It’s always interesting to hear what people assume motivates me to make music the primary work of my life.
Some assume I’m in this game because I naively believe I’m destined to be famous. The glamour! The superiority I’d finally be able to lord over others! Or they figure I just want to do what’s the most fun for me rather than getting a “real” job.
As a somewhat baby-faced individual frequently mistaken for an early 20-something (I’m 34), I often wonder if these conversations go the same way for musicians who look (and act?) their age. Is there still this condescending tinge? This assumption that we’ve chosen this career path as an ungrounded attempt to escape a boring reality? This implication that we’ll come around to a more pragmatic strategy eventually?
Others emphasize how “lucky” I am to be “able to do what I love,” or to have been graced with musical talent that has delivered me into a profession as easily as though I slid down a laundry chute.
I know this second category of comments are intended as compliments. I try to respond accordingly and graciously in the moment. And today also isn’t the day I feel like delivering my rant about “talent” vs. hard work. Or the one about folks’ assumptions about what I love. Or that the things we love, by definition, lack utilitarian value.
I’ll save those rants for later. Or maybe never. It feels a bit ridiculous to be offended when someone compliments me, or celebrates my great fortune to get to do something interesting and rewarding for a living.
But here’s what really motivates me: connection.
I mean this both in terms of one-on-one connection, and on the community level. I find connection through music to be both a philosophy and a practical strategy.
Practically speaking: as an introvert, meeting new people can be stressful and exhausting. The superficiality of small talk bums me out, and cutting straight to personal topics often feels invasive.
For that reason, I really value social activities that provide everyone an opportunity to collaborate and focus on the same thing, and get to know each other in the process. Board games do this really well. So do team sports, for a lot of people.
For me, music is where it’s at. It’s a container in which we can choose how much to reveal ourselves to one another, and where vulnerability is relatively safe (even if it feels scary). It engages us mentally, physically, and emotionally. It gives us a safe way to attune to one another’s energy, exploring one another’s character without exposing too much information about ourselves right away.
And here’s the big one: it teaches us how to listen to one another.
As music listeners, we get to be delighted over and over again by the sounds and heart that come out of people we least expect. We are disarmed by a child’s precocious skill, an elderly person’s ability to rock out, an overweight person’s sexy stage moves. Or a woman’s technical accomplishment on a stereotypically masculine instrument. Or a person of color knocking it out of the park in a genre we’ve been taught to assume only interests white people.
Songwriters of all backgrounds sail messages like paper airplanes directly into our hearts–messages we might never emotionally connect to, without the vehicle of the melody and chords.
We are reminded over and over about the ways we misjudge people, every day. And here’s the best part: we find joy in being reminded.
As players, we get to go deeper and deeper in developing the skill of really absorbing what others are offering. We continually discover new ways to reflect and build on those ideas. To be flexible in our concept of what we’re co-creating, even as we continue to put our own ideas forward with increasing confidence.
As we advance, we discover that–however far we evolve our technical ability and conceptual brilliance–they don’t get much done, if our ears are closed to what others are bringing to the project.
When I think about the most fun stuff I’ve gotten to do this year, it’s all because of the people I got to connect with while doing it:
- Substitute teaching the multicultural and multigenerational students at Wilson School of Strings in Cedar Park, Texas (alongside new friend Olivia Brownlee, whose Music as a Second Language process is highly relevant to this conversation as well)
- Lip syncing “In a Week Or Two” sidestage with Larry the Cable Guy while Diamond Rio performed it at LRS Fest in Paulina, Oregon (after opening the show with Jessica Lynne & the Cousins)
- All the live shows and recording sessions I’ve gotten to do with SO many wonderful musician friends old and new (too many to list! I need to start writing more frequent updates!)
- All the audiences at summer concert series and other venues–of course!–but especially the audience members and support staff I got to have personal conversations with. (When I wasn’t too busy recovering in an introvert hole backstage, that is!)
- Jamming, performing, and cowriting with the other attendees and staff at California Coast Music Camp
- Most recently, making new friends in the pit orchestra at Seattle Musical Theatre, and reconnecting generally with the theater world and with the orchestral roots I’d let slip away over the past decade. (My Fair Lady runs through October 1st.)
I’m so grateful for the chance to connect with all of you! And if you’re not implicitly mentioned above, but you’re reading this, that’s yet another connection I’m grateful for.
Zooming out, I start to notice how many of my favorite life experiences centered around using music to bring people together across differences.
- Enrolling at Western Washington University’s Fairhaven College midway through my degree, so I could design a second major to balance my music major. I was enjoying the technical and analytical skills the music department was helping build, but I wanted to dig into why music is important enough to humans that it’s a cultural universal. This led to a second major in Culture, Gender & Sexuality Studies, with an emphasis on cross-cultural comparisons of how music is used to bond and support societies and political movements.
