Julian Oliver is a dear fiddle friend and amazing musician. This has been quite the year for Julian: he went on tour in Europe for six weeks, then flew back to the US and won the Young Adult division at the National Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest. After that, he went on to teach at California Coastal Music Camp and judge a couple fiddle contests. Recently, Julian was a teacher at our fourth annual Fiddle School Mountain Retreat.
Not only is Julian a stellar fiddler, but he’s also an incredible guitar player. One of the kindest humans I’ve ever met, it’s truly a privilege to know Julian and play music with him. We’re excited to feature our interview with him in this post so you can get to know him better! Read on to learn more about Julian’s musical life.
How long have you been playing and what got you started?
I’ve been playing the fiddle for just over 13 years now; it’s truly a part of who I am. I grew up deeply immersed in music. My older brother started playing the instrument before I was even born, and fiddle tunes along with classical pieces largely defined the sounds of our home. I adored it and became completely captivated. While flipping through a holiday photobook not too long ago, I stumbled on a picture of myself pretending to play a miniature Christmas tree ornament violin – even at four years old, it was disproportionately small for me. I remember that particular Christmas, and that ornament, which found its place on our tree, was as thrilling to me as the presents underneath.
If you were to ask my parents, they’d readily share stories of my fascination with the violin that go back even further. Though it’s beyond my recollection, I’m told that I started pointing out the sounds of the instrument as soon as I could string together full sentences. Whether it was the classical melodies on the car radio or the bluegrass CDs I found in my dad’s collection, the music captivated me, and I was compelled to take up the instrument. After begging and begging I was gifted with my first instrument and I began my journey with Suzuki violin.
Not long after, my obsession with early Western music prompted the realization that I didn’t want to just play violin, I wanted to fiddle! Fortunately, Katie Glassman, a family friend who had previously coached my brother on the instrument, was there. At the age of 6, I started lessons with her, and the rest, as they say, is history.
When did you play in your first fiddle contest and what was it like?
I got into competing early on in my musical journey. I entered my first contest, the 2012 Colorado Oldtime Fiddle Championships, at just 7 years old. Those who have attended will know the warmup area is directly adjacent to the Denver Stock Show’s alpaca pens. I quickly discovered that at the time I had a relatively intense alpaca fleece allergy. My memory of the event is clouded by headaches and an abundance of tissues, but I can recall a few key takeaways.
Though some parts were undoubtedly terrifying, above all I remember a sense of alignment. I was incredibly nervous in the practice room and my stage performance felt cold and sweaty with the room feeling big and a bit too quiet. Nevertheless, this and the fact I failed to make even the first of three cuts didn’t detract from the event’s significance. I was genuinely thrilled by the presence of the musicians around me and felt a deep sense of pride to be sharing the same stage with them.
What do you value about fiddle contests?
There’s no ignoring that fiddle contests aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. For so many, including myself, stress, nerves, and self-consciousness can feel like central components. Over time, however, I’ve come to find that these factors are nothing but personal challenges to be worked through. Furthermore, I’ve come to realize contests are inherently a little uncomfortable for good reasons. Contests should fundamentally be meccas of motivation.
For me, this motivation is bound to some version of wanting to perform well, whether that means winning, showing off your progress to friends, or just getting through a round on stage. As musicians, it’s important to push ourselves, and no one said this thing was gonna be easy.
Additionally, I’ve always found that contests come with so much more than just an opportunity for competition. In Texas-style fiddling, contests are epicenters of the culture. Whether it be listening to competitors, jamming late into the night, or getting nerdy with music friends, the vast majority of my inspiration over the years has come from the interactions I’ve had at contests. The contest environment has always been one of the most valuable things for my musicianship.
In addition to competing, what other musical endeavors are you involved in?
Lately, my focus has increasingly shifted towards teaching and performing music. Notably, earlier this year I had the privilege of embarking on a European tour as a member of a country and swing band — a venture proving quite influential to my growth. Additionally, I had the honor of teaching at several music camps and judging a handful of fiddle contests. These experiences proved to be immensely enjoyable and fulfilling.
Currently, I offer private lessons to aspiring fiddlers and in addition to this and filling in playing local shows, I spend a good amount of time just burying my head in music. Learning new fiddle tunes, improving my guitar playing, and exploring the never-ending world of recorded music are big parts of my life.
