This month’s Student Spotlight is on Louisa Knabe. I first met Louisa at the California Coastal Music Camp (CCMC). It was there that Louisa won a 6-month membership to Fiddle School in a raffle. Since then, it’s been several years working with Louisa in Mastery Certification and as a Fiddle School member. She is a reliable attendee at the weekly Office Hours, and you can catch Louisa playing fiddle, guitar, bass, and singing. She’s quite a talented musician, and her progress on the fiddle has been astounding — she received her Mastery 1 Certification in 2022 and is currently enrolled in Mastery 2 Certification.
You should also know that Louisa and her husband, Topher Gayle, have published a book called Hand Over the Chords! How to Read Chords from a Guitar Player’s Hand (buy it here). The book is easy to follow with beautiful illustrations and helpful photographs. This book would be a great part of any fiddler’s library. Especially if you’re interested in jamming, you must have this book!
Louisa is a delightful person. She brings great energy to any class she attends, and I always enjoy her well-thought-out questions. I have a hunch that these questions have led her to where she is with music today — and she has leveled up on the fiddle! So I decided to ask her some questions of my own. Read on for her answers!
How long have you been fiddling?
I started learning fiddle in 2001 and played consistently until around 2015. Then I stopped playing fiddle while I focused on learning and playing bass. When I met Katie at a music camp in 2019, her class was the first time I had played fiddle since 2015. About 6 months later I joined Fiddle School (Katie’s enthusiasm tends to be contagious).
How did you start?
I had been watching my husband and friends enjoy playing music together and began wondering if I might learn to play an instrument. As a child, I’d only experienced a few years of playing cowboy chords on a much-too-big-for-me guitar. Then I went to a music festival. I heard a number of wonderful fiddlers. I had my answer: I wanted to play the fiddle.
After locating a potential fiddle that I liked, I took it to my first lesson with Lee Anne Welch for evaluation. She gave it a thumbs up, I bought it, and launched into years of weekly lessons. Lee Anne was classically trained, but played Celtic and bluegrass. From her I learned basic technique and mostly Celtic and traditional fiddle tunes.
In 2003 I also started semi-regular lessons with Megan Lynch Chowning (who lived in the SF Bay Area then). With Megan, I continued fiddle tunes but began to get more interested in bluegrass. I learned about the role of the fiddle in bluegrass songs and how to do kicks, fills, breaks/solos, and tags. I started singing some of the songs too!
One other thing I began doing early on was attending music camps. It broadened my exposure to different styles and approaches as well as playing music with other people.
What are your favorite styles to play?
Although I haven’t played a Celtic tune in years (except Wind That Shakes the Barley), I used to enjoy them. I’m happy playing many fiddle tunes. In Fiddle School, it was fun being introduced to less traditional tunes like Marie, Tears on My Pillow, and East Texas Drag, and I’m looking forward to learning some of the interesting and lovely tunes in Session 2.
I really like playing fiddle for bluegrass songs, but find it challenging to do without prior preparation. I’d love to be able to do this with more confidence.
Someday I’d like to try swing, though I’m a relative newbie to the genre – perhaps after I advance through Session 2x.
What’s the most important thing music brings to your life?
If I can indulge in a metaphor, music is sort of an ongoing open cadence with its unfinished feeling. With music, learning is never finished, enjoying is never over, discovery never exhausted, and it continues to be a wonderful way to connect with people. So in this metaphoric sense, the most important thing music brings is this “open cadence.”
How has Fiddle School influenced your playing?
Through Fiddle School I’ve learned about many things that help produce a beautiful sound and flow — things that will continue to guide me as I move forward. I wish I’d had this focused skills instruction years ago! I notice more things now, both in my playing and how other fiddlers play.
Toward the quest for improvement, I’ve modified my method of practicing and learning based on Fiddle School’s “Practice Like a Champion” approach, with plenty of support and reminders from Katie and Celeste. Over time, I think this considered approach is more effective than whatever it was I’d been doing before.
And let’s not forget the isolated “ah ha” moments that jump out unexpectedly, maybe during a Practice Buddy, Office Hours, blog post, or elsewhere. It all merges together to influence the journey.
Tell us about playing music with Topher.
Topher Gayle is my love and husband of 45 years! He’s played music most of his life, considered a music career during 3 years in music school, pursued a career as an engineer, then after retiring early became a semi-professional musician.
When playing music with Topher, there are often fun surprises. Maybe he’ll change a few lyrics to make them amusing, or quote another song during a solo, or change a tune from a major to a minor key, or whatever. His approach to music is about fun. So it’s fun for me too.
Since Topher doesn’t focus on any one style, I can be a bit challenged at times – and learn something new in the process. His solid playing (and helpful tips) move me along.
Speaking of helpful tips, I might add that beyond playing music, we also talk about music (Topher especially enjoys music theory), and I’ve had the opportunity to closely observe experienced musicians in action. Very educational.
I greatly appreciate having had Topher’s support during my musical journey.
Would you like to nominate a fellow Fiddle Schooler for a Student Spotlight? Send us an email and let us know who you’d like to see featured!