- Cofounding Bellingham’s Downtown Alliance for Music and Nightlife, which worked to organize musicians and venue owners of all stripes, and build rapport with law enforcement and legislators. We lobbied successfully for a more music-friendly city noise ordinance, and challenged enforcement policies that disproportionately affected musicians in certain genres and of certain ages. (B’DAMN no longer exists, but Make.Shift grew out of its ashes. They’re continuing to do amazing work providing resources and elevating the status of live music in Bellingham.)
- Organizing and leading a 17-piece swing band, composed of musicians whose home genres ranged from jazz to metal to spoken word poetry, for a benefit at the American Museum of Radio and Electricity. (I will never forget glancing over and seeing a jazz guitarist in his 80s intensely engaged in questioning an early-30s math rocker about finger tapping techniques, ten minutes after meeting him.)
- Teaching a class on indie rock repertoire for acoustic musicians to an intergenerational group at Puget Sound Guitar Workshop. We talked about how to recognize great songwriting from a genre that’s not your usual. (Many of the older folks initially had trouble connecting with the material.) We also discussed how to adapt songs from outside the folk canon into a jam-friendly format, so that they’d be easier to share with musicians who didn’t already know them. (This commonly stumps younger people entering the folk world, if they aren’t drawn to bluegrass or other specific folk genres). It was one of the most rewarding workshops I’ve ever gotten to lead.
I’m not sharing these experiences to convince you I’m so great (although sure, I’m proud of them). My point is that these things were fun. Connecting with people, and facilitating connections between others, is fun.
I wasn’t doing these things as part of some master plan. I was just connecting naturally with the people around me, and doing what seemed fun and/or useful in the moment. But reflecting back, the pattern makes sense to me. And it provides a lot of insight into my lifelong question about why (or whether) music matters:
Music is sublime in itself, but it’s also deeply relevant in its ability to open conversations and teach people to collaborate across differences.
I’m not saying music by itself can save the world. That would be naive. What I am saying is that it brings us together. And together is where we need to be.
I’m also saying that each and every one of us has personal work to do on letting in new thoughts and experiences from other people. You do, I do, we all do. And music is a wonderful tool for doing some of that work.
So yes, it matters.
Here are some simple ways to challenge yourself to use music to connect across differences:
- Go to a show or other event related to a kind of music outside your usual. (Hip hop would be a great choice for a lot of you in my circles. Personally, I’m irrationally annoyed by reggae–that might be my next area to explore.) Listen with your heart for what you can understand and appreciate. You don’t have to fall in love with the music. Just rest in an open curiosity about the hearts of the people making it.
- Read a book about a musician or musical community you don’t know much about. (The more aversion you feel toward the genre, or the less drawn you are toward the community it comes from, the better.) If you have the attention span for a more academically-oriented book, look for something put out by an academic publisher. These will be more likely to give context to readers who don’t already understand or care about the genre. They’ll also be more likely to position the music in a broader sociohistorical context, which really helps when trying to understand music that doesn’t personally grab your heart… usually that’s because it’s made by and for people who have different experiences than you do!
- Go to a jam if that’s not something you normally do. Are you “too beginner,” “too professional,” “too busy?” Do you “live too far away?” Dig into your favorite reason for not connecting with other musicians in a social, casual way. What’s underneath? Just be curious; seeing the pattern is enough for now.
- Or, if you are already a jammer, go to a different jam than your usual one(s). Is there one you’ve never tried, because it doesn’t sound like the people there would be the type you like to hang out with? (I am super guilty of this habit!) What evidence do you have that you would be uncomfortable there, if you’ve never been? Does that discomfort give more information about the people at the jam, or about you?
- Invite someone of a different generation over to share recordings you each love and talk about why you love them. (Hat tip to the wonderful Richard Scholtz for leading by example with this strategy.)
- Please share your own suggestions in the comments!
P.S. — Music also matters because it is fun.
Please remember, in this time of widespread fearmongering, how vitally important fun is. Whomever or whatever you consider to be “the enemy,” if you stop having fun, “they” win. We’re all depending on you to spread joy.
“You may have noticed the postcard I keep on my bathroom mirror that reads, ‘When you have no idea what’s happening, play the notes you can get and try to get more on the next pass.’ It’s something I said a thousand times to musicians working on learning to play tunes by ear, before I noticed its obvious relevance to the rest of life. So in that spirit, here are the chunks of the ‘tune’ I’ve figured out so far….”
That was the opening to a personal email I wrote a couple of weeks back, addressing a confused romantic situation. (Who knew I would ever be sharing such a thing in this space?! But I did promise I was going to get more transparent with you all.)
After I sent it, I couldn’t help but think about its application to so many other conversations I have had recently with friends, family members and astrology clients* about their own lives. Parenting. Career moves. Healthcare situations. When you strip away the specifics, it always seems like the path forward is roughly the same:
1) Don’t just stand there; do the part you understand now.
