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Two fiddlers, many ways of learning music

Michael Fox

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Published: August 12, 2014 at 7:38 PM [UTC]

My first exposure to how wonderful and exciting the sounds emulating from a box with four strings could be was with a bluegrass band at an amusement park. My four or five year old self was completely captivated, and that moment started a musical journey for me from which I’ve never looked back. In that sense, my personal musical journey is deeply indebted to the man more or less credited with “inventing” bluegrass music, Bill Monroe.

(Free of charge, a brief contexual footnote if you don’t mind; feel free to skip this paragraph if you get bored.) Contrary to popular opinion, “bluegrass” is a fairly recently developed genre of music. The traditional fiddle music of the U.S. Southeast and Appalachian Mountains was developed hundreds of years ago as Celtic music found a new home across the pond and mutated into something wildly different. I grew up in Tennessee with these songs being called “old-time music.” Old-time fiddling is built along a repertoire of tunes that are individualized and ornamented, but not too much, since every single person in the band more or less plays the same tune at the same time. Bluegrass, on the other hand, uses old-time instruments and tunes, but brings in influences from jazz and rock, allowing for players to take improvised solos and generally do more fancy stuff.

Two fiddlers in Bill Monroe’s band (The Bluegrass Boys) stick out to me, both for their unparalleled influence on the violin-playing world, and their very different biographies. Kenny Baker was born in rural Kentucky, at least the third generation musician in his family. He grew up around the old-time fiddle tradition, not learning the music in any class, but growing up learning by ear through being totally immersed in the songs of his culture. This must have given him a really strong ear, but also one that was insatiable and curious. Like many musicians, he listened to and was influenced by whatever music he could get his hands on. Kenny Baker profoundly change the sound of fiddle music, with his longer notes and smoother tones, techniques that were inspired by careful listening and imitation of the French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli. He was among Bill Monroe’s closest musical collaborators, both sharing a deep love of traditional old-time music, as well boundless creativity that wanted to see the tradition open up to new influences.

Richard Greene, on the other hand, was born in California, and received extensive classical training. He learned about roots music only after playing in a wide variety of styles, and Bill Monroe patiently coached him in understanding the nuances of the style. He invented the widely imitated “chop bowing,” where the strings are muted and the bow’s frog is thrown down to create a percussive sound. According to an interview in Fiddler Magazine, this technique came about as a way he could keep playing and follow Bill’s instructions to not play inappropriately. Chopping was a way he could keep listening, until he found ways to mold his impressive techniques to better fit the sound Monroe was going for.

Conventional theories of learning that assume every person can fit hierarchically into one measure of level of “intelligence.” 30 years ago, educational psychologist Howard Garnder blew all of that out of the water with his highly influential theory of multiple intelligences, which posits that there are in fact multiple areas of “intelligence,” different things at which different people will naturally excel. Each person has particular skills and areas towards which his or her brain naturally gravitates, and looking at these gives us a more full picture of intelligence, potential, and gifting then expecting everyone to fit into a single box of their “IQ number.”

Gardner lists “musical intelligence” among the potential areas of intellectual strength can be possessed; some others include mathematical, bodily, and interpersonal intelligences. However, my experience observing, teaching, and participating in music making in a wide variety of contexts has led me to believe there are in fact further many different ways of being “musically intelligent.” I have encountered many different types of students. Some are highly playful and creative, able to make up games with songs and enthusiastically experiment with making a song their own. They are often able to grasp songs very quickly, but may have trouble using words to explain how they did it. They have natural strength in the intuitive side of music. Other students, particularly those who come at things from a scientific background, are able to look and listen to their behavior quickly, knowing how to break down and practice challenging techniques, and following themselves very carefully. These students seem to grasp the analytical side of music well. A true master musician needs to have both an analytical and a creative side. So, my job as a teacher is to play to a student’s natural strengths, teaching them in such a way as to expand them, and then, as their confidence builds, pushing them to think about the other side. As student and teacher, we are locked in an intellectual dance together, as I help them discover their gifts, and gain the confidence to gain new ones.

As this list of ‘Bluegrass Boys’ demonstrates, many of the fiddlers in Bill Monroe’s band are widely recognized as some of the best fiddle players of the 20th century. This demonstrates one of Bill Monroe’s underappreciated gifts, one he shares with many successful bandleaders, that he was a great teacher. As bluegrass enthusiast Carlton Haney expressed , “If Bill didn’t make him, he ain’t any good.” Monroe considered “making” his musicians an important part of his job. He didn’t expect perfection from a picker on the first try, but would mold them and guide them the experience of playing his very complex music, until they felt equipped to bring in ideas of their own in an open and expansive environment. He took people from as widely different backgrounds and personality types as Richard Greene and Kenny Baker, and brought out the best in them.

So – if you have had to try music lessons, and it has been a struggle for you – my message to you is – don’t give up! It may be that a particular aspect of music making is a struggle, but I believe you have within yourself resources to attack the problem from another way. If you keep at it, you can stretch yourself to think in new ways, but you can also use what you’ve already got to go farther then you might expect.

Posted on August 13, 2014 at 7:06 PM
I taught myself the violin (already having a classical background in piano and guitar) without the help of a shoulder rest. Now I've been given one and it doesn't feel natural to me. Are they that important?
From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on August 16, 2014 at 4:13 PM
I found this posting quite interesting. The two main forms of music that I play are classical and bluegrass. Having a foot in two such different universes is enlightening: many skilled classical musicians are helpless without sheet music, while many bluegrassers can't read music at all. As the old joke goes:

Q: How do you stop a classical musician from playing?
A: Take away his sheet music.
Q: How do you stop a bluegrasser from playing?
A: Put sheet music in front of him.

Both genres have their own attraction. Classical music is very complex and challenging. Bluegrass music, while much simpler, leans heavily on improvisation, which is a challenge in itself.

A word on "chopping": In a bluegrass band, much of the time the mandolin does a simple chop to set the rhythm; since there is no percussion, the bass and mandolin provide the "boom-chuck" ("boom" on the bass, "chuck" on the mandolin) which is the rhythmic foundation. If the mandolin is soloing, the fiddle or banjo does the chopping. That Richard Greene video shows a much more advanced form of chopping than you see in most bluegrass jams - but I can see possibilities there that go far beyond bluegrass.

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