Monday, September 14, 2009

Fiddleheads Music Camp

Taking a trip outside my comfort zone, I attended the Fiddleheads Music Camp this weekend with the cellist.

Comfort zones were the theme of the weekend.

Laurie's friend Melissa had urged her to attend this camp. Melissa is a violinist who has been exploring the fiddle genre and has been tugging the cellist into some gigs using fiddle tunes.  Both of them are classically trained.  Cutting loose and learning by ear can feel alien and risky. One incentive was the presence of professional musician Darol Anger at this year's camp.

The cellist tells me not to worry, just to play, because no one gets hurt when they mess up a piece of music, the way one might when crashing a bike, falling off a cliff, flipping a kayak or falling while skiing.  But the stakes get higher when you have a professional reputation, or even a strong ego involvement in amateur performance.  It probably feels more like an injury.

"I'm outside my comfort zone," Laurie said to Seth Austen, one of the instructors and a local friend.

"We're always outside our comfort zone," he said.  "It's just part of it."

"Let me just jump in here to point out that even if everyone feels like they're out on a limb, you guys are producing a lot more for it than someone at my level," I said. "You're reaching for the next level.  I'm just trying to get to square one."

We set out to push our limits.

After registration on Friday evening there was a big group jam session in the Geneva Point chapel.  The chapel is a big, uninsulated barn with a small stage at one end. It's all dark wood inside; a quintessential group-camp meeting place.  I hadn't brought a fiddle because I had come from work and Laurie thought I wouldn't get a playing opportunity.  I was happy enough to hide in the back of crowds.  Melissa and Laurie both offered me their fiddles, but I was too uptight.

Late in the jam, Laurie finally forced her fiddle into my hands just as the group started one of two tunes I actually know, Angelina Baker.  Hot damn! I let the brain go wandering while my hands fell into familiar patterns.  The inexplicable joy of producing music in a group dispelled every shred of anxiety.  And there was plenty of noise to cover my clams.

We did not stay on the premises at the camp, preferring to commute from home.  Melissa  stayed with us.  We had to get up and out in jig time on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but we had familiar beds (except for Melissa, but she got a private bathroom she wouldn't have had at camp) and we had excellent breakfasts.

The camp information had said "all abilities welcome."  Certainly everyone was very friendly and inclusive.   But just as the time trial is bicycling's race of truth, the musical performance soon separates musical abilities.  Some forms accommodate beginners better than others.

I headed for the session on Irish jigs, taught by Ryan Thomson, a.k.a. Captain Fiddle. Things started off promisingly enough.  Early on, he pulled out another tune to which I at least knew the A part, Egan's Polka.  He'd taught it to Laurie years ago, but she'd forgotten the B part by the time she got home and taught it to me.  She'd also forgotten the name.  So I got the name and the B part, and we trotted through the tune few times.

It went straight downhill from there.  The others in the class had been at this longer, regardless of their ages, and had picked up many of the scraps of music theory vital to the various forms of folk music.  They had a shared vocabulary and understanding that made even their fumblings more informed and directed than my complete groping.  I leaned on my instrument, watched and listened.

Feeling minor and diminished, I went to my next session, Learning a Tune by Ear, taught by Beverly Woods. Seth and Beverly often come as a set.  Their love for what they do and an equal love of bringing others into it make them one incredible asset to have in the neighborhood.  Since my commute to work will now pass their house all year, I hope to drop in often in my quest to make up for decades of lost time in pursuit of my own musical development.

Beverly's session was the best for me.  At least half a dozen classically trained musicians confessed to being "paper trained" and dependent on the formal approach.  Their competence was nullified by the unfamiliarity and intimidation of just letting it rip by sound and feel.  It leveled the playing field somewhat, because Beverly provided the theory we would need to proceed.  Only in the actual playing did their skill on the instrument give them an edge.

Much of the time we just sang the parts.  Most folk music started out as vocal music, so it tends to fall within vocal ranges.  By singing the notes one gets a feel for the intervals and rhythm, the overall pattern of the tune.  Words, if available, also provide a memory aid because they develop a verbal idea on which to hang the tune and meter.  Tunes that started from an instrumental basis may not sing as well, but trying to sing them still helps.

I came out of there feeling downright hopeful.