2) Pay attention to what goes by and try to get more right the next time.
Life doesn’t come with pause or rewind buttons, so this is the best we can do. It means we might not “play the tune” right the first five or fifty or five thousand times we try, but if we stay engaged and don’t give up, we’ll get it learned. Then we’ll be able to participate fully, and with pride rather than stress.
(*Yes, as some of you already know, I moonlight as an astrologer. I don’t tend to make a big deal out of it with you guys because I know it’s not what you came here for. I’m also mindful of wanting this space to feel safe and welcoming to folks who may have religious or other perspectives that would make them uncomfortable engaging with astrologer-Kat. But if you’re interested in learning more about that part of what I do, including a super-secret limited-time offer (oh my!), you can click this link.)
There’s a reason I focus my teaching business around improvisation and jamming skills, unlike 99.9% of other teachers who specialize in helping folks develop technical proficiency on their instruments. I do have plenty (plenty!!) of things to say about the technical fiddle stuff, too, as any of you who have taken private lessons from me know quite well. I have a college degree in the classical side of things, and decades of experimentation and research into the ergonomic aspects of playing this crazy instrument.
But honestly? I don’t get that juiced about sharing it, except as a means to a more interesting end.
Here’s what I do find juicy: those moments when a person (you, me, anyone) realizes that in order to jump up a level in their musicianship, they’re going to have to jump up a level in their whole approach to life. And that doing the musical work is a concrete, manageable way to do that life-work.
Music’s not just for shits and giggles; it’s a laboratory for conducting experiments and developing strategies that increase our wholeness and effectiveness as human beings.
For my money, improvisation and playing with others are the two musical skills that most often elicit these epiphanies. (“Freakouts,” you may prefer to call them, but epiphanies they are!)
I’m not saying that technical skill-building brings zero of these benefits. Certainly there’s a reason many parents put their kids in music lessons. (It rarely means they want their kids to be professional musicians someday! Ha. Sorry about that, Dad.) Learning an instrument strengthens our neural connectivity, and teaches us the value of routine, patience, and the pursuit of excellence.
But I don’t teach kids (usually). I teach adults, and adults usually have those skills dialed in about as well as they’re going to in this life. What more of us are working on are skills related to perfectionism, self-consciousness, mindfulness, and so many of the other big hairy blocks that stymie so many of us as grown-ups.
Collaboration and improvisation are so, so useful in dragging up our issues in these areas and giving us a chance to work on them.
There’s overlap between these musical and life skillsets, of course. Working on technique certainly requires us to confront issues around perfectionism, for example. I just wanted to get you thinking about the relationship between your musical life and the rest of your life.
Questions to ask yourself:
- What area of music do you know you could benefit from putting more work into, but find yourself strangely averse to exploring? (We all have them!) Is it playing with others? Getting more solid with your rhythm? Improving your tone? Improvising? Studying a genre you’re attracted to, but think might be too difficult for you? Look inside yourself–what’s holding you back? What’s the psychologically scary part of diving into that thing?
- What life lessons has music been teaching you lately? Where are you stuck musically that mirror other stucknesses in your life?
Let’s chat in the comments!
Edit: I received an email from a reader expressing disappointment at my use of the word “shits” in this article, because it made the reader uncomfortable sharing the post, even though it didn’t personally upset them. If you’re in the same boat–well, first off, thank you for wanting to share the post! You’re awesome, and I hope this is useful to your friends, too. I’ve made a second copy of the post which omits the offending scatological reference. Please distribute as you see fit!
Here is what I said to the person who emailed their concern: “Thanks so much for your kind words, and for your feedback about the swearing thing. It was definitely something I gave serious thought to before sending. Ultimately I decided that the reason I felt moved to use the phrase was because the people who would resonate most with what I offer would be able to relate to a surprising moment of earthiness. So I went for it.
“My experience in 10 years of marketing my teaching business is that the more widely I cast my net, the fewer people pay attention to me, and the less I appeal to the ones with whom I could really connect well and whose goals are most aligned with my skills. So my strategy is to show up as myself, with my cards on the table: who I am, what I care about, and how I experience the world in general and music specifically. Then people can choose for themselves if they relate to me. Just as they would any other friend. The closer I am to a robot or a blank projection screen, the more impossible that choice becomes for people.
“All that said, I don’t disagree that this particular article is easily edited to a G rating. Here’s a link to a thusly censored version, if you or your wife still want to share it. I’d be honored!”
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Hi friends! Just a heads-up for those of you in the Bellingham, Washington area: I’ll be sailing through next weekend (March 3rd & 4th) with a concert and a workshop.
