Audience Engagement, Education, Ensembles, Future of Music, Opportunity, Pedagogy

Traditional American Music in a Traditional Conservatory Setting

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“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.  

Eastman Americana performs in Kodak Hall at Eastman for the Celebrate Diversity Concert.

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.   

The Amigos from NYC run a workshop with Eastman Americana members.

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

Education, Festivals, Opportunity, Orchestras, Pedagogy

Summer is Coming–Go Study Music!

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By Jason Heath

Ah, summer….

For me, the very word conjures up images of reading a chunky novel under a tree, without a care in the world.

For you, summer might bring to mind different images, like clocking in at some nondescript job to earn extra cash, or perhaps cranking out a couple of classes for a degree program. Regardless, for most music students and professionals, summer is the season for something a little different.

Even though cramming in an extra class or taking a summer job may seem necessary (I’ve done both in the past), I would highly recommend that all music students find a music camp or festival to attend each and every summer.

Why spend those precious summer days studying music?

There are a ton of reasons, but here are my top three:

  1. Change of Scenery – It’s quite easy to get comfortable with the routine and familiarity of seeing the same teachers, colleagues, and friends. Getting out of that “safe zone” and doing something new in the summer can jumpstart your thinking and propel you to the next level in your musical development.
  2. Develop a Network – When we travel somewhere new, we immerse ourselves in a circle of colleagues and mentors that we were unlikely to have met otherwise. Music is like many other professions: your network typically turns out to be the most critical factor in your overall career success. Why not broaden that network? The risks are low and the rewards are huge.
  3. See the World – While I was in college, I deliberately applied for overseas summer festivals, which enabled me to travel the world for several summers without spending a dime of my own money. I probably learned more in my summers in Russia, Germany, and Japan than I did in my entire undergraduate experience. Travel reorients your perspective in a really healthy way. Even if you can’t make overseas summer festivals work, exploring a different region of your country can have a similar effect on your perspective. My summer experiences in stateside locales like Charleston, South Carolina and Jacksonville, Oregon were a study in contrasts, and I came away from these experiences with greater knowledge and respect for these distinct regions of the United States.

I know that I developed more as a musician during each summer of studies than in an entire year of school. There really is no substitute for summer study.

Might summer study cost you money? Sure.

Might it be inconvenient? Of course.

But find a way to make it happen. It will pay off immensely in the long run.


My Summer Music Experiences

I’ve played in a wide variety of festivals over the years, beginning in high school and continuing to the present day. Here’s a brief summary of what I did in the summer and what I got out of each experience:

National High School Music Institute (1992-93) – For nearly 70 years, Northwestern University had a great summer music program. They killed off the music component of the High School Institute a few years ago right after hiring me as the program’s bass teacher—I hope it wasn’t my fault! The experience of studying with Jeff Bradetich (at the time a professor at Northwestern—Jeff currently teaches bass at the University of North Texas) opened my eyes to the possibilities of the double bass. He was my primary role model through high school, and he totally changed my bass playing.

Take Away: Even though Northwestern was 600 miles away from my hometown, making the effort to study at this program opened my eyes to the vastness of the music world outside of my little safety bubble.  I got radically better between 1992 and 1993 mainly through what I learned at this program.

American Russian Youth Orchestra (1997) – Now defunct, this festival was off-the-charts madness. This was my first experience leaving the country besides short jaunts to Canada and Mexico when I was a little kid, and what a way to start out with foreign travel! We were led by American Symphony Orchestra Music Director andBard College President Leon Botstein, an interesting musical figure if ever there was one. I’m so sad that this festival faded. It was insanely cool to tour Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kazan, Yekaterinburg, and other destinations with this strong ensemble. My colleagues from this festival went on to hold positions in the Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, and many other major orchestras.