Next I'd planned to attend a session on basic theory, taught by Beverly and Ryan, but Beverly herself talked me out of it, urging me to attend a session on the blues, taught by Darol.  She may have been trying to kill attendance at the theory workshop entirely, so she could go to Darol's session. I willingly fell in with that.

The blues session was very informative, but totally packed, as all Darol's workshops were, and it was well above my playing level.  I hung in for scraps of it, and did manage to crack him up briefly with a spur of the moment joke from back row center, but I would have been better off as a music student to eat my veggies and go to theory class.  Six of one, I suppose.  When will I get to spend so much time in the same room with a player like Darol Anger? That was Beverly's logic.  Osmotically, subliminally, I may retain some musical tidbits that will emerge from my deep subconscious once I learn enough other stuff to be able to activate the memory files.

Melissa suggested I join her in the Harmony Fiddle workshop that followed, taught by camp organizers Ellen Carlson and Kathy Sommer.  They would be working around Miss Molly, one of two featured tunes for the camp.  Music files of Miss Molly and Shady Grove had been sent around before the camp for people to listen to.  It seemed safe enough, even though my work schedule leading into the camp had kept me from putting much time into music beforehand.

Things got too deep for me in a hurry.  I desperately needed to have attended the theory workshop.  My brain and ear overloaded so I couldn't process any more input with so little framework to fit it into. But Darol had been awfully fun to watch and hear.  The guy just exudes music constantly.  He did a quick run-through of Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze that I would have recorded on video if I'd been sure I wasn't infringing on some intellectual property issue.  Laurie has used a Kronos-inspired version of Purple Haze in her classes for years.

Laurie appeared outside the classroom with fifteen minutes to go.  She'd bailed from another session.  We retreated to Seth and Beverly's Old Time Jam workshop in time to get in on the last tune.  Feeling somewhat reconstructed, we went to the chapel where the musicians were supposed to split into several bands to work on one tune each for the evening's  concert.  After that the ubiquitous jamming in small and large groups would resume.

Laurie and Melissa went to the band doing a Beatles tune.  I went for Seth and Beverly's gypsy band.  The other bands included Country, Latin, Cajun, Swinging Bluegrass and a "Mystery Band."

The gypsy band convened in too small a room to begin work on a Serbian tune called Ajde Jano.  It's in 7/8, which Seth and Beverly broke down into chanted syllables.  Using a three syllable word followed by a two syllable word repeated twice you get the length of a measure.  After trying various possibilities we settled on "Mandolin Fiddle Fiddle."

Seth also had the subversive notion to morph the traditional 4/4 tune Shady Grove into 7/8 as a little musical joke on one of the two "official" tunes of the camp.  Since Ajde Jano ends on A and Shady Grove starts there, we could slide into it sort of unnoticed.  Tweaking Shady into 7/8 called for some easy shuffle bowing.  The lead in from Ajde helped set that up so we found ourselves doing bow tricks that might not have been part of our toolbox before.  Don't think! Play!

When we tossed out suggestions for our band name, I said, "Balkan at Nothing." It was acclaimed the winner.  We went forth with our official entry (Ajde Jano) and our little secret (Shades of Seven Groves).

We got to borrow bassist Steve Roy for our band.  The bass made a nice wall on one side of me, while a row of hot young fiddlers, including Ryan Thomson's son made a nice screen in front.

The concert was a blast.  Since just about everyone in the audience was going to be on stage in the course of it, it had a communal feel you don't get at a performance where audience and artist are clearly delineated.  There had been much mixing and mingling in the jams, workshops, meals and conversations.  I met people I knew from other contexts (shop customers) and people I had somehow managed not to meet even though we live within a few miles of each other.  I was stepping out of my world.  It reminded me how I need to do that more often.  Even if I just expand my routine circle, I have to get out of the rut of work and rest and the same old crap.

The Effingham bus pulled out a little while after the concert.  The evening's jamming hadn't gelled yet, and we needed to get something like enough sleep before Sunday's early start.

Laurie, Melissa and I went to Seth and Beverly's workshop on Eastern European Music to start Sunday morning.  The others were interested in the material, especially as the genre is already more cello-friendly than much of folk, which have a tradition of fiddles and basses, leaving cellists and violists wondering what's wrong with them.  Trust the Jewish people to appreciate a good cello and provide a solid platform from which to approach the other forms of folk.