Concert: Kat Bula & friends
Honey Moon Mead & Cider (1053 N. State St. Alley–behind the Pepper Sisters restaurant)
Friday, March 3rd, 8:30pm – 10:30pm
Workshop: Chords on the Fiddle
Bellingham Folk School (1208 Cornwall Ave)
Saturday, March 4th, 2pm – 5pm
$35 – pre-register by emailing me (email@example.com)
This is what to play when you don’t know what to play in a jam! Learn how to accompany other musicians with chords. We’ll cover movable finger shapes, so you can play in any key. We’ll also touch on rhythm patterns (aka “chops”). Violas and cellos welcome to join us!
We’re all works in progress.
Hello from Nashville, Tennessee! OK, whoa, it’s been an eventful few months.
One of my biggest goals for the next few months is to start sharing more of my musical journey with you—both its ups and its downs. In the past I’ve worried that I would bore you if I wrote about myself too much. But I realize now that I LOVE it when people I’m learning from are open and honest about their own processes. It’s so helpful when folks share the map of the territory as they explore it, and are willing to be vulnerable.
I think in the seven years(!) that I’ve had this website, writing and teaching about fiddle stuff, I’ve overinvested in pretending to be 100% confident all the time. I wanted to help you feel safe, and know that you weren’t going to be learning a bunch of crap that you were just going to have to unlearn later. Or worse, getting so confused and overwhelmed you that you wouldn’t learn anything at all. I hope that in my teaching I’ve made good on those promises. But the approach I was taking has exhausted me. It may have turned some of you off as well.
The thing is, this industry is so full of:
- famous people teaching (some effectively, some not), and
- amateurs pretending they are experts.
I’m neither, and I believe that’s a strength. It means that if you’re paying attention to me, it’s because I’m doing my job well. But it can be confusing to know how to present myself when I’m not as famous as a lot of the folks you’re probably following. (Not yet, hehe!) I’m also young enough that people don’t automatically pick up on the fact that I’ve been playing for almost 25 years, and teaching for over 20. I think at times I’ve responded to those facts by writing from an opaque, insecure place.
The thing is, what I’ve wanted all along is to connect genuinely and deeply with as many musicians as possible. Which is totally incompatible with hiding behind false bravado.*
*(A few days ago I watched Becky Buller become the first woman ever to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Fiddle Player of the Year award. How is that even possible, when there seem to be so many more women playing fiddle than any of the other bluegrass instruments, including legends like Alison Krauss and Laurie Lewis? I realize that there may be a gender piece to how we expect to have to present ourselves in this industry, too.)
Because of that internal misalignment, I constantly drug my feet about creating new stuff for you. I’m sitting on approximately one gajillion half-written articles and product ideas. You could be benefiting from them right now, if only I’d gotten my head straight sooner.
Does any of this sound like your life? I hope not, but I also suspect that more than a few of you can relate in some way.
So I’ve decided I’m done trying to sound like I have all the answers about music or anything else. Instead, I’m going to get to work and share the answers I do have from those 25 years of experience. As well as the new answers I find, as I find them. I’ll share, too, the questions I don’t have answers for yet, as I keep exploring. I hope this will be more useful to you.
Because we’re doing the same thing here, you and I, even if I may have been at it longer or harder. So cheers to being works in progress.
With all that in mind, here’s what I’ve been up to for the past few months.
First things first: I live in Seattle now.
After fifteen years in Bellingham, Washington, my role in the music community there had come to consist primarily of teaching lessons and booking at a local venue. I was commuting to Seattle for most of my gigs (b****es gotta get paid), and I hadn’t had a regular teacher myself for over 10 years. The time had come for me to make some changes so I could continue growing as a musician. As of April 1st, I am a Seattlite.
I miss Bellingham’s beautiful community and landscape every day, and plan to visit as often as I can. I will definitely be back in December, teaching at the Bellingham Folk Festival.
And yes, for those who don’t already know and will wonder: I’m also going through a divorce. Yes, it’s hard. But music, and music community, help.
On the road again
May 2016: The Coty Hogue trio toured for most of May to promote our new record, which we recorded in January at Rec Room Studio in Nashville. We are so proud of it, and had a great trip through Montana, California, and points between.
I spent much of June, July and August at music camps. This was my fourth year of teaching at Puget Sound Guitar Workshop (which at this point feels more like home than my actual apartment). For the first time, I also had the honor to teach at this year’s California Coast Music Camp.
As a student, I went to three more camps. I worked on vocal technique at Centrum’s VoiceWorks (Port Townsend, WA), mandolin at the Washington Old Time Fiddler’s Association’s camp (Moses Lake, WA), then songwriting and more vocal technique at Puget Sound Guitar Workshop (because I just can’t get enough of that place).