Take Away: I feel like I began this festival as a kid and finished it as an adult.  My worldview and life perspective totally shifted in these seven weeks. I remember having a hard time even remembering what I used to think about prior to doing this festival.  Have you ever had an experience like I’m describing?  One that shifts your thinking so radically that you have a hard time identifying with yourself from a couple of months earlier?  If not, maybe you will in the future—it’s a strange feeling to “jump” like that in your thinking.

Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival (1998) – After the insanity of the American Russian Youth Orchestra, I didn’t know what to expect from Schleswig-Holstein. This turned out to be a much more “traditional” musical festival, though it was really cool for me to play in a majority European orchestra. American Russian was set up to be exactly 50/50 American and Russian in all respects: players, repertoire, conductors, and venues. There were close to 20 countries represented in Schleswig-Holstein, mostly from Europe. Rehearsals were conducted in both German and English, and I learned a huge amount working with double bass coaches Wolfgang Güttler andJanne Saksala.

Take Away: While American Russian was more of a “life experience,” I got a lot more out of Schleswig-Holstein in terms of my double bass education.  Playing in a section with players from Germany, Sweden, and Turkey opened my eyes to other approaches to the double bass.  These coaches were both interesting to work with, albeit with quite different styles to their teaching.  We also played concerts all over Germany as well as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.  This was my first chance to see Europe, and doing it in a musical context (and for free) was excellent.

Pacific Music Festival (2000) – This may be the most fun I’ve ever had in a single month! The people organizing this festival really get it right. It was a great orchestra and was also a giant party from beginning to end (Kampai!). Michael Tilson-Thomas was the primary conductor at that time, and a large percentage of the ensemble was made up of people from the New World Symphony. Charles Dutoit was the other conductor that summer. I made a lot of new friends and got to play great repertoire, including Mahler’s Third Symphony outdoors in Sapporo in the summer—certainly one of the most dehydrating performances of my life!

Take Away: I did this festival right after completing my masters degree and had a fair amount of anxiety about what the future held for me (sound familiar, anyone?).  Spending a summer with musicians around my same age from all over the globe that were in a similar situation of starting to find their path in the world of music turned out to be exactly what I needed at the time.

Spoleto Festival USA (2001-02) – Charleston, South Carolina is a beautiful city with a rich artistic tradition. Gian Carlo Menotti started this festival nearly 40 years ago as an American counterpart to the Festival of Two Worldsin Spoleto, Italy. While I never got the chance to play the Italian festival (I’ve heard that it’s an unforgettable experience), spending parts of May and June in this historic American city was extremely fun. In addition to performing in the festival, I took as much time as possible to check out plays, art exhibitions, and other musical performances. I saw David Sedaris and David Rakoff speak, with predictably hilarious results. I spent my mornings running along the Battery in historic Charleston, admiring the beautiful houses and watching the palmetto fronds sway in the ocean breezes. Illinois seemed as exciting as a wet paper bag in comparison.

Take Away: I had fewer “ah-ha” moments at these later summer festivals—unlike my earlier experiences, these were paid gigs and I approached them more like a working vacation.  Still, the experience of getting out of the Midwest and exploring a totally different part of the country with colleagues outside of my familiar circle was rejuvenating.

Britt Festival (2002) – I’ve always loved the West Coast. I love the quirkiness of Venice and the ridiculously multicultural melting pot of Los Angeles. I love the majesty and beauty of San Francisco. I love worrying about seeing a dinosaur poke around a tree in the redwood forests. I could go on and on—the black sand beaches of coastal Oregon, the mysteries of the Olympic Peninsula. I jumped at the chance to go out to southern Oregon and play a summer at the Britt Festival. The bass section, led by the always interesting Dave Anderson, was a pleasure to work with, and the orchestra was excellent. What I really remember most, however, was spending time outdoors in this beautiful part of the country, climbing Mount McLoughlin with other musicians, taking lots of smaller hikes, and spending a lot of time reading outdoors.

Take Away: I really got bitten by the West Coast bug on this festival.  It was hard to head back to the land of corn after spending a summer surrounded by this kind of natural beauty.  After driving over 5200 miles round-trip, I also started to think a little more critically about cost/benefit ratio when looking at summer festivals.  As a result, this was the last festival that I did that was more than a few hours from home.

