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Talking About Fiddling with Darol Anger

darol anger fiddle

AW: What defines a fiddle? What makes it a fiddle vs. a violin or viola?

Darol: The difference between a fiddle and a violin, as famed jazz fiddler Johnny Frigo once told me, is "about $500 a week". Also nobody cares if you spill beer on a fiddle... If you're playing dance music or improvising any kind of popular music on a violin-shaped object, you're playing the fiddle. You can fiddle on anything; I've played good old Texas fiddle tunes on $400,000 Sradivariuses, and a 6 million dollar Guarneri (the Guarneri won).

That said, some VSOs (violin-shaped objects) sound better for fiddling than others. Generally, violins set up for classical music are optimized for maximum projection and brilliance, because most Western European Ethnic Music eschews amplification of any kind. Most working fiddlers play into a microphone or use a pickup to amplify the instrument, so most fiddlers prefer a mellow, smooth sound that doesn't sound screechy through speakers. Sometimes fiddlers will reduce the curve on the top of the bridge to make string crossing easier, since they aren't bearing down so hard with the bow, as a romantic-style classical player would.

AW: How long have you been playing fiddle?

Darol: I have been playing violin since the age of 9, a few months after failing to learn the acoustic guitar. I discovered fiddling at the age of 15 and never looked back after that-- moving from Rock and blues into jug band and then Bluegrass, Texas and Western styes, hot club jazz, then Dawg music… 51 years and counting.

AW: How did you get into it, what made you want to learn fiddle?

Darol: I wanted to be musician because of the Beatles, but the guitar was a lost cause so I switched to violin, just to be playing something. Then I went back to lead blues guitar for a year or so. But when I heard Richard Greene playing Orange Blossom Special with a slamming rock band, that was it for me.

AW: What are your all time favorite fiddle tunes?

Darol: My favorite fiddle tunes change a lot, but I'm always partial to Bill Cheatham, Old Dangerfield, Chinquapin Hunting, Elzic's Farewell, High Dad In The Morning, Grigsby's Hornpipe, Kissimee Kid, and a few I wrote. There are dozens more that I remember that I love when we start playing them.

Some fiddle tunes I've always played and have recently warmed up to a bit include Billy In The Low Ground, Crazy Creek, Farewell To Trion, Fire On The Mountain, Homer The Roamer, and Huckleberry Hornpipe. Generally, I prefer a longer form.

AW: What's your all time favorite kind of fiddle music to play?

Darol: I think my favorite fiddle music to play is whatever style I get to play with the really great players; they bring out a sense of wonder in the music that I live for. So many great styles: Blues, Bluegrass, Celtic (Scottish, Cape Breton, Irish) Appalachian Old-Time, Texas style, Cajun, Northeast, Metis, Freestyle.

AW: How old were you when you first starting playing fiddle with David Grisman? How did you first get involved with his Quintet?

Darol: I was 21 when I met and started playing with David Grisman. I was a fan of Vassar Clements with Old & In The Way, and was knocked out by David's concept on mandolin. I was playing and building mandolins too by then, so we met over a mandolin. I think David was charmed that somebody wanted to meet HIM and Vassar, and not Jerry Garcia. 

David had a short-lived group called the Great American Music Band with Richard Greene; I happened to have learned all the melodies to all those tunes and all of Richard's fiddle backup and solo parts from a live tape of the show I went to, so when I met David I was already ready to jam on his stuff.

darol anger mike marshall, the duoAW: When did you meet Mike Marshall and what were some of the first things you guys recorded together?

Darol: Mike sent us a cassette of himself playing all the parts on a bunch of DGQ tunes, and David invited him out from Florida, where Mike was teaching. He wasn't even 20 yet and had won all kinds of contests out there. The day Mike arrived, we jammed with him & David hired him on the spot to play on the Hot Dawg recording. The first tune Mike & I played together was Byron Berline's Huckleberry Hornpipe.

AW: When did you first start giving fiddle lessons?

Darol: I kind of eased sideways into fiddle lessons from giving fiddle workshops and clinics around DGQ and my own concerts. I think I was teaching group lessons at fiddle camps and clinics for at least 2 years before I ever gave a private fiddle lesson. It's still the most challenging thing I do.

