The Rare Magic of Fiddle Contests

The Rare Magic of Fiddle Contests

By Celeste Johnson

People often ask me why I like fiddle contests. They seem like an odd thing to many people. “So you’re telling me that you get up on stage to be judged on purpose?!” And when it’s put that way, I see how contests can be off-putting. But when I go to a fiddle contest, I don’t go up on stage to be judged. In fact, that is the least important part of a fiddle contest. So let me paint a different picture of fiddle contests—let me show you why I love them. And spoiler alert: it’s not because I like to compete.

When I was a child, I heard the fiddle for the first time and have not stopped thinking about it since. When I first got a violin of my own, I marveled at it every day, looking at it and gliding my fingers over its cool strings and smooth body. I thumbed through pages of sheet music I did not yet know how to read, coursing with the excitement that I might one day play the notes written there. Every week when I walked into my teacher’s warmly lit house, I felt like I was entering a different, magical world. I quickly fell in love with everything about fiddling: the beautiful instrument, the challenge of learning, the happy tunes, and the way that it made me feel like I belonged to something and something belonged to me.

About a year and a half after I began taking lessons, my fiddle teacher Chris Daring suggested that I enter the state fiddle contest that was approaching a few months later. My stomach plunged with fear at the thought of entering a contest, but I felt an electric excitement at the same time. I decided to do it and began dutifully preparing my two tunes for the novice division (I believe they were Arkansas Traveler and I Don’t Love Nobody).

Months passed. The contest came closer and closer. I circled the date on my family’s calendar and watched for its arrival. Finally it came. I woke up around six in the morning, feeling like I would throw up. Despite my mother’s urging, I refused to eat much for breakfast. My hands were shaking before I even got to the contest site due in equal parts to nerves and excitement. When I walked into the practice room for the first time, I was taken aback. There, fiddling, were several other kids like me, small and scared and excited. Some of them loved playing, you could tell, and some of them were there because their moms wanted them to be. Regardless, they were there and so was I, and we were all part of this thing. I remained nervous but my excitement grew to tremulous new levels as I unpacked my fiddle among these newfound peers.

The rest of that day is a blur in my recollection. The few snapshots that stay with me are feelings more than memories: the warm comfort of getting ready with my guitar player, the breathless terror that overcame me in the moment before I walked onstage, the explosive joy I felt each time I met a new person who shared the same love for the music that I had.

I left the contest hungry for more chances to immerse myself in fiddle music and discover the rich community I had glimpsed there. After that day, I went to as many fiddle contests as I could. Each one was a little different, but they all had one thing in common: every contest exists because of a community of people who love fiddle music and care about it deeply. That feeling of community was what made my first contest experience so transformative. It is without a doubt what has kept me fiddling and attending contests all these years later.

That community stretches across the country and brings the same people together year after year to connect to the music and to each other. Never have I been part of a more intimate, passionate, and generous community than the one I’ve discovered through fiddle contests. The community I became part of by participating in contests has shaped my very concept of what it means to belong to something.

I made my first great friends at fiddle contests. At first, my “friends” were people I would briefly talk to in my uncomfortable seven-year-old way before I went back to practicing in my corner. But year after year, as I kept going to contests and seeing the same people return, I got to know them. Some of them I know in friendly, familiar passing. But some of them I know almost like family. We help each other warm up for our rounds and cheer for each other on stage. Afterwards, we stay up late into the night laughing and playing tune after tune together, relishing the specialness of each other’s company. The happiness that sparks between us is pure and infectious, the kind that comes from people doing what lights them up together. It is rare magic to spend time with people who love what you love as much as you do.

When each contest ends, we all go back to our “regular lives.” Most of the time, it feels like the shock of waking up from a good dream too soon. After being immersed in fiddle music for several days, it’s jarring to hear a pop song in a restaurant or to be met with silence, rather than a late-night jam, when it’s time to go to bed. It’s odd to try to explain what just happened to people who weren’t there. “How did it go?” they ask. I realize they’re asking how I placed in the contest. “It was incredible,” I usually respond, and leave it at that. It doesn’t come close to describing the experience of a fiddle contest, but it must suffice. I want to capture the experience in words. I want to hold onto it for a lifetime, but I know it’s impossible. Instead, I hold onto the idea of what the future holds: another contest, another jam, another night among friends. Rare magic.