Des Moines Metro Opera (2002-03) – My wife played in the orchestra for this festival for five years, and I joined her for a couple of summers early in my freelance career. I had a great time, worked with good colleagues, and made some decent money by summer gig standards. I always had two prisms through with I looked at gigs: the regular season prism, which always paid more, and the summer prism, which always paid less. With that as a given, this gig worked out well. Playing in the same orchestra as my wife (which we rarely did) was an added benefit.

Take Away: This may seem strange, but the first thing that comes to mind for this gig are fireflies flashing their “tails” in the thick, humid funk of Iowa summers. The whole festival stayed on the campus of Simpson College in Indianola, a few miles south of Des Moines proper.  Indiana is small-town America personified, with friendly townsfolk and great apple pie. No major life lessons learned here—just a good professional gig for the summer.

Midsummer’s Music Festival (2004-16) –  I finally “found my home” with this chamber music festival. Aftervagabonding about for so many summers, I finally settled down with this Door County, Wisconsin festival in 2004 and have been doing it every summer since then. Like I did with the Des Moines Opera, I think of beautiful summer days and nights, with plenty of time for hiking, reading, practicing, and relaxing.  Check out the Midsummer’s Music website—you’ll see a familiar face on this year’s promotional materials!

Take Away: I feel so lucky to have connected with this opportunity to play chamber music with outstanding colleagues like these. It’s a rare opportunity for bass players to play any chamber music at all, and through this festival I have delved into all corners of the repertoire. These past 11 seasons have been great for my musicianship, and I have looked forward to each summer and the new challenges and satisfactions that this festival will bring.


Programs Worth Checking Out

There are a ton of summer programs out there—way too many for me to list here.  The following are my stock recommendations to my students. I’m primarily a classical bass player and am typically pointing students toward these types of summer experiences. There are many other festivals out there that will cater more to your specific needs, but I think that the following are really excellent.

I’ve dropped a few bass teacher recommendations in these descriptions (I can’t help it–it’s my world), and I’ll likely do an addendum post on my blog with bass-specific festivals and camps. If you have a great festival to recommend, leave a comment or send me an email at

Aspen Music Festival and School – The Aspen Festival has been training musicians for well over a half-century, and it’s on the resumes of successful musicians worldwide. Running from mid-June through mid-August, Aspen offers orchestral, opera, conducting,and composition programs, to name a few. I have had many students attend over the years, and they come back with a huge bump in their knowledge and ability. Aspen offers limited fellowships as well as partial financial assistance. Bassists have the opportunity to study with a wide variety of excellent teachers. My students always got a lot out of their time with Bruce Bransby, but there are many excellent opinions for all instrumentalists.

Tanglewood Music Center – Tanglewood is another highly desirable summer program. Originating in 1940 as the Berkshire Music Center, Tanglewood offers full fellowships for all participants and opportunities to closely collaborate with members of the Boston Symphony like Principal Bass Ed Barker and Assistant Principal BassLawrence Wolfe. Highly competitive and highly recommended.

Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) – This is the high school companion program that also takes place at Tanglewood. Students at BUTI also get to work with Boston Symphony musicians, perform in master classes, and check out the multitude of live performances taking place.

Interlochen Center for the Arts – Interlochen is another long-running program (it’s almost 90 years old!) with an established tradition of excellence. Their Summer Music Camp is designed for students from 3rd through 12th grade.  Much more than music is offered at Interlochen, including dance, creative writing, visual arts, and film. It truly is a summer arts experience. Bassists get to study with Lawrence Hurst and Jack Budrow, two venerable masters of the instrument.

National Repertory Orchestra – This program (NRO for short) is an interesting model. Led by the Cleveland Institute’s Carl Topilow, this program is focused on cramming as much orchestral repertoire as humanly possible into eight weeks. I’ve never done this program but have heard that it rocks. It’s all-expenses-paid and moves through repertoire at an astonishing pace. It’s a great way to get experience and learn repertoire.

