Challenging Tradition: Why Classical Musicians Should Learn Folk Music

About a year ago I stepped into a new world of music and it changed my life. Every Sunday night the Quays Pub, a small Irish bar in Queens, plays host to a group of some of the friendliest musicians I have ever met. They are there to play bluegrass and they are there to drink Jameson. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also serious music. It was a totally new world for me.

Though a classically trained violinist, I had begun playing folk music in college and continued collaborating with folk musicians after moving to New York City. It was always a lot of fun, but I never really knew what I was doing. My initial contact with folk music had come primarily from the notated tradition: the music of Dvorák, Mahler, and Bartók for example.

So when I stepped up to take my first solo at the Quays Jam, I was as nervous as I have ever been before a performance. I still have absolutely no memory of those first few months of breaks. I would go to play and 20 seconds later I would regain consciousness, not knowing what had happened. I was following my ear and attempting to improvise, but I was only just beginning to understand the musical traditions behind fiddle playing and folk music making in general.

The Idiot Brigade

Ethan (center) with The Idiot Brigade. Photo by Michael Weinstein.

Now, after a year’s worth of discovering this music, many late-night jam sessions, and countless gigs (I did learn how to fake it quickly enough), one thought comes to mind upon reflection. Though I play an instrument with an enormous American tradition, it was not until I arrived at my first bluegrass jam that I actually began to investigate that style. Why is it that children learning to play the violin in America don’t learn about the rich traditions of American fiddle music?

From the perspective of technique, I suppose I can answer my own question. Playing old-time, Texas-style, Cajun, or bluegrass fiddle requires a slightly different approach to technique, particularly bow technique, from the Western classical tradition. But on a purely musical level, there is so much to be gained from exposure to the sounds of fiddle music, particularly in the realms of harmony and improvisation.

I honestly don’t think this would be that difficult. Even teachers who know very little about traditional music could assign interesting fiddle tunes to their students as a break between scales and etudes. It would be a moment in the middle of a practice session to reflect on just how much musical tradition exists in America. It would be a moment to recognize that most, if not all music comes, in some way, from folk traditions. It would be a way to connect the study of music to a greater understanding of the time, place, and manner in which it is created.

Bluegrass music changed my life by forcing me to challenge my concept of the folk. Rather than understanding it solely as musical material, I now understand it as living and breathing tradition. Incorporating folk music into the process of teaching notated music could breed a better understanding of other musical traditions as well as an openness to improvisation and composition. It could further the understanding of a musician not as a technician but as a creator, and of concerts not as galleries but as singular musical events.

How do you teach creativity in the process of teaching music?

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Ethan Joseph is a musician and arts administrator. He serves as New Music USA’s Manager of Individual Giving where he focusses on building individual support for the organization at both the grassroots and major gifts levels. A classically trained violinist, Ethan currently performs with the experimental pop group Noise & Rhythm as well as the bluegrass band The Idiot Brigade.

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7 thoughts on “Challenging Tradition: Why Classical Musicians Should Learn Folk Music

  1. R James Tobin

    Doesn’t bluegrass music come from Scottish immigrants to Appalachia? I claim no expertise on this but what little I have heard reminds me of Scottish reels from the 18th century.

    Reply
  2. Michael Weinstein

    I like your little essay and your relatively new found devotion to bluegrass and folk music. You’re spot on when you recognize the Scots-Irish roots. I think it’s one of the finest musical forms out there. It’s filled with excitement and syncopation galore combined with blues and gospel harmonies . It’s easy to listen to yet challenging to play. You’ve made impressive strides in you’re ability to improvise and communicate your inner most musical emotions. For this I commend you and encourage you to keep on the golden path to eternal bluegrass Nirvana! Michael Weinstein

    Reply
  3. Clarke Bustard

    The creative cross-fertilization that Ethan advocates works both ways. Back in the previous millennium, attending a fiddlers’ convention (an event you would love, Ethan – check out the Galax [VA] Old Fiddlers Convention, held every August), I happened upon a couple of fiddlers discussing the respective merits of Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler.

    Reply
  4. Carlos

    How about if we absolutely hate- can not stand- folk music?
    I know I’m SUPPOSED to like it as a “clasically trained” musician, but I hate it and hate that fact that I’m supposed to ostensibly enjoy Time For Three and the Punch Brothers.

    Reply
  5. Ethan Joseph

    Carlos- Time For Three and Punch Brothers, though they use folk music as a point of departure, are more closely related to classical or contemporary jazz ensembles in their approach to composition and performance, in my opinion. Saying that you “hate” folk music seems to me similar to saying that you hate “contemporary music”. There is simply too much of it to categorically reject.

    Clarke – that event looks great, thanks for the tip! To your other point, I always admired Kreisler’s compositional inventiveness particularly in his cadenzas. Encouraging students to compose their own cadenzas is another good way to encourage musical creativity in classical pedagogy.

    Michael – Thanks for being you!

    James – As Michael said, you are spot on about the Scotch-Irish underpinnings of Appalachian fiddle music. (Bluegrass music takes those dance tunes and incorporates blues and gospel.) That said, though it stems from the British Isles, American fiddle playing is slightly different. The great American fiddle/mandolin player Sam Bush said that watching Irish fiddle playing makes him feel like a dog staring at a ceiling fan!

    Reply
  6. Roger

    On the subject of the relationship between Celtic and bluegrass fiddling, I find it interesting that Mairead Nesbitt, the dynamic fiddler of Celtic Woman, has acknowledged Alison Krauss as a major influence on her playing.

    Reply
  7. Rochelle

    As an enthusiastic follower of folk and classical music, I have to agree with you. I’m always surprised when I hear someone say they “hate” folk music, when 90% of the time they don’t even know what it is. Not all folk music is bluegrass, some of it is, but a great deal is not. It reminds me of the same types of people who say they hate classical music when they haven’t even listen to 99% of it. So you’d think classical fans would give it a chance…I personally enjoy ballads, but give me a riveting reel any day.
    I also agree that are focus on solely classical repertoire in some ways detaches us from the “experience” of music. One of the things I see lacking in a lot of musicians is improv, I think mainly because we’re so insecure about performing. Focusing on this is so important if one wishes to become a classical performer as opposed to a teacher. A good violin player is a dime a dozen, one must have something “special” that makes them stand out these days.
    Finally, a great deal of classical composers were inspired by folk tunes. Not just Dvorak and Bartok, but the origins of folk music had to come from somewhere. Most likely medieval troubadours and balladeers, court musicians, instrument makers, were all a part of the emergence of the music of the Renaissance. I find it baffling that classical music enthusiast wouldn’t have some burning curiosity about its origins.

    Reply

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