Here’s a video I made at the California camp about why I take so much time out of my summer to be a camp student, even though I’m at a point where I get to teach too. I hope it inspires you to try out a camp next year (or a different camp, if you’ve already been to one in the past). Please pretend that I remembered to hold my phone in landscape mode when I was filming. :)
I’ve been on tour with Jessica Lynne since September 9th. Right now we’re in Nashville, Tennessee, at a coffee shop that I think would very much prefer to be in Seattle. (So much Modest Mouse on the stereo! So little smiling from the plaid-clad baristas!) We start heading northwestward tomorrow, and get back October 16th for a homecoming show at the Roadrunner in Puyallup, WA.
Coming up next:
- I’m about to embark on version 2.0 of the Rippin’ Bluegrass Soloing course. (The name may change; got any suggestions? Put ‘em in the comments!) Those of you who took version 1.0 seemed to like the content a lot, but wanted shorter, fancier looking videos. I also want to add some more content. That means (achtung!) that when I release the new version, it’s going to have a shiny new price tag. But everyone who has the 1.0 version will automatically get access to the new shiny one. So if you want to get in on it at the current price, you have until October 16th to purchase it. After that, version 1.0 goes away forever. Click here to check it out.
- I’m already hard at work writing a music theory workbook, which I plan to release by the end of the year. After teaching a zillion theory workshops at various camps, I decided to make a resource you can write on, erase, and write on it again. I want you to have a chance to really solidify the theory concepts in your memory and on your instrument. That will mean you can actually use them!
- Once I get home from tour, I’ll get to start connecting more with various Seattle music mentors. I’ve hardly been home since I moved to the city, so I’ve only had a few lessons so far. Right now I’m focusing on beefing up my swing repertoire and my mandolin chops; Pete Martin is a great help.
- ‘Tis the season in my astrology business when I’m a bit busier than usual. Every equinox, I offer sliding scale follow-up readings to all my past clients. I love getting to check in with them and see how things are going! (For more information about that part of my life, check out Kat Bula’s Down To Earth Astrology.)
Okay, I think that’s all I wanted to announce. Thanks for reading all the way to the end! Please let me know in the comments if there’s anything you’d love to read about, as I enter this new era of blogging more regularly and openly. Or just tell us all what this season is about in your musical life! Take care, friends.
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Hi friends! In this video, I talk about what distinguishes bluegrass music from folk-influenced rock/pop, as well as what distinguishes it from old-time music.
And here’s the listening list I promised:
Classics and Modern Classics
Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys – Little Maggie
Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys – Uncle Pen
Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard – The One I Love Is Gone
Del McCoury Band – Nashville Cats
Dolly Parton – Travelin’ Prayer (This video is hilarious! Great performance. And yes, to the haters: I know this is a Billy Joel song. But Dolly’s version is straight-up bluegrass.)
New Grass Revival – Can’t Stop Now
Alison Krauss & Union Station – Oh Atlanta
Here’s what it sounds like when rock and pop influences are conscientiously introduced into bluegrass by pickers who are deeply rooted in the bluegrass tradition. Hear how it’s radically different from the classic stuff, but the instrumental playing is still very much based on how the more traditional bands play?
Compare this to jam bands that may casually be called “bluegrass” but might really be incorporating folk influences into rock and pop music, rather than the other way around. (It’s worth noting that the musicians above don’t necessarily market these recordings as “bluegrass,” either.)
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As some of you may know, I do the booking for a wonderful little music venue here in Bellingham called the Honey Moon. In June, the Honey Moon celebrated their 10th birthday. Ten years of supporting local artists, as well as handcrafting meads, ciders and wines–it’s no small feat! So of course we had a birthday party to celebrate, featuring scads of local musicians that have been a big part of the Honey Moon’s community over the years.
For the occasion, I wrote a fiddle tune. “Of course!,” you might say, but actually I can’t remember the last time I wrote a fiddle tune. I’ve focused my composing energy on indie/folk singer/songwriter stuff since I was in high school. But after a conversation with the Honey Moon’s owners about how difficult it is to find words to describe flavor–without sounding like one of those pretentious wine people (hey, we’re all pretentious sometimes)–I thought a wordless tune would be the perfect way to commemorate what the Honey Moon does with its mead.
Thus, the Blueberry Mead Waltz was born. Here’s my attempt to capture what Honey Moon’s blueberry mead tastes like to me. I’m proud of how it turned out. Maybe you’ll enjoy playing it, too! You can listen, and download sheet music, below.
Full of challenging double stops, because I rarely let myself take it easy.
No double stops, but still some tricks with the key (Bb), accidentals, and bowing.
Bonus: Cider Polka (PDF)
I didn’t write this. (Andy de Jarlis did). I did play it for the Honey Moon party, though, because of course! They make delicious cider too.
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If you aren’t already familiar with Megan Lynch Chowning, then I’m delighted to introduce you! She’s a six-time national fiddle champion, touring musician, recording artist, teacher, singer, and flatfooter. She’s toured with a host of top-tier country and bluegrass acts, and has come to Bellingham several times to teach workshops. Originally from Redding, California, she now lives in Nashville, where she directs her own FiddleStar Youth and Adult Fiddle Camps.