What is Interval and Ear Training? How Our Newest Lesson Can Change Your Musicianship

What is Interval and Ear Training? How Our Newest Lesson Can Change Your Musicianship

We’re so excited to release our newest lesson on August 24th. This is one of the most jam-packed, content-rich lessons we’ve ever released in Fiddle School. It’s a goldmine of information to improve your musicianship and technical ability. Here are some FAQs and our answers about Lesson 23.

What is Lesson 23 about? 

Lesson 23 is totally focused on interval and ear training. It builds on your innate knowledge of music to help you better learn by ear, play in tune, and become more confident on the fingerboard.

What does it contain? What tunes are taught? 

Lesson 23 contains eight core concept videos, two fiddle tunes taught by ear, and play-along tracks, listening examples, and sheet music for each tune. The tunes in Lesson 23 are some of my favorites yet: Rye Straw and Kentucky Waltz. Among the concept videos in this lesson, you’ll find:

  • 5 ways to improve your intonation
  • Interval training
  • Dissonant and consonant intervals
  • How to play in tune
  • How to use scales to practice intonation
  • Practice Pal #17, a guided warm-up customized to this lesson’s skills

What skills will I gain in lesson 23?

At its heart, Lesson 23 is designed to help you play more in tune. But the benefits also include:

  • more ease when learning by ear
  • more fingerboard awareness (knowing where to find the notes you want)
  • a better understanding of musical structure and music theory
  • better tone (when intonation improves, so does tone)

 What is interval and ear training? How can it help me?

An interval is the space between two notes. Interval training teaches your ear to recognize those spaces when it hears two notes. It’s music theory with an immediate, practical application you can hear. You can use interval training to:

  • check your intonation by adjusting the interval of the note you’re playing. No more search and destroy; understand the note you want to produce and find it easily on the fingerboard
  • transcribe pieces of music you hear by learning them on your own instrument
  • write songs by turning the melodies and chords you hear in your head into something you can play on your instrument

I’ve tried everything to play in tune. What makes this different?

In our newest lesson, Katie talks directly about this issue. If you’ve done the exercises and put in the practice time but you still struggle to play in tune, we see you and it’s normal. The difficulty can come from inconsistency, musical myopia (zooming in too close to what you’re working on), or difficulty telling when you’re truly playing in tune and when you’re just close. This lesson addresses all three of those issues. 

If you struggle with inconsistent intonation, you’ll learn how to make it more predictable in “Five Ways to Improve Your Intonation” and “How to Play in Tune.”

If you’re a person who hyperfocuses on one issue until tension and tunnel vision get the best of you, you’ll learn a lot from “How to Play in Tune” and “Practice Pal #17,” where Katie helps you get a broader, more musical perspective on intonation.

If you have trouble hearing when a note is in tune or not, “Five Ways to Play in Tune,” “Interval Training,” and “Consonant and Dissonant Intervals” will be eye-openers for you. Remember, the ability to hear whether a note is in tune or not isn’t something you just have to be born with. It can be learned, and that’s what these videos help you to do.

What is the format of the lesson? Do I work on it by myself?

When it releases on August 24th, Lesson 23 will be available for you to work on 24/7/365. It’s asynchronous, so you can use any of the materials any time. You won’t get graded or tested for the lesson and there are no time limits to how long you can use it. Just watch the videos, do the exercises in them, rinse and repeat. 

While you watch and rewatch the concept videos, you’ll also work on learning the tunes in the lesson (one  at a time). Similar to the concepts in the lesson, the tunes are taught in bite-sized videos you can learn at your own pace. Katie breaks down the bowing, fingering, timing, harmony, and more in each tune so that you leave with all your questions answered. And of course, if you do have more questions, you can always visit our active, worldwide community forum for Fiddle School students and teachers or get a private lesson for additional support.

