TEACHING: Creating a Fiddle Community
Seventy-five years ago, the fiddle scene in my rural community in Northern New York was thriving. The grange halls were full of square dancers. Neighbors often gathered for jam sessions. By the time I arrived in “The North Country” in 1996, the scene was much quieter. Yes, there were still a few wonderfully skilled players in the area who performed and played for the occasional dance, but there was much less spontaneous playing at home. It seemed that families enjoying making music together was a memory of generations gone past.
As my husband and I settled into “The North Country,” word quickly spread that there was a fiddle teacher in town. In a month, with no formal advertising, I had a half dozen students, each wanting to learn a different fiddle style. I taught Bluegrass tunes to one, Irish tunes to another, Old Time… you name it. I am a New England Fiddler. I was raised in a fiddling family, and was constantly surrounded by musicians playing a mix of genres, so I thought nothing of teaching multiple styles. And my students were doing great, but I soon realized that with their diverse repertoires, they couldn’t sit down and play many tunes together. The joy of playing tunes with other players was an important element of my beautiful fiddle tradition that I was not passing on. It became clear to me that I wanted to “create” a fiddle community to help connect the folks in this rural region.
I started by asking the older generation of local fiddlers for five tune they thought every fiddler in The North Country should know. I compiled a list of tunes (all of which I had learned as a girl, too) and told any new students that I would teach them 20 tunes that I had chosen, with the understanding that after they mastered “my” tunes, aka The Fiddle Club tunes, I would be happy to branch out into any genre they would like. Together we dove into the Old Time repertoire with tunes Boil ‘em Cabbage ‘down, Cock of the North, and Angelina Baker. We’d move on to twin fiddle gems like Road To Boston, Golden Slippers, and work towards chestnuts like St. Anne’s Reel, Maple Sugar and Westphalia Waltz in 3 part harmony.
The plan I put into place over 20 years ago has worked beautifully. Today, still through word of mouth, Koehler’s Fiddle School, Potsdam, New York is a strong studio that I have to “cap” at 30-40 fiddle players each year (with a waiting list). Whenever possible, I encourage family members who play guitar, banjo, drums, piano to accompany us when we perform together as “The Madstop Fiddlers” (Potsdam spelled backwards.) I am so happy when I step back and see that we have a thriving fiddle community here in Northern NY full of friends, neighbors and family. Together, we play music at contra dances, jam sessions, sugaring-off parties, farmers’ markets, and many of my fiddlers tell me they even make music at home… just for the fun of it.
Three cheers for keeping fiddle traditions alive!
(All photos by InSil Yoo)