“I really want to play like that, but I’m just scared and I don’t know where to start…” These are the words an Eastman student said to me about playing bluegrass recently. Over my past three years at the Eastman School of Music, I have heard a variation of that phrase from classical performance majors countless times. “How do you do that?” “I wish I started playing like that earlier.” “I wish I didn’t have to depend on a score all of the time.”
I was fortunate to grow up in a diverse and rich musical environment. I started classical piano lessons when I was four and classical violin lessons when I was eight. When I was younger, my mom had a bluegrass band and I always sat downstairs in the living room, listening to every rehearsal. By the time I was thirteen and the fiddler from the band left to go to college at Boston Conservatory, my mom was looking for a new fiddler. I told her I could play the tunes since I had been listening to all of the rehearsals. She was surprised to find that this was in fact true and I took over as the fiddler and subsequently played in various other bluegrass bands throughout high school. My mom always took me to bluegrass jams, house concerts, “picking parties” as we like to call them, and many live concerts ranging from Irish to jazz to funk to folk. The breadth of music I was exposed to when I was younger came to define the person I am today.
My identity as a fiddler is just as important as my identity as a classical musician. After hearing many of my peers at Eastman tell me they wished they could improvise and play the styles I do, I decided to start a student organization, Eastman Americana, for the purpose of educating students how to play traditional American music.
My main goal is to create a safe-haven for Eastman musicians to learn tunes and improvise in a community where they will not be judged. My belief is that traditional American music is the perfect introduction and environment for any instrumentalist of any skill level or age beginning to learn how to improvise. I think the main roadblock holding classical musicians back from improvising is the lack of knowledge and competency. No one wants to feel incompetent on an instrument they’ve worked years to master.
When I was younger and went to various jams back home in Connecticut, musicians of all levels and ages would play in the same environment. If you were less experienced, you might stand at the edge of the jam circle rather than in the center. But no one was ever ostracized for their skill level or musical ideas. The way I learned was listening to older musicians take solos who had more experience than me and finally I felt safe and comfortable enough to start taking solos of my own.
I want to re-create the environment where I learned to play fiddle for students at Eastman because the importance not only lies in the type of music being created, but the welcoming environment in which learning takes place. The reason why traditional American music lends itself so well especially to the classical conservatory setting is because there are a multitude of levels where a player can be involved.
Take a fiddle tune, for example. The way I usually go about introducing a fiddle tune to a group of experienced classical musicians is to teach the melody phrase by phrase and then review larger chunks of the sections that repeat. Then, I teach the chords so rhythm and bass instruments can join in.
With the musicians that feel less comfortable improvising, taking a solo, or playing the melody, I always give a few additional options to play backup or accompany in a tasteful way. Bass and cello players can play a simple bass line and guitarists can play chords. Any other string players or instrumentalists can play a rhythmic ostinato over the chord changes or play what fiddlers call “chucking” which are short double stops on the 2nd and 4th beats. If all of those options are still too much, a player can simply play long tones that move with the chord changes over the melody.
Giving a wide variety of options to players learning a new style relieves pressure or worries of judgment. In regards to improvisation with traditional American music styles, I stress to beginning players that it is perfectly fine to use the melody of the tune as a backbone to a solo. Many people think improvising (especially in other genres like jazz) has to be something completely new and different and many established musicians who do not have a lot of improvisation experience feel the pressure to do that. With traditional American music, using the melody as a basis and jumping-off point for a solo is not frowned upon, and is actually accepted.
I started Eastman Americana last spring, and since then, we have had a lot of success with hosting jams and bringing in local and national musicians in for educational workshops for Eastman students and faculty. This year, we were able to present educational workshops with Silver City Bound (formerly known as The Amigos) from New York City, 10 String Symphony (two 5-string fiddlers from Nashville), Christian Howes and Béla Fleck. I hope we will continue that success next year by presenting more workshops, particularly with musicians who play traditional American music and also have a background in classical training.
Many people ask me how I developed my skills as a fiddler while simultaneously developing my classical technique. I think the best way is to listen to other people play live. Hearing the stylistic and rhythmic subtleties of traditional American music compared to classical style is so much more important than just learning the notes. Even going to a jam and just listening to others can be really beneficial to develop your ear.
I feel very passionate about incorporating traditional American music styles in the public school setting as well as in conservatory education. Even if a conservatory-trained musician has every intention of playing classical music exclusively, I believe that every musician should be able to play improvised music and learn tunes by ear with their peers. Improvising unlocks a level of creativity that is not accessed when reading a traditional score.
The bluegrass scene I grew up with brought musicians of all ways of life together. Having the skill set to be able to improvise is not only valuable, even as a classical musician, but also brings all types of musicians together that maybe would not have interacted under any other circumstances. That is the part of playing traditional American music that I cherish and that I hope every musician has the chance to experience.
Tahlia Cott is a performer and teacher currently pursuing her music education degree at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. She is the founder and president of Eastman Americana, a student organization devoted to educating students about traditional American music. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.