As an added bonus, one of the workshop tunes was Ajde Jano, so I was ready to rip. At least I was closer to the right note at the right time than on stuff I'd never heard or played.  Every little bit helps me, as well as being a blessing to anyone in earshot.

With nothing in the next slot specifically aimed at the novice fiddle aspirant, I went with Laurie and Melissa to another Darol Anger session, on Improvising Within a Tune.  I had no intention of even opening a case, but I figured I would again absorb some things that could come out of hiding in the future.

I sat, watched and listened for 15 minutes or so, while I cleared some dead wood off the memory card in my camera.  Then I actually did pull out my fiddle and pluck some of what I'd been hearing without listening.  Quite a bit of it was there.  It wasn't so much that I wanted to make a loud noise with my bow, but I could pick it out quietly while I listened to the more advanced skills Darol demonstrated and led.  Again I noted that I need those basic theory principles so I understand where a technique is going, and why.  I'd already picked out one of Captain Fiddle's books on just that subject.  I sat next to him as HE quietly bowed along with Darol's instruction.  We are all students forever.

This last workshop was followed by an open mic session in the chapel.  Anyone with the notion could sign up for a certain number of slots of stage time before the gang had one last jam, on Miss Molly and Shady Grove.  This was the time for some of the participants who play gigs or jam together to trot out their favorites.  It offered a nice variety.

More than one person has told me I chose a difficult instrument.  Certainly the highest echelons of violin and fiddle players do things I never will.  However, the same is true of a large number of merely good players who still blow me away.  I've seen this sorting occur in every activity I have pursued or closely observed.  Some people are amazingly good.  The best of them are usually very cool about it.  The ones I have met seem to have the attitude that we're all in this together.  Their hard work, combined with other qualities, have brought them to their exalted level.  They don't act like the lesser performers are less of a person because they have sorted out differently.

Usually, the real posturing jerks inhabit lower levels than outright awesomeness.  Is their attitude the thing that keeps them from greatness?

I detected no posturing jerks at Fiddleheads.

Competitive sports seem to attract more jerks across the board.  Competition depends on finishing with a ranking.  But even in those activities I have met very welcoming and inclusive awesome performers. They can duke it out with their peers while still being generous to the strivers. Maybe they are this way because they see the strivers as no threat.  I prefer to think of it as love of the activity and generosity of spirit.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Darol Anger himself shook my hand and commended me when I mentioned I had taken on the challenge of learning from scratch starting at age 44.  And 44 was a while ago. I can twinge about all the good practice time I've lost in those nine years.

"It's brave of you to do this," he said. "You chose a difficult instrument."  He spoke with warmth.  The handshake was a spontaneous gesture. Suddenly I felt better than a hopeless idiot.  And I was already going to buy one of his CDs anyway.  He didn't have to butter me up.  So I believe he meant what he said.

The difficult instrument bit scares me a little.  I like the fiddle.  I also know that bad violin playing ranks in the top 10 worst sounds in the world, sixth according to this poll: (  This fact makes me careful about where, when and how loudly I practice, and how frequently and prominently I perform.  I know my place.

I do not see myself as a soloist.  When I was a preening young twit I had delusions of illustrious stardom in  vaguely unspecified accomplishments, but years of self-assessment have convinced me I function better in back rows and behind the scenes in most endeavors.  Music is no exception.  I hope to achieve reasonable competence given my late start.

The cellist puts me out there in recitals, in ensembles, thankfully, not naked and alone, center stage with a music stand and a terminal case of the shakes.  Ensemble play, whether classical or folk, really feels like the best team sport.  You have to do your own thing, but you're merging it with the others, more or less successfully. It's quite addictive.  Try some.

Clearly, from the comments in person and on the Internet afterward, just about everyone seems to have come away with the same feeling and the same desire to do it again soon.

1 comment:

greatpumpkin said...

A few months ago, I heard a band from Texas consisting of a trio of cello, guitar and female vocalist. The cellist used the whole range of his instrument to have it fulfill the functions of a violin and a bass. It worked really well. From the first time I heard a cellist tune up, I thought the cello had potential in forms of music with which it is not normally associated. As for starting late on difficult instruments, I did so with cornet for some years, and even now wish I'd done more with music sooner. Play what calls to you and it will be worth having done.