Also? She recently introduced me to the Instagram hashtag #fiddlerswhocook, which is pretty much my favorite.
I’m delighted she agreed to let me interview her for you guys! She’s super genuine and really knows her stuff. Keep reading!
KB: What’s your story? How did you get into fiddling in the first place?
MLC: My kindergarten teacher, Diane Knapik, sent a note a home to my mom explaining that because I already knew how to read that I was getting bored in class and that maybe I’d be interested in joining the school’s string program. (Ah, music programs in the school – now the unicorn of public education…) Through an amazing stroke of good fortune, the teacher was an inspiring, broad-minded Doctor of Education whose own daughter had just won the Grand Masters Fiddler Championship in Nashville that summer – the first woman and youngest ever to do so. We learned Minuet in G and then Old Joe Clark. And then maybe Gavotte followed by Arkansas Traveler. It was an incredible start. And we’re still good friends with that kindergarten teacher, as you can imagine.
KB: You’re very active in both the Texas style and bluegrass worlds. How would you describe the relationship between these genres?
MLC: There are certainly some similarities but probably more differences between Texas style and bluegrass. I really enjoy doing both – they speak to both sides of my personality.
Texas style is a genre borne of old-time tunes combined with swing guitar playing which resulted in different, bluesier, jazzier note choices within the traditional tunes. Texas style fiddling doesn’t really exist without the proper guitar (and/or piano, and/or bass) accompaniment. When you put swing chords behind old-time tunes like, say Arkansas Traveler or Cripple Creek, it changes the way you, as a fiddler, decided what notes to play. The chords don’t just have the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degrees of the scale, as normal chords do. They might include the 2nd, or flat 7th, or 6th notes in the scale and therefore your ear grabs those sounds and translates them into improvisations that expand the tunes into what we now know as Texas style versions of the tunes. However, as a jam/group activity, Texas style is very fiddle-centric, in the sense that almost always, you’ll have just one fiddle in a jam, playing tunes as long as the fiddler chooses, with several rhythm guitar players and maybe a bass player and/or tenor guitar player in the mix. The fiddler is the only melody player in the group.
Bluegrass is a different animal, both musically and systematically. Chords are more standard. Not a lot of swing chords, certainly, and note choices are more based on standard one, three, five, chord notes. Everyone in the jam or band has the opportunity to take a solo/lead/break during the song. And of course there is a singer to contend with, and a fiddler has to focus a lot of time on learning how to support a vocalist.
Texas style is my background, but bluegrass has been so good for me. Texas style taught me how to play the fiddle, but bluegrass taught me to play music. I can’t imagine not having both in my life.
KB: How does your Texas style background inform your work in other genres?
MLC: Texas style has trained my ear to accept all kinds of note possibilities and that has been so beneficial to hearing the subtleties of all the other genres I love. I think that the weird mix of old-time and jazz that is Texas style prepared me to be open to hearing what works in so many other genres. It was a great way to start my fiddling career.
KB: As a California native, how do you think about the role of non-Southerners in promulgating Southern musical traditions? What have your experiences been collaborating with Southern bluegrass and Texas style players?
MLC: I think we live in a global fiddling society these days and although there is some notice of people’s backgrounds when it comes to their musical journeys, I think it’s less obvious or relevant than it used to be. I worried about it when I moved to Nashville – oh here comes the California girl to play bluegrass, what does she know?! – but I have found that, generally speaking, it hasn’t been an issue. Learn your history, listen to the masters, and as we say down here, cut your gig. That’s all that matters.
Side note though: weirdly enough, I have noticed that the further you get away from the birthplace of the music, the more protective people seem to be about the tradition. In California, as an example, the bluegrass community is really committed to playing what they see as “real bluegrass” and I have seen some venom directed at anyone who dares to stray from the Bill Monroe path. But in Kentucky, and Virginia, and North Carolina etc. people are quite welcoming to the evolution of the music. Maybe it’s easier to let go when you have always been surrounded by, and had the opportunity to play, bluegrass music. People who converted later in life always seem to be more intense!
Overall though, I think we should all have an opportunity to play the music that moves us. It’s important to be respectful and as knowledgable about the history and traditions as we can, and then go for it!
KB: How would you describe the relationship between Texas style fiddling and the contest circuit?
MLC: Ugh. Yes, well. It’s two different styles of music at this point. Contest fiddling has its roots in Texas style but contest fiddling has become its own thing. There are overlaps, but the time limits and sequestered judging have created an entirely new set of priorities. Contest fiddling is more technical, more precise, and generally more planned in advance. Texas style fiddling is more raw, more improvisational, and the tempos are generally slower. I like them both. Forgive me.
KB: What’s it like to judge a contest? What do you listen for?
