Growing up, music gatherings like fiddle camps and contests were my absolute favorite thing in the world. Each year, I looked forward to these gatherings like other kids looked forward to Christmas or trips to Disneyland. I could not imagine anything more perfect than spending time with friends I loved and artists I admired, all of us there because of our shared passion for traditional music. Those camps and contests were the reason I made many of my dearest friends, discovered a lot about what lights me up, and really honed my musical skills as a fiddler and an accompanist.
The longer I’ve been fiddling, the more I understand why fiddle camp and fiddle contest experiences are so transformative and so essential to this style of music: musical gatherings like these are how old-time fiddling developed into the storied art form it is today. I’m not just talking about jam sessions where everyone shows up for a couple hours and then goes home. I’m talking about high-investment gatherings, those where you have to load up your covered wagon and drive out many hours to get to the square dance. The musical gatherings at the foundation of fiddling were more than transient experiences. They were the reason that people came together, the glue within communities, and the channel through which new musical variations and techniques spread to different regions.
Today, you probably don’t have to load up your covered wagon to get to a square dance. In fact, you can hear the same music our predecessors would’ve heard at a square dance many miles away, simply by opening a new browser tab. We’re living in different times. We have unlimited access to any kind of music or musical instruction that tickles our fancy, and we don’t even have to leave home to get it. But even though our cultural milieu has changed—after all, we don’t need to tie up the horses and spend the night at the hootenanny before driving back to the farm anymore—there’s still a thriving selection of in-person musical gatherings, camps, contests, festivals, and more. People will still travel hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles, to participate in these experiences. After two years of the Zoom life, I’m sure you could easily name a dozen reasons why.
Making music together in person is different. It requires a commitment from each person present: “I am here to create this with you—we, in this moment, are playing this song that will never be quite the same again.” The act of making music together requires collaboration, spontaneity, intimacy. And that’s just one song we’re talking about. When people come together for longer periods of time (at a fiddle camp or fiddle contest, say), there’s space for even more. Community forms, curiosity grows, and we experience deep inspiration through this musical tradition of which we are stewards. When we dedicate our time, our physical presence, and our attention to anything on that level, incredible changes happen. That’s why these experiences are so dear to me and so many other musicians I know. Every time we come together to make music, we walk away feeling inspired, grateful, and connected to the music and the community in a way that nothing else can imitate.
I like to think that those feelings of inspiration and connection are the same ones that urged people to pack up their covered wagons and gather together more than a hundred years ago. Today, even though our times have changed, those sentiments are still at the heart of the fiddling tradition.
Are you still looking for a fiddle gathering that gives you this kind of warm fuzzy feeling and provides a community of folks who love fiddling as much as you do? Check out our Fiddle School Mountain Retreat. Here’s what some of our students have said about it:
“My goal in coming to the retreat was to give myself the time to focus on my fiddling and to socialize with others who have the same focus.”
“The location provided an inspiring setting to learn, enjoy nature, bring folks together from all over to share their love of fiddling and music. Everyone went home happy and inspired to keep playing!”
“Camp provided the motivation to practice harder.”
“It felt safe. I enjoyed the slower pace and the kindness with which each jam leader led.”
“Katie’s Fiddle School Mountain Retreat was the most impactful, positive, powerful, organized and focused fiddle/music camp I have ever experienced! I learned so much and am so encouraged to continue my personal enjoyment and improvement on my fiddling skills!”
To learn more about the retreat, click here.
I must have been about ten years old when I discovered Andy Stein on the car radio while my parents were listening to “Prairie Home Companion.” Sure I was young, but I remember his music as a sort of revelation. He was one of the first jazz violinists I’d EVER heard, and I knew then that this was a style that I’d want to play someday. So, years later, when I first met Andy while teaching a camp together, I was thrilled to hear his musical stories and take in his virtuosity and playful sense of humor. It is with great pleasure that I announce him as our SPECIAL SATURDAY NIGHT GUEST ARTIST at Fiddle School’s online Swing Improv Weekend. If you’d like to come to our live conversation with Andy, reserve your spot here.
Our Saturday night interview specials conducted by entertainment professional, Adam Kulakow, have been a smashing success. Come get to know Andy and the legends he’s met along the way.
Join us as a half-day camper or buy a ticket to attend the interview with Andy Stein. To learn more about him, read on and take a listen to this clip of him playing “Sunshine,” originally recorded by Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang His resume is nothing short of extraordinary.
Andy Stein is a musician with a “checkered past.” Besides freelancing as a violinist/violist in chamber and orchestra groups in his native New York, he has recorded with Itzhak Perlman, Placido Domingo, Marilyn Horne, Frederica Von Stade, toured China with a string quartet, and performed concertos with orchestras in New York, Chicago, New England, Pacific Northwest, and the South. He has appeared on numerous television programs including Late Night with David Letterman, Saturday Night Live, Great performances (PBS) and As The World Turns (CBS). He has also been a featured soloist in a number of Broadway Shows, including the Lincoln Center production of “Anything Goes,” and the 1990’s Broadway revivals of “Guys and Dolls” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” He has produced records of rock ‘n’ roll and jazz, and conducted on radio and television.
For twenty-two years his violin and saxophone were heard weekly (hopefully not weakly) on public radio nationwide, as a member of the Guys All-Star Shoe Band, the “house band” on A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor.
