to fiddle contests around the country and sought out fiddle legends to learn from (many of the greats were still with us when I started). By the time I got to college, I felt ready to push further and explore the world of classical and jazz. Of course, a push like that entailed 4 hours of practice for each teacher in each class in each genre. I developed a routine: practice from 6 am – 10 am, go to classes all day, then it was back to the practice room from 10 pm – 2 am. The good news is that this actually worked. I improved. A lot. And what a rush that was: my biggest high came from musical progress, and I rode the practice train hard, even got addicted to compliments from my teachers (this was before the movie “Whiplash,” but yeah, I had one of those teachers – and he liked my work ethic). So sure, life was great, and giving up sleep gave me some extra time and so did skipping a meal or two. Why not? It was all about having time to practice. (Paying bills was another thing, as I found one day when my car got booted from unpaid parking tickets.) But practicing was my favorite thing to do and if that meant my car got a boot, well, so be it. And that was pretty much the story of my life from the time I picked up a fiddle until I was 22.
I graduated from the University of Colorado and put my fiddle in its case. If I could have locked that case up and thrown away the key, I probably would have. Instead, it went in the closet. That is, until I moved to Idaho, where I joined a band. As a fiddler? Not exactly. In fact, not at all. The fiddle stayed in its case and that was fine by me. I was now the electric guitar player in a Beach Boys cover band called The Wilson Project and I was also experiencing something I had forgotten about — and that was called having fun. Sadly, the money in Beach Boys cover music just wasn’t there in Boise in 2004. So, the fiddle came out of its case, and soon enough I was teaching 50 fiddle students a week. All the while, I told myself and everyone who’d listen that “I quit fiddle, it just doesn’t inspire me anymore.” And then one day a close college friend (Adam Ravelle) said that the world would end if I quit, and besides, he just couldn’t imagine it. When he happened to notice that I was playing my fiddle hours and hours every week teaching, he had the good sense to let me continue to think that I had “quit.” He knew that I was still “a fiddler,” but he also knew I was a bit burnt out from pushing so hard and so that whole musical identity thing needed a break for a while. I’d call myself a fiddler again when I was ready.
Teaching worked out. I bought a house in Boise and things were looking up. And then things got tragic: two previous tenants in my house died, and soon after that my neighbor got killed by a chainsaw in a lumber accident. Life was feeling very strange and sad. And just when I started thinking I really could use a change, I got one. I got invited to study jazz violin in France with my hero, a protégé of Stephane Grappelli named Didier Lockwood. Helpfully, my house had already doubled in value since I bought it. So within three weeks of that invitation, I got a home loan advance, rented my house, then put the rest of my life in storage and drove my cats to Denver where they could spend a year at my parents’ house. The night before I left, my dad asked if I could even string together a sentence in French. He knew I’d studied Spanish in school and pretty much blew that off to focus on music. Hoping I’d at least learn how to ask where a bathroom is, he gave me the Pimsler CDs and sure enough, I soon was able to say, “Ou est la toilette, s’il vous plait?” His bigger question was what was my plan once I got to France. Again, he knew the answer. I had no plan. Which also meant I had no place to live and limited language prospects, despite the Pimsler CDs. So he got me a hotel in Paris for three days and pretty much prayed for my survival. Miraculously, that actually worked. I got a train ticket out of Paris and found a small apartment two blocks from Didier’s jazz school in the small town Dammarie-Les-Lys for one year. And over the course of that year, I learned French, I learned jazz violin, and I even learned how to become ok with the cheek to cheek kissing greetings twice a day all day with like 58 guys who were studying jazz too. Amid all that kissing, I almost didn’t notice the housing crisis of 2008 that put my house into foreclosure back in Boise. C’est la vie…
Forget the foreclosure crisis. My inspiration for the fiddle was back. All it took was a year with a jazz great, a lot of quality red wine and all that kissing (despite my germaphobia). It was time to get back to America, back to epic practice sessions, and back on stage. I decided to come home to Denver, rented a small house in a hip neighborhood and loved the vibe. But then the vibe changed. Neighbors on both sides of me died. Amid those two tragedies, I developed a 3-inch cyst on my right wrist. It hurt too much to play fiddle and doctors told me that I may not be able to play fiddle again. So, I took out my 1964 Gibson J-45 and started writing songs. People hear those songs today and think they’re happy tunes. Well, they’re not. They’re all sad. I wrote on my pedal organ too. Yes, those songs are also sad.
Fast forward two years and I recorded an all-originals album called “Snaphot,” which was indeed a snapshot of the life I just described above. Somehow that cyst had dissolved, and I was playing all the time. Only things were different now, I was playing with joy. Getting back in musical shape felt so good, singing felt so good, songwriting felt so good. All of it. And the whole journey took me back to where I started: the fiddle. I’m a singer, I’m a songwriter, I’m a teacher, I’m a guitar player, I’m a piano player… a musician. But really, I’m a fiddler. And that goes way back now.
Music has led my life to so many incredible people and places: it’s my identity, my passion and my connection to the world. But it’s also led me to a simple truth, if you play an instrument or sing, you’re a musician. You might be a great maestro in a world class symphony, or you might just be strumming a few chords in your living room. But if there’s music in you, then no matter what, it will always be there – and it will always be there for you. In these tough times, I hope that your music can lift you up and help you remember who you are. It does that for me every day.
Here’s a song I wrote in 2009 about my fiddle called Takin’ My Baby Along. I’ve included the MP3 and the chart, in case you’d like to learn it. The young Nashville fiddle star, Billy Contreras played twin fiddles with me on this one.