MLC: It really depends on the contest and whether the judging is sequestered or we’re sitting out front watching the fiddlers play. Overall though, I’m listening for a solid groove – a feel of rhythmic mastery where the fiddler and guitar player are locked in together and making real music. But that’s not all. I also really care about whether or not the fiddler is playing in tune and making musical choices within the tunes. Sequestered judging tends to make me focus even more on tone. When you can’t see the fiddler and the speaker is just blaring the fiddle right at your head and you’ve been sitting there all day with only a donut and a Diet Coke, a beautiful tone can get really important really fast. But I take issue with the idea with you can’t have it all, when it comes to playing the fiddle. Being super cool and rhythmic doesn’t preclude you from being in tune and having sweet tone. Strive for great music, all the way around!
In terms of “what it’s like”, I can only say that things never sound like you expect, and you are constantly surprised by what you think and how you perceive someone’s playing. I think that if you’re doing it right, you’re constantly second guessing yourself and trying to make sure that your points reflect what you really feel. And you can only hope you’re doing the whole process justice. As a teacher, you know how hard everyone works to get there and you never want to disrespect that. When I see other judges giving the exact same score for every category for every tune or putting a score down before a tune is over, or not writing comments, especially for the little ones, I get so frustrated! What is the point of the whole thing if you’re not getting honest feedback and advice for improvement? There are tons of contests, especially out here in the Southeast, where score sheets aren’t given out to the contestants. How weird is that? We’re supposed to be getting something useful out of this incredibly stressful, challenging experience.
KB: What’s your #1 piece of advice for brand new fiddlers?
MLC: It’s two fold. I can never pick just one thing… First, have heroes. Identify fiddlers who inspire you with their playing and listen to them constantly. You don’t know how to get better if you don’t know what to shoot for. Second, get out and play, every chance you get. Even if you feel that you’re going to be the worst player in the room or that you don’t know the first thing about the first thing, go anyway. Chop, play some long bows, squeak your way through Old Joe Clark, whatever you can do. But get out there. Take notes about what happened there and work on those things and try to incorporate at least one new thing the next time. That’s how you get better!
KB: What’s your #1 piece of advice for more experienced fiddlers who are just getting started with jamming?
MLC: See above… But more specifically, get out in the world and just experience a bunch of jams. Even if you don’t play in the beginning, you have to go and get a sense of how things work. Jams are just musical conversations and the best way to learn how to converse is by standing around with a bunch of people and listening to how they talk to one another and then slowly but surely, start jumping in and contributing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But you learn a little every time and pretty soon you find that you can talk to just about anyone about just about anything. Don’t get intimidated by a bunch of stuff about “jam rules”. Those things are meant to be helpful but more than anything, they’re divisive and scary. Just watch, observe, and be respectful. Ask questions and try. Everyone will appreciate that.
KB: What’s your pet peeve musically?
MLC: Not listening. People who aren’t listening in a jam or band setting are just taking from the music, not contributing.
KB: What do you think is the hardest thing about learning music?
MLC: Getting out of our own way. Especially as adults, we over think most everything. Not to mention the proliferation of forums and internet sites where people get together, virtually speaking, and talk about playing music. More playing music, less talking about playing music!
KB: What’s going on in the FiddleStar world that we should know about?
MLC: The most important thing I’m doing lately is, with my husband Adam, working on creating a real community of music learners through our Nashville Acoustic Camps. Throughout the year we open our home to players of all levels and of many different instruments and styles and help them improve their skills by connecting them with kind, patient teachers. And it all happens in Nashville, TN, where music is just in the air. It’s magical and I’m really lucky.
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I love Ira Glass’ straight talk here about how cruddy it can feel when we’re learning an art or craft, and aren’t yet making work that meets our own standards.
As he points out, our high standards are a big part of what gets us interested in doing the work. (He’s talking about storytelling, but everything he says applies just as well to music–or any other art or craft.)
So we can trust that our high standards mean that we’re going to do really good work. We aren’t inherently sucky at this. If we were, we wouldn’t be sensitive enough to music to have any interest in learning to play.
The gap between our standards and our actual playing, then, is just a matter of experience. And the simple, non-sexy solution to that is to keep doing the work. Do what you need to do to develop the skills to make what’s in your head come out of your instrument.
Yes, it will take time. How much time it will take depends on what you do with your time. If you have the opportunity to devote a significant amount of your time each week to focused practicing, then you’ll quickly close the gap between your playing and your ideal playing. If you’ve got a lot on your plate in terms of work, family and other commitments, it will take longer because you won’t have the chance to put in quite so many hours.
Either way, it’s okay. As long as you stay focused with the time you do have, you will be closing the gap.
Don’t beat yourself up for not already being a master. That just wastes energy and makes you want chocolate. (Or a beer. Or to spend three hours glazy-eyeing Pinterest. Or whatever’s your favorite escape/numbing strategy.)
