SPOTLIGHT: Sara Watkins on Passing Music Person-to-Person
Photo by Jacob Boll
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sara Watkins is No Depression‘s Spotlight artist for March 2021. Read our feature story about her and her new album, Under the Pepper Tree (out March 26), and look for more from Sara all month long.
A few years ago I became a mom. With parenthood, I’ve experienced the typical re-evaluation of my own childhood as I consider how I can give my daughter experiences that will teach her about the beauty in life, but also about respect, humility, patience, hard work, and perseverance. I have been taught these traits through the ever-present challenges and rich culture built around playing fiddle tunes.
When I was a kid, trying to fit in at school, my social life was confusing and not terribly enjoyable, but on weekends I was welcomed into a bluegrass scene and I felt loved and accepted, but also like maybe I had something I could contribute. It started with lessons and local shows, and eventually progressed into family trips to festivals. There were campgrounds, competitions, and friends to stay up late and jam on fiddle with. We woke in our tents ready for more, and always knew it was Sunday when we were pulled out of sleep to the sound and smell of a truck pumping out the contents of the port-a-potties.
When I was 13, I attended Mark O’Connor’s fiddle camp and the doors to learning blew wide open for me. Mark is a legendary musician and I was thrilled to be able to attend. My mom, my brother Sean, and I loaded into our Ford Aerostar and drove for three days from San Diego to Nashville. Along the way, my mom got out the Motel 6 catalog to find a not-too-sketchy listing for us to stop each night. When we finally arrived, I discovered there were 200 other students at fiddle camp. We were placed two to a cabin, checked ourselves constantly for chiggers, and watched out for poison ivy. We would set our alarm before dawn to make a trek over the hill, towel and soap in hand, to the bathrooms — the earlier the better if you wanted hot water.
In the first few days of camp we all got to be in two classes with every teacher. It was an incredible opportunity with a huge range of styles. Buddy Spicher taught classic country fiddling with gorgeous double and triple-stops. Paul Peabody taught classical violin pieces and techniques. Liz Carroll introduced many of us to joyful Irish fiddling. Matt Glaser kicked our butts with jazz and theory. Dale Morris Jr. taught Texas fiddling (which was the preferred style in all the serious competitions), and in the evenings we took a master class from Mark O’Connor himself.
Every single student had a tape recorder. And, believe me, we recorded everything (SO many batteries), but much of what I keep with me are the lessons that never made it onto tape. In one of Matt Glaser’s classes, a student asked what to do when you can’t find the note you’re looking for. Matt looked amused and said, “The fingerboard is only 14 inches long. The note is there somewhere. Find it.” I still repeat the sentiment to myself. Stop and figure out what you want to fix.
The most common way tunes are taught is with call and response. Someone plays a phrase, you try to play it back, they add to it, and you play it back. It’s terrific for ear training and reflexes. Liz Carroll’s Irish fiddle class was always packed. She often started by teaching a tune and asking us to sing it like a call and response using the Irish-y “De-da-diddley-dum.” Her thinking was if you can sing it, you can learn to play it. In fact, improvisation isn’t far from playing tunes in your head. Jenny Anne Mannan, my dear friend from camp, remembered Mark O’Connor once describing the entry point of improvisation by saying, “Instead of thinking of it as a spontaneous composition, it’s a spontaneous variation.” Start small, and as your skill improves, learn to trust yourself more. Improvising a solo in real time can feel like a wild ride and you might not know how it will end until you’re at the finish line.
We ate our meals in the mess hall and at night we’d often be visited by a flock of beautiful song-bird musicians from Nashville — John Hartford, Claude “Fiddler” Williams, Vassar Clements — it was fiddle heaven. One night Matt Glaser and Claude Williams played simple blues with a few of the more advanced campers … kids trying out all their jazz licks, playing out, double time, and really going for it. I was blown away. At one point, the legendary Claude Williams stepped up and leaned on a single note for his whole solo. He dragged his bow across the strings in such a way — maybe he wiggled that note around a little — but never changed the note, as if to say, it’s not what you play, it’s how you play it. His solo was the deepest thing I heard that night, and the only solo I remember.
Fiddle camp was one week, but it felt like a year. The following summer I returned with all the “I know where the bathroom is” confidence of a sophomore. That’s when I found myself transfixed by the teaching of Darol Anger and Natalie MacMaster. I also parked myself in Paul Peabody’s class and promptly asked to start up classical violin lessons as soon as I got home.
Learning directly from my mentors is something that as a kid I took for granted. It isn’t just at camp that real-deal professional players make themselves available to aspiring musicians. At nearly any bluegrass festival you can track down your favorite musician and ask them a question or maybe even get to play with them. Deep in this culture is a tradition of person-to-person teaching. This requires humility and respect from both parties. These days, if I’m sharing what I’ve learned with a curious musician, I can feel the richness of the full circle because it honors my teachers, acknowledges the importance of the student, and recognizes the potential of the music.
Now, as I consider my daughter’s childhood, it occurs to me just how fundamental those times were for me. Being at festivals, learning directly from people who had dedicated so much time and love learning their craft, shaped me as a musician and human. I can’t recreate it for her, the best I can do is improvise. Guess I’ll have to let you know how it ends.