This lesson is so valuable for players at all levels. In it, you’ll find a step-by-step road map that will make you sound like a different person by the end of a month. We can’t wait to welcome you into Lesson 23 and see what it does for you!

Inside the World of Jam Sessions

Inside the World of Jam Sessions

What’s your favorite kind of jam session? Do you love playing in unison with other fiddlers or do you prefer to be the only one in the hot seat? Do you prefer taking improvised solos on the fly or playing crafted breakdowns? Do you like to sing or is that best left to someone else? Everyone enjoys doing different things at jam sessions and there’s a jam for every taste. 

In this post, we’ll talk about our three favorite styles of jams: square dance-style jams, swing jams, and of course, classic Texas-style jams. (Psst: you’ll find each of these three jam styles at our Fiddle School Mountain Retreat in August 2021 and beyond).

Square Dance-Style Jams

A square dance-style jam is where many fiddlers play each tune in unison. You may also hear these jams referred to as “old-timey” jams. This style of jam is popular in many different genres of fiddling, from Irish to old-time sessions and more.


  • So many fiddles! The sound of lots of fiddles playing together at once is beautiful and uniquely powerful. And you get to contribute to it!
  • Lots of support. If you don’t feel comfortable in the spotlight by yourself, a jam like this is the perfect answer. You get to play your tunes with the help of your fellow fiddlers. If you get tripped up, the song goes on and you can jump back in.
  • A great community builder. Jams like this are a great reason to gather with other fiddlers in your community and create bonds with them. Over time, you can build up a great shared repertoire and get to know the nuances of the other fiddlers to make the jam even better.
  • Uses shared knowledge. Jams like these require that the fiddlers know the same tunes and play them the same way, more or less. Establishing this shared knowledge is a great way to grow as a musician and build community, but it does take a little planning ahead, like any jam.

Swing Jams

Swing and Western Swing jams are usually based more around “songs” than “tunes.” What’s the difference, you ask? Simple: a song includes sung lyrics while a tune is instrumental. 

In a swing jam, an instrument usually plays the “head” or melody of a song to introduce it, then the singer sings it, then people take solos, and the song ends with the melody one more time. This format leaves space for different instruments to shine and incorporates lots of variety throughout the form. It also allows for improvisational solos, which neither square dance nor Texas-style jams do.


  • A chance to improvise. In swing jams, you’ll have the opportunity to take an improvised solo. It’s a great time to be creative and put your chops to work. When you play your solo, you’re participating in a song’s musical “conversation.” 
  • Lots of variety. Swing jams rely on many different instruments to alternate taking the lead in a song. This creates an engaging sound for the listeners and an engaging format for musicians. Fiddles, voices, and other instruments can all find a place to shine within a swing tune.
  • A different repertoire for a different setting. Swing jams call on a different repertoire than fiddle contests or Texas-style jams. This is your opportunity to bring out another side of your musicianship and play swing songs from the 1920s-1950s that you’ve learned for just this occasion.
  • Highlights different skills. Swing jams are a great place to sing a tune, try out a solo lick that you’ve transcribed, or bring in some subtle fills that you’ve learned.

Texas-Style Jams

Texas-style jams are my heart and soul. In these jams, one fiddler takes the “hot seat” and a couple accompanists (up to three) back them up. The fiddler stays and plays several tunes in a row: anywhere from three to dozens, depending on the situation. The tunes are planned out in advance and the fiddle is the only featured instrument (no improvised solos here). These jams focus on crafted variations, rhythmic feel, and the connection between the fiddler and their accompanists.