Tell us about how you became a great backup guitar player and why that was important to you.
The guitar is a much more central component of Texas-style fiddling than one might assume. Not only is it sonically complementary to the sounds of a fiddle tune, it forms the structural backbone of the style, holding significance from both musical and social perspectives. On the musical front, the guitar locks in the rhythm and steers the melodies’ framework, often emulating the role of an entire band. From a social standpoint, the presence or absence of a guitar player can make or break the scene. Growing up, contests and jam sessions constituted the only avenues for live musical interaction, both of which required an ample supply of guitar players to accommodate.
I learned very early on as a fiddler what a difference a good guitar backup makes, and how crucial it is to have one in the first place. The desire to participate in jams spurred me to pick up the guitar, and my realization of the pivotal role a skillful guitar player plays inspired me to put in the work. After a short time playing the instrument, learning new chord progressions and working on note literacy and chord theory became incredibly enjoyable. I truly love playing guitar as much as a fiddle and would encourage all fiddlers to give it a shot. Picking up a second instrument pushes you to a greater understanding of how music works and can be a wonderful source of inspiration.
I know you put a lot of intention into learning to manage your nerves in order to get where you are now. How did you learn to stay calm on stage?
Learning to manage my nerves was as much a life journey for me as it was a musical one. My guess is that anxieties surrounding musical performance are rooted in something unique for each one of us; mine have always been rooted in self-consciousness. My internal dialogue has always been the biggest contributing factor to nerves on and off stage. At a certain point, I realized that while I would always harbor some level of self-criticism regarding my performance, the manner in which I articulated this internal emotional reaction played an enormous role in shaping my overall experience. For me, this meant shifting my internal dialogue from one of harsh critique to gentle self-awareness. It also meant changing my patterns of external response.
For a long time, whenever I faced a dissatisfying performance, my reaction was to overtly acknowledge my awareness of its shortcomings. Now, I really try to turn every frown into a smile, every groan into a laugh, and every mistake into an opportunity to practice recovery and measure what went wrong. In adopting self-confidence over self-consciousness, I found myself able to invest in each moment of musical expression, regardless of the outcome. Consequently, I approached each performance not just as an isolated event but as a stepping stone toward continuous improvement.
Most of us have at least once experienced the feeling that results from really acing a performance. By recognizing these emotions that accompany such a performance, we gain the key to replicating this success. I truly believe we are more likely to nail the performance by harnessing these emotions in the first place.
Tell us about your experience this year at the National Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest—what were the best parts of Weiser week this year (and yes, your big win too)?
The championships in Weiser this year were truly stellar. This year seemed in many ways a renaissance of the Weiser I knew and loved growing up. Perhaps the most invigorating part of the week was just being around such a concentration of great fiddlers. Hearing and playing with the musicians I look up to is always a source of motivation. This year it really pushed me to learn new tunes, focus on technique, and most importantly, just play more at home.
It was also an incredibly enjoyable experience being there to support the fiddle community. I loved backing people up in the contest and getting to jam with some new faces.
I was happy to really win this year on a personal level even aside from the contest placement. I was given the opportunity to really employ my philosophy of nerve management and was able to perform to the best of my ability in the moment. Snagging the title was of course a major bonus and made it an extra memorable year.
What’s your practice routine like?
Maintaining a consistent practice routine is always a challenge. No matter how motivated I am, life has a way of intruding, and practice can easily start to feel like a chore. Recently I’ve had some success in establishing a routine by making practice as fun a chore as possible. Learning new tunes, transcribing solos, and delving into music theory has balanced the more laborious aspects of practice and made it exciting. Consequently, though my schedule has gotten nothing but busier, it has been much easier to make time for my instrument.
These days I stick to a relatively consistent outline. I begin by working my bow arm, playing through a few simple tunes with lots of eighth notes. Then I practice my more difficult songs, ironing out double stops, bowings, and tricky shifts. After this, I take a decent amount of time to work on what moves me in the moment whether its working out a new part to an old tune, transcribing something for a tune I’m learning, or practicing my swing improv. I like getting lost in practice, finding something that resonates, and really trying to master it.
Anything else you want us to know?
I’m always looking to connect with the community! I am available for private lessons, performances, and am always happy to jam, answer questions, and get people involved with the music. Anyone is welcome to contact me through my website julianwoliver.com or my Instagram @julian_ _oliver.