Over the next three weeks, I’m going to explore the fascinating topic of fiddle tune variations, of course in the context of Texas-style fiddling. The three topics I’ll cover are: Origins of the Melody, How to Learn Variations, and How to Build Variations. So, keep following my blog posts here….
As cool as variations are, I personally do not look at variations as superior to the traditional melody. In fact, as much as I love playing variations, there are hundreds of tunes that I choose not to vary at all. And there are lots of recordings that have zero variations and totally rock. Here are a few of my favorites: The Tommy Jackson Compendium Volume 1, 2, & 3 (with Red Recktor on mandolin), Kenny Baker’s Master Fiddler, Georgia Slim’s Raw Fiddle, Eck Robertson’s Old Time Texas Fiddler: Vintage Recordings 1922-29. (Full disclosure, Eck does play in those recordings an incredible “Sally Goodin” with several seminal variations that I’ll talk about in future blogs.)
Now, let’s look at the origins of the melody of a fiddle tune. The evolution of a fiddle tune is akin to playing telephone. As the tune gets passed down by ear from generation to generation and from fiddler to fiddler, little changes naturally occur. Variations are then added, and the tune grows over time. The melody of any fiddle tune can also vary from fiddler to fiddler, especially as certain variations become commonplace enough that they get considered to be part of the tune. Still, because respect for the melody of a fiddle tune is a central aspect of an unspoken code among fiddlers, even the oldest melodies remain recognizable.
If you take one part of a fiddle tune, you can break it down and find the “points of the part.” These points make up the undeniably important notes (and rhythms) in the melody that give a tune its musical skeleton, or you might even say, its musical identity. This can include something as small as a single note, a common phrase, or a signature accent on a specific note. These points remain in their traditional places even as variations are built around them. And the presence of these points keep the tune recognizable.
When I first sit down to learn a breakdown, my starting point is always to figure out where the points of the part are. To find the true melody, I will search back as far as I can in recorded history for the oldest recording I can find. Then, getting as close as possible to the original tune, I begin to see its evolution: how variations gradually became accepted as parts and by looking at these now integrated variations, I begin to decipher where the actual points of the parts are. All tunes have their history, their lineage. It’s our work to dig into that and appreciate how they come to us in the present day. Now, this process of discovery is not always as black and white as I just described it, but all in all, I find the exploration worth the blood, sweat and tears. And it is always educational. You might notice how fiddlers who do this work wind up internalizing the melody so deeply that they venture into variations only after a long period of integrating the concept of the tune into their musical being.
After you’ve learned the melody, sought out the oldest documented version you can find, and deciphered all the points of the part, then you might well have some clarity on how variations developed over time. And once you do, you also might well be ready to learn them from a deeper place than just reading notes on a score. I know this can feel a little heady when all you want to do is learn some fun variations, but bear with me here, I promise it’s worth the effort. Why not start out by creating a playlist with all of your favorite fiddlers playing the tune that you’d like to have a variation for. Because therein lie the keys to the kingdom. All you have to do is take the time to listen – to really listen – and lo and behold, you’ll find yourself developing an instinct for not only how to put variations together but also to create them yourself! I don’t need to tell you how thrilling that can be, how rich it is to go that deep into the music you love. Stay tuned for next week’s blog where I’ll talk about How to Learn Variations.
Written by Katie Glassman with Adam Kulakow
It’s a challenge to practice regularly, and if you do, you might still feel like you’re not getting the most out of your practice. Students often go home from their lesson with a long list of things to work on and as soon as they sit down to play, they either can’t remember what the list contained or they don’t know how to start on it.
Enter practice journals! There are many ways to keep a practice journal, but here’s what we recommend to get started. Once you get in the journaling routine, feel free to make edits that help your practice get even smoother, and let us know how it goes in the comments or on Facebook!
1. Start with a notebook or binder that is dedicated only to your practice. In addition to your journal, you can also include sheet music, information about upcoming performances, and anything else relevant to your playing. The important piece is that you reserve the notebook only for musical purposes—no grocery lists popping up in the middle that will break the flow. This separation of your music notes from other papers will help you mirror that effect in your practice mindset by keeping your thoughts focused and present without distractions.
2. Take notes as you work through Fiddle School and during your private lessons. Musical amnesia hits hard as soon as you set down your instrument and walk away from a learning session, so set yourself up for success and write down a list of things you need to work on as they come up. This could be technique exercises, learning a new part, or fixing a trouble spot in a certain song, among other things.
3. Before you begin practicing, write out a plan. It should start with an intentional warm-up (this could be a Practice Pal, some one-note jam, or other exercises) to get you in gear for the skills you want to build that day.
Next, write down tunes and technique that you’d like to check in with. During this part of your practice, you should play slowly and do many attentive repetitions to solidify good technique. It’s also a great place in your practice to use the Practice Circle concept found in Lesson 12.
Next, plan to learn some new material if that’s in your routine that day—otherwise, it’s plenty to work on solidifying tunes you already have. Again, slow and steady wins the race here.
Lastly, write down tunes that you want to play through start to finish a few times. This last portion is important, but is only a piece of the practice (for many people, this is often all they do when they practice, so be sure to give lots of attention to the other steps as well).
When you practice, follow the agenda you’ve written out for yourself, more or less. If something unexpected comes up that you want to work on, that’s okay. Just be sure that you’re not falling for your brain’s trickery if it tries to distract you into noodling or playing repetitions in a zombie-like state of disengagement (this can reinforce bad technique and leave you feeling unaccomplished).
After you finish your practice, cross off each item that you visited on your practice agenda and write down some things you found to work on in the next day’s practice. Do this day after day, and you’ll have a great record of your progress. You’ll also get a better handle on how to improve even more efficiently in the future.
How do you organize your practice? Let us know in the comments, and happy practicing!