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Laurie Niles

Suzuki Violin and American Fiddling Unite at Pasadena Fiddle Fest

January 18, 2011 at 8:10 PM

It seemed like a crazy idea back in the fall, when I asked Pamela Wiley to bring her group of violin students from Charleston, South Carolina, all the way across the country to our Suzuki group's first-ever Fiddle Fest in Pasadena, California, in January.

Pam has been working closely with fiddling legend, Mark O'Connor, giving teaching workshops on how to teach his new American Violin Method. We already had North Carolina fiddler Pattie Hopkins coming, wouldn't it be perfect if Pam and her students could help us all get going on Mark's new method?

Pam said yes, and we at Suzuki Talent Education of Pasadena did a little jig and got to work. We taught our students a number of Mark O'Connor fiddle tunes in addition to their Suzuki repertoire, and we also invited students and teachers from all over the region to join us for "Suzuki Fiddle Fest 2011."

Pam, her husband John and a dozen of their students (the Hungry Monk Fiddlers) boarded a plane last Thursday (braving snow, airport closures, etc.) and arrived in Pasadena, where the weather was 70 degrees and sunny.

On Saturday, we had one very fun Fiddle Fest! About 150 students representing more than 30 teachers participated. Students of all ages (yes, three-year-olds through adults) and levels (from "Pre-Twinkle" all the way through the Suzuki books) took fiddle and Suzuki classes, ate giant pizzas, did skills-test games, square-danced and finally took the stage together and played in one very large group concert.



We kicked off the day by listening to Pam's group, who showed us right away that kids can improvise. They'd play a tune, then launch right into a jam session. One person would improvise while the others kept the chord progression going by chopping.


Hungry Monk Fiddlers

I taught a Book 4-5 Suzuki repertoire class in the morning, then spent the rest of the day going from class to class and making sure everything was running smoothly. They mostly did, though we had to evacuate the auditorium when the sound board started smoking! (Must have been our red-hot fiddlin'!) All was well, though, it was a gorgeous day to hold class outside:


Kids at Fiddle Fest

I stopped in to watch fiddler Pattie Hopkins, who was having kids "duel." She picked a group of four students, and one would play harmony, one would "chop" and the other two would try to out-do each other improvising. Of course they were a little shy at first, but they got into the spirit!

Pamela explained in one class that "improvising isn't just making things up." Instead, one changes some things and leaves other things the same. You might change the rhythm, but leave the melody basically the same. Or change the melody and use the same rhythm. Or, maybe a bit more complicated: the melody changes but the chordal structure stays the same.


Girl in hat

Students did not find it difficult to improvise, given parameters in which to do so. For example: play a repeated pattern differently, substitute a scale for an arpeggio, change an ending. But it isn't just free-form, dropping into the abyss. It's reassuring to know that!

Pamela sat under a tree and taught a group of upper-book students how to play the "Sugarfoot Rag." They learned the same way old-time fiddlers always have: bit by bit, completely by ear. The students were playing the tune before anyone realized they'd learned it without any music in front of them.

After lunch, Pattie Hopkins gave a concert with pianist Ben Salisbury and guitarist Hazel Ketchum. Students and teachers alike enjoyed hearing the talents of a professional fiddler who has a lot of fun tools in her arsenal for improv!


Pattie Hopkins
Patti Hopkins

After lunch, square dance caller Dale Hoppers led kids, parents and teachers in the chicken dance, Hokey-Pokey and much more.


Square dancing at Fiddle Fest

We also held an "Olympics," at which students of varying levels visited stations and had to perform certain techniques, like transposing "Perpetual Motion" into different positions, or naming all the first-finger notes in first position, or for beginners, balancing a little ball on the violin so that it lays flat. Once students performed five tasks correctly, they each received a "medal." I happened to be at the "Pre-Twinkle" Olympics when everyone finished. Then teacher Nonie Reesor led them in some fun stuff, here's a little sample (you can see me way over on the right):


We all took the stage together at the end of the day for a massive "play-in," as we call such concerts in Suzuki circles. We played both Suzuki and Mark O'Connor's American music -- a nice combination!

Pam will be offering teacher training in Charleston, S.C. at the beginning of August at Mark O'Connor's first-ever camp for kids, called the O'Connor Method Camp.

Pam Wiley

Here are some related links about Fiddle Fest:

Story in the Pasadena Star News

Photo gallery in the Pasadena Star-News

Pictures taken by Brian Niles

Pictures taken by David Scheidemantle


From Erin Rushforth
Posted on January 18, 2011 at 9:52 PM

It looks like a fantastic day! What fun! I miss you guys!

From Eloise Garland
Posted on January 18, 2011 at 10:57 PM

 Oh how fun this looks!

From E. Smith
Posted on January 18, 2011 at 11:21 PM

 Wonderful story-- and great photos, too!

From Emily Grossman
Posted on January 19, 2011 at 8:57 AM

You must've had a great time, Laurie!  You really captured the moment in your photos and your writing.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 19, 2011 at 4:40 PM

 That looks like a lot of fun, and a great experience for the kids.  What a wonderful idea!

From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 19, 2011 at 9:52 PM

 Thanks, everyone! It was a very fun day, though a new experience to be one of the event planners. I can't take credit for the photos, those were taken by my son, Brian, and parent David Scheidmantle.

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