Andy entered the popular music field as a founding member of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, where his distinctive style on violin and saxophone added a swing element to this beloved rock ‘n’ roll band of the early ’70’s. He subsequently worked with Asleep at the Wheel, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker Band, Aerosmith, Billy Joel, Alan Menken, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Smashing Pumpkins, Grover Washington Jr., Chakka Kahn, Diane Reeves, Barabara Cook, Audra McDonald, Dionne Warwick, Ray Charles, B. B. King, Memphis Horns, Eric Clapton, Whitney Houston, Kathie Lee Gifford, Manhattan Transfer, Tony Bennet, Carol King, James Taylor, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, etc. and holds a Grammy award for Best Country Instrumental 1978. He has performed for two Presidents of the United States, the President of the Dominican Republic, four mayors of New York, and for the Native American occupying force on Alcatraz.
It’s an honor and a pleasure to welcome Andy as our guest at the upcoming Swing Improv Weekend virtual camp. If you’d like to attend Andy’s talk, hear more about his musical history and philosophy, and pose questions of your own, you can get your ticket here.
Have you had the pleasure of listening to Duke Ellington’s Jazz Violin Session? Recorded in 1963 but not released until two years after Ellington’s death in 1976, these sessions feature Ellington and members of his orchestra plus three paramount jazz violinists: Svend Asmussen, Stéphane Grappelli, and Ray Nance. The other players on the album include tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, drummer Sam Woodyard, bassist Ernie Shepard, alto saxophonist Russell Procope, and trombonist Buster Cooper. Ellington plays piano on all tunes except two, where Billy Strayhorn takes his place. The tunes are Ellington and Strayhorn compositions. Listen here.
A strong fourth finger is essential for good fiddling, but often that strength is difficult to develop. Especially if you don’t often use your fourth finger or you’re new to using it, this finger may put up a fight when you try to get it to do your bidding. But don’t assume that your finger isn’t capable of what you ask of it; it’s just not trained yet. Even if you’ve been playing for a long time and still struggle with your fourth finger, there are ways to improve its function and make it stronger.
When you have a strong fourth finger, all sorts of doors open in your fiddling. You’ll get that classic fiddley sound that can only come with a fourth finger, plus your intonation will improve and your left hand will feel much more relaxed. Fourth finger work isn’t always a favorite pastime, but I promise you that the effort you put into strengthening your fourth finger will bring a huge payoff.
When should you start adding fourth finger exercises to your practice? As soon as you can place your first three fingers on the fingerboard and play those notes, you’re ready to work on the fourth. You can’t start strengthening this finger too early. If you’ve already been playing for a long time, it still doesn’t hurt to return to pinky exercises once in a while, especially if you still struggle with this finger more than others. Basically, there’s no wrong time to do these exercises.
Without further ado, here are five of my favorite fourth-finger exercises to help you strengthen your pinky and improve your left hand function. With all of these, be careful not to overexert yourself and strain your fingers. Give yourself breaks, never tolerate pain, and don’t spend too much time with these in one sitting.
Exercise #1: Visualize strength
This first exercise doesn’t require that you use your pinky at all. Instead, close your eyes and picture your pinky doing what you want it to do. Think of a strong, arched shape with your pinky landing solidly on its tip. You may have already convinced yourself that your pinky is weak or incapable simply by telling yourself that it is. By reimagining this finger as strong and capable, you can set yourself up for success.
Exercise #2: Base knuckle hammers
When you lift and place your fingers on the strings, you should move them with your base knuckle (the knuckle closest to your palm). This conserves energy and keeps your hand relaxed as you play. To practice using your base knuckle to lift your pinky, set up your left frame of hand and place your pinky on the A string (no bow necessary here). Then use your base knuckle to lift the finger off the string, keeping it close. Bring the finger back down, again using your base knuckle to move it, and repeat. Be sure that you’re not relying on other joints to move the finger.
Exercise #3: Archery practice
It takes strength to maintain an arch as you place your fourth finger on the string. To practice keeping that arch in your finger, build on the exercise above. As you practice popping your fourth finger on and off the string on its tip, watch the arch in the finger. If you notice your finger buckling or flattening as you put it down, take your right hand and gently bend your left pinky’s middle knuckle to bring the arch back to it. Every time you place the finger, be mindful to preserve the arch. The more you do it, the easier it will get.
Exercise #4: Half scales
Once you’ve gotten your pinky to the point where it can land on its tip when you’re not bowing, try this exercise. On you’re a string, walk up a half scale (A B C# D E). When you reach E, use your fourth finger to play the note. If you need to, you can pause and adjust your finger so that it’s on its tip and arched. Once it is, walk back down to A the same way you walked up. Loop these half scales to get in some agility practice and build fourth finger strength. Try these on any string once you’re confident on the A string.
Exercise #5: Fourth finger and drone
For this final exercise, build on the half scales from Exercise #4. When you reach your finger in the scale, play that note with the next highest string (for example, play your 4 on A plus the open E string next to it). This exercise is twofold: it gives you the chance to check the intonation of your fourth finger and allows you to practice the fourth finger/open string combination that is so common in fiddling.
I hope these exercises help you develop confidence and strength in your fourth finger. Practice them little by little and you’ll be amazed by how much your fourth finger really does want to be part of your team.
As of the publication of this, it’s December 20th, and that means that there’s cheesy Christmas music pouring from every speaker you find. Even though I gripe about certain songs, I love the way good holiday music can set a warm, cheerful mood. That’s why we put together this playlist of holiday music we love for your listening pleasure this season. On it, you’ll hear lots of swinging classics and maybe a few tunes you haven’t encountered before. Yes, the first lady of this playlist is definitely first lady of song Ella Fitzgerald, but that shouldn’t surprise you. We’ve also got some Bob Wills, Billie Holiday, Elvis, Louis Armstrong, and a few more mixed in that we hope you’ll love. Go put on these tunes, drink something hot, and settle in for some swing. Enjoy.