It definitely doesn’t do a dang thing to close the gap. Practicing is what does that.
(Of course, if you want guidance with that, I’d love to help you.)
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I tried to teach “Salt Creek” to one of my students the other day. I totally failed.
Maybe you’ve heard this old chestnut:
Q: Why do fiddle tunes have names?
A: How would you tell them apart, if they didn’t?
I picked up “Salt Creek” by ear in a jam session at some point over the twelve years I’ve lived in Bellingham. It was not a commonly played tune in Eastern Washington while I was growing up there, but around here most bluegrassers and old time players know it. Several bands I’ve played with have reinforced it in my memory–in fact, I played it just a couple of weeks ago when I sat in with David’s Drinking Band at Honey Moon. DDB plays a cool, complexly arranged medley of “Salt Creek” and “Red Haired Boy”, which makes sense because both tunes are in the key of A mixolydian.
When I wanted to give “Salt Creek” to my student, I first looked through all the books I had close at hand, but for some reason none of them contained a usable version of the song. So I decided to teach it by ear….
Perhaps you see where this is going. No matter how far into my memory I dug, I could only remember one or two bars of “Salt Creek,” after which it would morph into “Red Haired Boy,” a tune I’ve known much longer and have taught many more times. Finally I had to give up on “Salt Creek” and teach a different tune. Embarrassing, and wasteful of the student’s time. Darn it.
After she left, I looked up “Salt Creek” on YouTube. The first video I found was an excellent one of guitarist Doc Watson. I didn’t need it to be a fiddler in the video, since my goal was just to remember how the tune went in order to jog my muscle memory of how to play it. Forty seconds into the video, I was ready to notate the song.
The moral of this story for you.
Given a choice between learning a tune by ear or learning it from sheet music, do you have a strong preference? If you do, I highly recommend putting some time into getting more comfortable with the thing you avoid.
Consider some pros and cons of each method, using my “Salt Creek” story as an example:
Learning the tune by ear meant…
…I could pick it up in the moment from musicians around me in a casual setting, instead of being limited by the lack of available sheet music. I didn’t have to sit glumly watching everyone else play a tune I didn’t know.
…my version fit the way my friends were playing the tune. Sometimes if you learn a tune from sheet music, you’ll find that the people you around you know it radically differently, to the point that it can be difficult to play it together. This is especially true if you and the person who notated the tune are in different parts of the country or world.
…I didn’t need to learn from another fiddle player or from fiddle-specific sheet music. I don’t remember who first taught me the tune, but it was probably a banjo, guitar or mandolin player, since I am usually the only fiddle player in a given band or jam group.
…once I’d learned it, it was forever in my muscle memory (somewhere). It is much, much easier to memorize a tune learned by ear—in fact, if you can’t yet play from memory a tune you’re learning by ear, you haven’t learned finished learning it. On the other hand, to learn a tune from sheet music, then memorize it, is a two-step process. Most people don’t really complete the second step for the majority of the tunes they learn this way, so as time passes tunes are more likely to pass out of memory entirely.
But did learning “Salt Creek” by ear help me call up the tune when I needed it? Clearly, it did not. So having it in a book would have been super handy.
Reading sheet music would have meant…
…that it would have taken me under a minute to find the spot in the tune where I was going off track, and see at a glance what I was supposed to be playing instead.
…that I could send the music home with the student, so she would have a reference to help her remember the tune later, too. Anytime you don’t have time to adequately memorize a tune, you will need the music. (Or a recording, I guess, but that’s often less practical for a variety of reasons: you can’t make a recording unless you have a gadget with you, and you won’t be able to use it later unless you put time into sorting and labeling your recordings. Recordings also don’t help you if you’re trying to play along with others who already know the tune, whereas sheet music gives you the option of sight reading.) Sheet music is easily and quickly shared, not only between teachers and students, but also among friends.
You need both skills: learning by ear and reading notes. Start doing whichever thing you’ve been avoiding.
–If you’re phobic of learning by ear, get someone patient to teach you a tune (even if that “patient someone” is just a YouTube video that you can rewind and replay as much as you want).
–If you’re need to develop competence at notereading: here’s “Salt Creek” and “Red Haired Boy” so you can practice hacking your way through the tangle of dots and lines. I’m sure you’ll do much better than I do with not getting the two tunes mixed up. If you don’t know where to begin with reading notes, start with violinflashcards.com, and mark the name of each note on the sheet music as it comes up in the flashcards. (Musicards.net might be more useful to you if you’re not a fiddle player.)
–If you’re a guitar player who needs to work on reading tablature, Google “xxxxxxx tabs”, but replace “xxxxxxx” with the name of a pop or rock song you like. You should also be able to use Google to find a tutorial that helps you understand what the numbers and lines and letters mean.
Of course, if you want a less self-directed approach to any of these projects, I would love to help you with any of the above.