  • Small and intimate. Texas-style jams are small for a reason: since the fiddle can easily become drowned out by too many backing instruments, three accompanists is about the limit to maintain a tight sound and keep the focus on the fiddler. This creates an environment where each musician can deeply connect with the others in the circle.
  • Fiddle-focused. When it comes down to it, Texas-style jams are centered on the fiddle—period. In these jams, a fiddler really gets the chance to show what they’ve worked on and what they can do. For fiddle lovers, this is a dream come true. 
  • Rhythm-focused. Just because these jams are fiddle-centric doesn’t mean that the guitar plays a small part. On the contrary, good accompanists are what make a Texas-style jam really shine. Without good rhythm players, a great Texas-style jam can’t happen.
  • A place for variations. Unlike square dance-style jams, Texas-style jams are designed to feature variations in a tune. The fiddler will usually introduce the melody of a tune first, then add in variations as the tune develops. When you listen to a fiddler’s version of a tune, you can often tell which fiddlers they listen to and look up to based on their choice of variations.

This only scratches the surface of some types of jams we love. Jam sessions are their own unique worlds with their own culture and etiquette. Like snowflakes, each one only happens once. Now take what you read in this post and go find a jam session you love (or start one!) Maybe we’ll see you there.

Happy Father’s Day!

I love my Papa! Growing up, my sister and I always looked forward to jumping in the car with our dad and going to do puppet shows all around the Rocky Mountain Range. He’d have me play fiddle in front of the stage before the shows, and I remember being thrilled to break out my brand new Jack of Diamonds in front of an audience. My dad played some guitar and we’d spend long hours playing fiddle tunes from the Fiddler’s Fakebook. My dad was the one who’d take me to my late-night fiddle lessons with Dale Morris.

Papa was the one who’d take me to the smoke-filled bars to have my first experiences playing in bands as a 16-year-old. I’m a lucky gal, my dad was always and still is supportive of my music. Just two days ago he came up to Frisco, CO with me to watch my first gig in a year. Boy was that a treat! (There were about 300 people there who were also experiencing their first live music since before the shutdown). So, I’m eternally grateful to my dad, Ed Glassman, for encouraging me, showing up for late-night gigs, and always letting the sound engineer know if the fiddle wasn’t loud enough 🙂

Fiddle School Summer Mountain Retreat

We have waited a long 15 months to reschedule our in-person Fiddle School Mountain Retreat — and it’s here! The retreat will take place in Allenspark, CO from August 26th (arrive between 4 and 5 PM) to August 30th (depart at 10:00 AM). So far we, have 14 sign-ups and 8 spots left. Camp registration opens to everyoneon May 29th, 2021. I hope you’ll join us for this special in-person event. We’ve really missed you!

“The 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!!” —Peggy Waller

“It’s so nice to take the time to learn about origins of music you love, whether you’re looking for new material or getting a different perspective on what you already know, it’s all there when you get together with others who have a similar passion.” —Emily Sheehan

Registration is open to the public. Get your spots while they’re hot. Tuition covers:

▪ 4 Nights and 5 Days
▪ Lodging in the woods of Allenspark, CO
▪ Delicious homecooked meals
▪ Instruction from national fiddle champions
▪ Transportation to and from the airport (please see our timeline below)

Prices range from $1,025 – $1,400, depending on your lodging preference (single rooms, double rooms, main lodge). This camp will be focused on guided/coached jamming skills in Texas Style fiddling, Western Swing, and Swing/Jazz. We’ll play our hearts out, eat good food, and celebrate each other’s company!

Vaccination for COVID-19 is required.

Here’s a tentative itinerary (more details to follow as we get closer):

August 26th
5:00 PM – 6:00 PM – Check in, get settled, and let the jamming begin!
7:00 PM – Dinner and welcome
8:00 PM – Group jam session

August 27th, 28th, & 29th
10:00 AM – 3:00 PM – Classes and instruction time
3:00 PM – evening – electives, fiddle happy hour, and evening jams.

August 29th
7:00 PM – Fiddle School Mountain Retreat jam session/concert extravaganza!

August 30th
9:00 AM – Breakfast
10:00 AM – Pack-up and farewells

Flight pick-up times on August 26th:
Denver International Airport – Pick-up between 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM

Flight drop-off times on August 30th:
Monday – Drop-off between 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM

Camp Details:
The Mountain Retreat is open to 25 students. Previous campers will receive the first invitation to register on May 18th. On May 21st, registration will open to all Fiddle School members. Pricing includes lodging, meals, instruction, and airport transportation.

