Fiddle Tunes!

Fiddle Tunes is part of an annual 1-week summer fiddle-festival in Port Townsend, Washington. With 500 or so registered participants, and another few hundred non-registered participants, Fiddle Tunes is many things to many people, and there and many ways to do Fiddle Tunes.

At the core of fiddle tunes are the daily workshops with master players and teachers: When possible, by artists connected directly (octo- and nono-generians) or indirectly (their musical children) from times when tunes passed down orally and locally. At the other end of the artist spectrum are players (typically much younger)  from the hot bands of the current folk scene.  With 30 or so presenting artists, the range of music seminaars offered is broad, and typically includes old-time, bluegrass, Cape Breton, Scandinavian, Celtic, southwestern, Appalachian, and Cajun, among others. 

New England and Cape Breton fiddler Donna Hebert teaching at Fiddle Tunes 2019.

At the morning workshops tunes are taught fast and furiously, early in the week. Participants, even the advanced ones, pick up what they can. By Friday, when everyone is tired, sessions tend toward stories, and artists relay tales about life and music during the depression, or about life and music on the road.

In the afternoon, the artists run band-workshops in their specific styles, teaching tunes to perform at the Friday night dance and at the Saturday morning participant concert. There is always a beginner band for those who have played less than a year. Any instrument is included. They always get the simplest tunes and the loudest applause. Additionally, there are afternoon tutorials for intermediate players. These are small group sessions focusing on particular elements of style and technique.

In the late afternoon there are pop-up workshops ranging more widely in content, and which frequently include singing or dancing or luthier skills or whatever hits a presenter,s fancy.

After dinner, jam sessions kick into high-gear, and as the week goes on they last until earlier and earlier in the morning (thus the falling attendance at morning workshops later in the week). These include slo-jams and fast jams, huge jams led by artist faculty, intimate jams of groups of friends, jams of all musical styles, competitive jams and laid back jams, indoor jams and outdoor jams. The only place where jams don’t are in the dormitories which are designated quiet zones, thankfully! There are also campground jams, which can start around 9-am and end around 6-am. After all, campers need a little quiet and rest, too.

Jams aren’t the only thing going on after dinner. There is also a concert around 7 every evening. And around 10 pm two, yes, two!, dance halls open up: one for couple dancing and one for contras and squares. All concert and dance music is provided by the 60 or so musical staff who tend to mix and match themselves throughout the week, sharing artistry and experience among themselves. Add to all this multiple informal parties, everyone’s invited!, just to hang out and socialize, as if all the music making isn’t enough.

Is there something for everyone at Fiddle Tunes? You bet’cha! Is there too much to do at Fiddle Tunes? You bet’cha! How does one survive this Eden of Tunes? (1) Make a plan. Decide what you want to do, and decide what you don’t want to do, and stick to it. (2) Decide on a daily nap time, and stick to it.

Copyright 2019, All rights reserved.

Voice Works for Violin

Teachers tell me to sing the pitch, sing the interval, sing the motif, sing the phrase; and now play. And so I’ve learned the sound of my violin to be an extension of my voice; that my violin will only ever sing what my voice knows.

With this idea in mind, I sought a place, a community, where I could simply sing. Sing for song. Sing for joy. Sing to expand my musical sense and range. Enter Voice Works, a one week singing camp, some call it a lifestyle, at Fort Worden, a decommissioned-army-base-turned-arts-community, at the tip of the Olympic peninsula just west of Seattle. My choices were reggae, blues, jazz, gospel, Balkan, bluegrass, folk, rounds, harmony, technique, poetry, songwriting, accompanying. 150 people singing for a week. I chose to focus on harmony, Balkan, and gospel.

Jefferson Hamer
Jefferson Hamer leading a harmony workshop at Voice Works 2019

Jefferson (not airplane, not starship) Hamer taught harmony. With guitar in hand, he led a melody in the key of G, Shallow Brown, a sea shanty with spacious chorus. On the fly, responding to the chordal progression, he made up harmonies for alto, tenor and base and had us singing in 4-part in no time. The lesson being that harmony doesn’t have to be static; that we can make it up. Which he encouraged us to do. Without judgment, we listened to each other searching for notes. Figuring out what works best. Voices moving around the melody seeking to make shape with each other.

Eva Salina, our national treasure, taught Balkan songs. Although strophic and with short melodies, each song took an hour to learn. Slavic words can be difficult for English speakers. Melody was also unusual to us, as was the rhythm and the flexible tempo. Ornamentation proved tricky. But when we got the drone just right, the sound was electric, a buzz felt as much a heard.

Dawn Pemberton
Dawn Pemberton (left) with
super-fan Kate at Voice Works 2019.

Gospel with Dawn Pemberton. Oh what a night! A singer of grace and soul, Dawn is also a master teacher. If you had been there, within an hour she would have had you singing a solo part in 4-part, on stage, in a tune you’d only just learned. I witnessed her do this with an entire class. And she brought me to tears with her kindness and encouragement.

As an adult beginner on the violin, many times I’ve had to explain and defend my pursuit and my goals. Discouragement can feel relentless: “You do know that you’ll never be really good at it. You’ll never be a superstar,” is a common refrain, as if this is informative, or even relevant. In response to a question, Dawn did a 180 and went straight to “Of course you can do this. And this is how. And no, there is nothing in your make-up that will prevent you.  You’ll have your own path. You’ll have your own timing. But you can do this. You will do this.” 

This feeling, this attitude, is intrinsic to Voice Works. The approach that everyone has a voice, that everyone can sing, that everyone can shape a life in harmony and lift in joy. This is Voice Works.

Copyright 2019, All rights reserved.