How To I Moved From Classical Violin To Fiddle

I wrote a blog post earlier about my personal experience growing up with music, and so this is an addendum to that. This is specifically about how I moved from classical violin to fiddle, what my thoughts were, how I made the transition, and my experiences.

As mentioned before, my parents used to take me square dancing (a form of folk dance) in the 1960s and 70s. When I was old enough, my mother taught me the steps as I was the tallest child in a family of four, and my father didn't like to dance. I recall at least once, probably many more times, watching how the fiddler/caller on the stage appeared to be having a really good time. He was dancing about, tossing his bow here and there, smiling, laughing and calling out names and pointing to people he knew. He was having a really good time. I remember thinking to myself that that was something I wanted to do some day.

My mother was in charge of my musical education. She was against me playing "fiddle tunes" because she thought it would taint my classical music education, so she wouldn't let me play. My Aunt heard about this through my Grandmother, to whom I used to complain in our weekly phone call (she taught Latin and Greek in Hewlett, NY and was coaching me on these subjects). Jane, my Aunt, sent me a little book of fiddle tunes, which I still have today. It was a little gold-colored book called "Mellie Dunham's 50 Fiddlin' Dance Tunes," 1926. I think the first tune I learned out of that book was a hornpipe called Soldier's Joy. Other titles included Arkansas Traveler, Fisher's Hornpipe, Pop Goes The Weasel, Haste to the Wedding, Speed the Plough, and many more. My mother grudgingly let me play music out of the book as long as I agreed to practice for an hour before. I was so happy! That same year for Christmas, Jane sent me a record album with a pair of cowboy boots and a ten gallon hat next to a stack of hay bales. It was a 101 fiddle tunes or something. I don't remember the title. I used to sit next to the player and lift the needle at the end to start all over again.

Don't get me wrong, I loved classical music, and still do! I continued with my training, attending the New England Conservatory of Music pilot Suzuki program at Dana Hall School in Wellesley, and the Conservatory at Rivers in Weston. 1974-1980, I attended the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music, where I studied the great composers of the Renaissance, Classical and Romantic eras. I graduated with a certificate in violin performance. Many other details of my music education are covered in my biography, I'll not repeat them here.

In college, I was wandering the quad with my violin case when I heard music. I went closer and to my amazement, a group of boys were playing Soldier's Joy. I got my violin out of the case and joined them. I was thrilled! When we stopped playing, they asked me to stay and play more. We eventually formed a band. We rehearsed every night and performed gigs around campus.

For the remainder of my time at college, I played in some bluegrass band or another. This was the early 1980s, before the internet of course, and before the personal computer. If I wanted to learn a tune that someone was playing, I had to listen very carefully and figure out the fingering on my own. It wasn't until the middle 1980s that books of fiddle tunes became more available, but by then, I had graduated and moved on to other things in life. My Suzuki background taught me well. Because I had to use my ear training to learn tunes, I was also able to use it to learn things like chords, inflection, ornamentation, and many other aspects of fiddling that were not taught by violin teachers, or books or albums.

I opened my Studio in 1986 and began offering private mandolin and fiddle lessons, first out of a music store in Amherst called Fretted Instrument Workshop, and later out of a store in Northampton called Downtown Sounds. When the Northampton Community Music Center opened later, they hired me to teach fiddle and mandolin. I offered group classes for beginners as well: a fiddle group and a mandolin group.

I've often told the story of how I met my friend and colleague Brian Bender, and how we formed Fiddle Hill, the contradance band and Yiddishkeit, the Klezmer band, so I'll not repeat it here. In 1996, Brian encouraged me to go to Ireland and follow my roots. I spent 6 weeks there. I brought my violin and used my Suzuki training to learn the tunes, but more importantly, the inflection and tone, and especially the ornamentation. In 1999, Brian and I went to Egypt to perform at a world music event in Giza. I used my ear training to pick up what middle eastern music I could, especially the inflection, tone and ornamentation. I became enamored with Shakti and later Bela Fleck's international projects.

At home, I was collecting music books. I learned literally hundreds of contradance tunes playing for dances in the 1990s, but when I got back from Ireland, I was interested in forming a Celtic band that would play for other types of events, not just dances. Woodkerne was born. With Paul Burton on guitar, Dan Richardson on bodhran, John Rough on banjo and me on fiddle, it was an opportunity to put my own personal spin on traditional Celtic dance tunes and songs I'd learned from the Clancy Brothers, and others, in my childhood. We rehearsed weekly and performed for hundreds of events throughout New England.

YouTube was created in 2005, but didn't become part of Google until years later, so learning music online was impossible. I still don't recommend it to students today. I think attempting to learn from videos is an ok method, but still, to this day, think that learning from a professional teacher, is the best way. A significant part of that learning should include some form of ear training.

Woodkerne Celtic Band 1997-2009


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