Raising the next generation of fiddlers: Sydney Green on musical parenting

Raising the next generation of fiddlers: Sydney Green on musical parenting

In honor of Mothers’ Day, we reached out to one of our favorite jam buddies and dear friends, Sydney Green, to talk to her about what it’s like to be the mother of three kids who fiddle. She offered lots of insights on how she uses her love of music to help her kids find their own.

Sydney started playing classical violin when she was in 5th grade and played for about four years before she stopped. But in her senior year, Sydney met Bridget Law, a fiddler at her high school who suggested she start taking fiddle lessons. A couple weeks later, she took her first fiddle lesson with teacher Chris Daring and “got bit by the bug immediately.” 

After that, Sydney dived head-first into fiddling. Talking about what got her hooked, she said,

“The nice thing with fiddling is the social aspect of it, which was definitely a driver for me. It was so much fun. We’d go to Chris’s house and she’d host teenage jam sessions all the time. That’s where Katie and I met, and a bunch of other people our age, and we would get together all the time. That’s also what encouraged me to learn guitar; I wanted to play more, rather than just playing my few fiddle songs. I wanted to be able to keep up and stay in the jam. With my own children, I think that’s the piece about fiddling that I truly value, that community and for them to find their friendships and the fun in music by playing with their peers and playing with each other.”

Sydney’s own mom played an important role in her musical life. A talented pianist herself, Syd’s mom Tia “was super encouraging of me, and she wanted me to find my own musical path.” And she loved fiddle music, which didn’t hurt either. “Turkey in the Straw was her favorite,” Sydney recalled with a smile.

Shortly after Syd picked up fiddling, she started going to fiddle contests. Her first contest was the Royal Gorge contest in Colorado, where she remembers the warm, supportive atmosphere. “I remember getting positive attention about how I sounded. Being celebrated on stage felt really good,” she said. 

That year, Syd also went to the National Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest in Weiser, Idaho for the first time. 

“It was so much fun to meet pretty much everybody that I’m still friends with today, people I enjoy and who I love playing with when I get the rare chance. That’s definitely what fiddle contests are about for us. To be able to go to contests and just be surrounded by the music is such a big draw. That’s why Weiser has always been such a fond memory for me, because it’s one of the few times you’re just totally in the music for days on end.”

Now a mom of three, Sydney has the opportunity to pass on that immersive experience of community to her own kids. 

“I took Lexi to Weiser when she was pretty young. She got to go with me two or three years before the boys came. She loved being around the music. Then, two years ago, we brought the boys with us. They still talk about it all the time. Last year, not being able to go because of the pandemic, their world just collapsed. It’s been sad not to be able to take them because these are the memories that I treasure and I want them to have. It will also be a part of their longevity in playing fiddle, so I’m looking forward to bringing some of those experiences to them again. Hopefully we’ll do some contests this year.”

Syd emphasized several times how important the fiddle community is to her and her kids. Not only is it fun, but the community is what will have her kids fiddling in the long term, she said.

“I knew that community would be the number one reason they would keep playing, and that is still something that we’re fostering and developing. That’s why going to contests is so important, going to Weiser is so important. In order to keep them engaged and interested, it comes down to the community.”

And contests aren’t the only way that Sydney and her family participate in that musical circle. Syd also finds opportunities for her kids to play out in the community, whether it’s a jam session or an event where they’re playing for other people. “For them to be able to share their music and see the reaction they get from other people, [see] that this is something that brings joy and fun and other positive reinforcements, is something that’s really important to me,” she said.

Watching her kids develop into unique individual musicians has been rewarding for Sydney, especially as a musician herself. 

“It’s been fun. They’re all been really motivated in their own ways, and now they’re getting to a place where they do it because they enjoy it, not just because mom does it. It’s been good to see them just develop their own musical connections. It’s great to see the personalization of music and how it’s individual to each of them.” 