AW: How was it been going with your online fiddle lessons? How does it compare to the fiddle instruction you give at Berklee College of Music? How is it watching their skills progress through these Video Exchanges?

Darol: The online fiddle school is a continual surprise and a joyful thing.  For a long time I dreamed of doing a "Fiddle Hour" radio show, like Marian McPartland did with piano… and now I have what amounts to my own television series!!! 

When I teach at Berklee, it's usual private sessions with students who show up at a pre-arranged time every week. It's very hands-on, and intense. There's somewhat of an agenda, based on the fact that they came to Berklee for the kind of comprehensive musical education that Berklee provides. It's amazing, but expensive; a student can spend $80,000 over a 4 year period.

The ArtistWorks fiddle lessons are more informal, and I can spend more time thinking about how to respond to a student. That way it's easier to focus on what needs to happen, and I can be more concise. It's an incredible feeling watching some of the students progress, especial the ones who might have been playing fiddle the same way for a long time. It's so exciting to see things finally change for them!

AW: What are some common issues you notice in the videos your students submit to you?

Darol:  Some of the common issues that I find myself addressing with my fiddle students involves simple technical issues that hold them back. The fiddle especially can be technically demanding instrument, and it's SO much easier to play it when you hold it right. Beyond that, the usual things: timing, intonation, musical ideas, what could be played, how to have more fun playing fidle.

AW: If someone is new to learning fiddle, what are some of the first things they should practice?

Darol: New fiddle players should try to spend time just holding the instrument and getting used to the position. It's not a normal way to hold your arms, neck, or head. but once you are comfortable with it, it makes things a lot easier. Also don't worry too much at first about getting a "beautiful" sound. That will come later. Just explore all the amazing sounds that this instrument can make.

AW: What is some advice you would give to someone looking to buy a fiddle? What is a good fiddle for beginners? What should people be looking for in a fiddle?

Darol: Buying a fiddle can be tough for a new player. It can be confusing for an experienced fiddle player also. I'd stay away from "collector" - type instruments, i.e. the ones that are pricey because they are old, or have some sort of story. If you can get a good, experienced player to come with you or come over and play the instrument, that can be really valuable, just to hear it from another angle. Try to generally avoid instruments that look like they've been smashed up or have extensive repairs, unless they're super-cheap. It should feel good and sound good to you, the fiddle player!

AW: Can you tell us a bit about some of the groups you're involved with now? There's Psychograss, Darol Anger and the Furies, The Republic of Strings, Darol Anger and Emy Phelps, the latest group E-and'a, what else are we missing?

Darol: Right now the groups I'm focusing on include Darol Anger & The Furies which highlights the amazing vocalist Emy Phelps, and my new hotshot group with Joe Walsh the mandolinist, Grant Gordy on guitar, and a number of excellent bassists… we're calling it Mr. Sun, I think. I still play shows with Mike Marshall, Tony Trischka, and my group the Republic of Strings. I just recorded a really fun instrumental bluegrass recording with some fantastic younger players who graduated from Berklee recently: Joe Walsh (The Gibson Brothers), Courtney Hartman, (DellaMae) and Lukas Pool (Steve Martin/Edie Brickell). That group is called E-and'a, after the way you count out eighth-notes when you're working out a groove.

AW: What are you currently working on?

Darol: I have a VERY full schedule this year, especially for a creaky old dude of 60. Full-time at Berklee, full-on on the ArtistWorks Online Fiddle school, full weekends on tour all over the Western Hemisphere, recording new projects like Mr Sun, E-and'a, the Furies, and having a family too really keeps things hopping around here. I'm hoping to do a LOT more fiddle interviews with more of the fiddle greats for ArtistWorks, and keep developing that program.

I would like to fill a big gap in contemporary Cello education by interviewing some of the absolutely incredible and brilliant cellists I've gotten to know and work with in recent years. I'll be performing some of my pieces with an orchestra at the 2014 American String Teacher Convention in Louisville, KY. We played a ton of big festivals and fiddle camps this last summer, and hope to continue that trend next year.

darol anger and the republic of strings

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