Music Academy of the West – Would you like to live in paradise for a summer? Then check out this festival! Set in Santa Barbara, California, it’s another great all-expense-paid festival that provides lessons, ensemble experience, chamber music, and much more. I was actually slated to go to this festival but bailed at the last minute (never bail at the last minute, by the way—it’s bad karma) to do the Britt Festival. I’ve had students attend and have heard great things.

National Orchestral Institute – At only four weeks, this is one of the shorter festivals on this list. This is another festival that I got into but bailed on to do… something… American Russian? I can’t remember. Regardless, it’s like a short and intensive Aspen, and bassists get a chance to study with three Jedi masters of the instrument: Max Dimoff, Jeff Turner, and Ali Yazdanfar.

Domaine Forget – Based in Quebec, this festival runs from early June through late August. I’ve never been myself,but I’ve had a lot of students go and have heard rave reviews from all. Bassists get the chance to study with another couple of superstars: Paul Ellison and David Allen Moore.


How to Get the Most Out of Your Summer Music Experiences

Regardless of the specific festival that you end up doing, there are a few strategies that, if followed, can help you to wring the most value out of your summer study.

  1. Arrive with an open mind – Maybe you got into your “dream program,” or maybe you’re headed to something that sounds a bit more dodgy. Keeping an open mind and being receptive to new ideas is crucial to growth and development.
  2. Appreciate the differences in your colleagues – When you see a different approach, rather than thinking “hey, that’s not how I do it!”, try thinking “wow—that’s really different that what I do—what can I take away from this?” Being mixed up with people from different musical backgrounds and styles of training is one of the most beneficial things about doing a festival, after all. Embrace the differences, even if they strike you as peculiar. At worst, you’ll find out what not to do, and you’re likely to walk away with some new concepts and techniques.
  3. Absorb the culture of the locale – You’ve probably picked up on this already, but a big part of what I love about summer festivals is the opportunity to travel somewhere far from my regular digs. Though I am working on my craft and attending musical events at festivals, I try to reserve at least a portion of every day to soak in the local culture. I hit up the most recommended restaurants, hiking trails, and coffee shops. I try to get to know some locals and check out some events outside of the specific festival. To me, that’s another essential part of the experience.
  4. Learn from your summer mentors – Music students spend a large amount of time with their primary private teacher. Summer study is a great way to get that intense one-on-one experience but from someone new. You’ll be amazed what you can learn from a great teacher in only a few lessons if you really focus on taking in all that this experience has to offer. Other mentors could include your orchestra conductor, chamber coach, or your fellow colleagues at the festival. There are potential mentors everywhere—seek them out!
  5. Relax and enjoy the experience! – My final bit of advice is simple—don’t be in too much of a hurry to solve all of the world’s problems. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all. Be open-minded and absorb what you can, but relax and enjoy the journey. Humans are much more receptive to new ideas when they’re relaxed. Try to find a sense of balance between the intensity of learning new things and the languid and uncrushed pace of absorption, reflection, and synthesis. You need both. The great book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman comes to mind as a good model for approaching your learning. Look for the moments of lightheartedness in the learning process, and don’t be afraid to kick up your feet on a hot summer night and watch the fireflies light up the sky.


Jason Heath teaches double bass at DePaul University and hosts the podcast Contrabass Conversations (, featuring interviews from principal bassists from major orchestras.

Community Outreach, Education, Inspirational Stories, Pedagogy

String Camps…On the Road!

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By Beth Bultman

Just last week my husband, Kyle, and I packed up our Rochester, NY life – our house, office, and camp supplies (and our cat, too) – and took off in our motorhome. We are starting out on Scor! Tour 2016, heading to 12 Scor! Camps around the country. We drove to our first event of the season – Carolina Scor! Camp in Raleigh, NC. It was a fantastic camp, filled with music, learning, and fun. It was rewarding to see the participants’ smiles and hear the music after our 6 months of planning and preparation.