What helped her kids develop those unique connections, beside forming bonds with their peers in the fiddle community? 

“As things have clicked, as they start to develop a sound and find that song that just really works for them and feel how fun it is when we can play together, that’s the point where they really feel that musical joy. As they’ve gotten older and have been playing longer, they have more moments like that.”

Sydney’s kids are great little fiddlers, and part of that is probably due to their young starts as musicians. Lexi, the oldest, started when she was 6, while her twin brothers Britton and Ellis started playing when they were 5. Now, each of them have several years of playing experience under their belts and are becoming better and better at practicing on their own. “They’re pretty good at ordering their practice. But when they have to work through a little section, it’s still really hard for them.” That’s when Sydney tends to step in and offer a little more direction to help her kids build good practice habits. She also helps provide day-to-day structure to give her kids consistency in their practice routine.

“The consistency of practice is really important. With them, my goal is at least to build consistency. And I’ll hear grumbling, like, ‘Mom, when do we get a break?’ But I know if they miss two days of practice, it’s an uphill battle the third day. I am straight struggling to get them back on track. It doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally take breaks, but they get reminded if they take too much of a break of how it feels to come back. We have conversations: we’re not gonna put it down for summer break. That’s not how this operates.”

Besides helping her kids create structure, Sydney also helps them by backing them up on rhythm guitar. 

“I play guitar with them quite a bit during the week in our practices, especially to review old material and to gear up for playing opportunities. In the summer, we do popcorn jams where we make a bunch of popcorn and go out and play. That just keeps them excited and motivated.” 

Sydney recognizes how unique her  family’s situation is. Not everyone who has a parent or a child who can accompany them, but for those who do, it’s a huge advantage. “I try to give them as much guitar opportunity as possible. They totally take it for granted,” she laughs. “I always have my guitar and I’m like “Who’s gonna play a song with me?!” and then I guilt one of them and they’re like ‘Okay, mom,’ and then they end up playing like 3 or 4. It’s fun.”

Practicing and coaching her three kids is no small task, which is one reason Sydney uses Fiddle School’s online resources with them. Britton, 8, uses the learning videos in Fiddle School to learn new tunes on his own. “They work really well for him because the little sections, the way that Katie breaks it down, is very easy for him to manage.” Lexi, 9, relies more on the guitar play-alongs in her practice routine. “It’s been nice for them to have a resource that isn’t me,” said Sydney.

Another perk of helping her kids learn to fiddle: Sydney’s noticed positive effects on her own musicianship. 

“I have loved that with them playing, it’s pushed me to keep music going in my own personal realm. That doesn’t look like me sitting down and practicing every day, but I definitely play a lot more than I did and I try to keep myself going with new songs and new material, because it’s important to me that they see me improving as well. It’s less challenging for me to pick up my instrument now that they play.”

As an adult musician, Sydney knows how much her kids will get out of playing later in life. 

“I know, at the end of the day, to be an adult that plays music is amazing. You hear so many adults who played music as a kid and they say, ‘Oh, I wish I still played.’ A lot of times kids give it up because it’s no longer cool or they don’t have time for it, or they burn out. So to me, it’s just a matter of building the love, building the consistency, and providing the space for it.” 

Sydney builds that love and consistency with her kids in part by sharing her own love of music with them. “We listen to a lot of music where fiddle is the main instrument or an integral instrument. Texas fiddle, Bob Wills, swing, bluegrass. They love listening. They always want to go back to different songs, or they’ll be like, ‘That’s so cool, mom! Can we listen to that again?’” And she does what she says all parents of musical kids need to do for their kids to make it work: “prioritize their practice, prioritize their playing, and prioritize the amount of work that it takes.”

When Syd and her kids talk about fiddling, she often tells them, “If this were easy, everyone would do it. It’s not easy, and that’s what makes it special.’” It seems like the same goes for being a mom of musicians. To all of you parents who put in the work to make music a priority in your family, we are so grateful.

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