Great Lakes Scor! chamber group.
Great Lakes Scor! chamber group

What is Scor!?

Scor! is a String Camp for Adults (violin, viola, cello, bass). It’s a nurturing environment where adult string players can learn, grow, and have fun. Too many times, participants are terrified to attend or to make a mistake on their instrument, or are traumatized by past negative musical experiences. That’s why we like to say we’re all in the same boat – the mistake boat! (We’re all going to make a mistake, after all!) We love providing a non-judgmental atmosphere for musical and personal transformation.

What happens at Scor!?

A Scor! Camp is an immersion experience of sorts. We have multiple playing levels at each camp, and provide different ensembles to meet the needs of the different levels. Our camps include ensembles – daily orchestra and chamber groups, as well as technique sessions, musical skills sessions, a fiddling exploration, and a faculty recital.

Chesapeake Scor! orchestra.
Chesapeake Scor! Orchestra

This year our theme is musical teamwork. I’m excited to work with the participants to help them recognize a musical ensemble as a team of individuals with different roles. We talk about how to fulfill the different roles in an ensemble, and try to find effective ways to communicate, both verbally and musically, to produce a unified musical expression.

How did Scor! start?

Kyle and I founded Scor! after having directed the New Horizons Orchestra as part of the Eastman Community Music School. They wanted a summer learning experience, and pointed out that although opportunities for kids abound, adults don’t have as many choices. So we said, “Let’s start a camp!”. After a few years, our Rochester Scor! Camp had grown, and we kept inviting people from further away to come to Rochester for Scor! Camp each summer. But we found that most people are not able to make a long trip like that. So, in order to offer the Scor! experience to many more people around the country, we had to bring Scor! to them. That’s why we climbed in a motorhome and started 12 Scor! locations nationwide.

“Scor!” originally was an acronym for String Camp of Rochester, with the double meaning of a musical ‘score’. The exclamation point is reflective of the excitement, energy, and approach to life and learning that we encourage at Scor!. Because we now offer programs around the nation, we’ve dropped the historical “String Camp of Rochester” slogan, and replaced it with “String Camp On the Road”. Apropos!

Where is Scor!?

Scor! is… well… all over the place! Many traditional music camps for youth aspire to growing large and becoming a wonderful establishment in a particular locale, where folks from all around the nation travel to attend. Due to the spread-out nature of adult amateur players, however, this is not particularly sustainable. So, our approach is to bring transformational experiences to adult string players closer to where they live, while maintaining an efficient and effective mobile headquarters.

We put on 12 Scor! Camps a season (March – August), traveling around the country with our motorhome and cargo trailer (the Scor!-Mobile).  We have expanded our geographical reach in recent years to include 2 camps in California, plus we hold several camps in the southeast, northeast, and in Florida, Texas, Michigan, and Iowa.

The Scor!-Mobile.
The Scor!-Mobile

Kyle and I travel to all the locations and run each event. We’re also on the string faculty at each location. We don’t go back home to Rochester in between because we already have our home (our motorhome – it’s just a home on wheels) with us. We go from location to location, finding time in between to keep up with the office and administrative work of running a non-profit organization that puts on 12 events a year with only 2 staff members.

Why did you start Scor!?

We love being able to combine our passions and fill the needs of others at the same time. Our passions include music, string instruments, education and learning, personal growth and transformation, travel, and Kyle really has a thing for the fineries of rigs – specifically motorhomes ( I don’t mind living in one but I don’t know how to fix it!). In any case, we are also able to meet the needs of those adult string players out there who may feel isolated, discouraged, or just need more instruction and playing experience. We can teach, encourage, and inspire adult string players at each event. How cool!

How can I find out about Scor!?

Check out our website at and sign up for our E-Newsletters, where you’ll get free string-playing tips, as well as news of upcoming events. Ask to join our Facebook Group at and check out recent photos of events.