About a month ago, I received an invitation to visit with the Strawberry Hill Fiddlers and teach their fiddle students about bluegrass music. As a Strawberry Hill Fiddlers alumnus, I jumped at the opportunity to bring bluegrass to the Strawberries at one of their regular Tuesday rehearsals in Lagrangeville. After some coordination with the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association’s Blue Mask Boys, our house band which has been graced by a number of fine local pickers and HVBA friends, we were off to the races, and set a date on October 17th.
The Strawberry Hill Fiddlers are a part of the Stringendo, Inc., a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that has been active in the Hudson Valley for over two decades. Stringendo—a musical term meaning “gradually get faster and more intense”—is composed of six chamber string orchestras at varying skill levels, including elementary students all the way up to high school students. Its sister program, the Strawberry Hill Fiddlers, are structured in much the same way, from the entry-level Boysenberries to the most advanced Strawberries. Compared to Stringendo’s orchestras which focus on classical music learned from the page, the “Berries” instead focus on learning world fiddling styles by ear—such as Scottish, Flamenco, Swedish, French Canadian, and of course, bluegrass fiddling.
Teaching classically trained young violin, viola, cello, and bass players to learn by ear is a huge deal, and is somewhat uncommon in the world of strings pedagogy. Ear training techniques help students identify harmonies, expand their knowledge of world musics, become improvisers—and even help them become more thoughtful and insightful musicians in orchestral settings. As a graduate of both the Stringendo orchestra program and the Strawberry Hill Fiddlers, I can attest to the symbiotic relationship of these two instructional settings: as a young violist and violinist, the skills I gained in learning fiddle tunes by ear were an incredible boon to my experience playing in orchestras, pit bands, and string quartets during the course of my musical career.
The Strawberry Hill Fiddlers program is also the reason I became a bluegrass musician—and eventually got involved with the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association. Chelsea Needham, a former Strawberry herself and now the leader of the Strawberry Hill Fiddlers, was someone I idolized when I was a young fiddle student, eager to ramp up my fiddling chops to the level of the bigger kids. I met several HVBA all-stars through the Strawberry Hill Fiddlers program, including board member Eric Marshall, and multi-instrumentalist phenom Frank Kara—who supported the Blue Mask Boys on mandolin this past Tuesday—while they served in accompanist roles for the Fiddlers. In fact, when I was maybe 11 or 12 years old, I walked up to Frank and asked “what’s that?”, pointing at his Sheraton brown Lawrence Smart-made F5 mandolin. He taught me what a mandolin was; I begged my parents for one; they got me one after copious cajoling; and the rest is history.
My first exposure to bluegrass was also in the Strawberry Hill Fiddlers. As little Berries, we learned a few bluegrass-adjacent standards like “Dry and Dusty,” “Catharsis,” “Ashokan Farewell,” and others. As bigger Berries, we were truly introduced to bluegrass with singin’ songs like Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen,” the Carter Family’s “My Native Home,” and the Delmore Brothers’ “Blues Stay Away From Me.” To me, these songs stood out head and shoulders above the rest of the fiddle tunes and songs we learned—and after learning these songs, I knew I specifically wanted to become a bluegrass musician.
With that experience in mind, I was thrilled at the prospect of bringing the Blue Mask Boys—now the HVBA’s de facto bluegrass educational unit—to play for the Strawberry Hill Fiddlers and expand their repertoire with some traditional bluegrass. Alongside Frank and myself, HVBA board members Andy Bing and Pete Conklin joined the effort on dobro and bass respectively, and Too Blue banjo player Joan Harrison helped round out the five-piece.
We started our evening with the Berries with a performance of some bluegrass standards for some of the younger groups of Berries, including “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” and more, interspersed with anecdotes about the roles and mechanics of each instrument—especially the mysterious dobro, which many of the students were most curious about.
The Blue Mask Boys then proceeded to form up a big circle with the Strawberries to teach them a bluegrass song. We had pre-selected Bill Monroe’s classic “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight,” and used the Bluegrass Album Band’s version for reference. (We chose this song largely because of its thematic appropriateness, as it was one of only a small number of bluegrass songs that feature three-part harmonies but not, for example, murder or prison or moonshining or… you get the point.)
After the Blue Mask Boys performed the song—with myself singing baritone, Frank singing melody, and Joan singing tenor—we broke the students into three groups, one for each vocal part. We then proceeded to teach the tune phrase by phrase, in much the same way as I remembered tunes and songs being taught to us when I was a Strawberry. Working line by line at a reduced tempo, we worked through the A and B vocal parts to each third of the group, putting the components together once all three harmony parts had been learned to reinforce what we’d taught as we advanced through the form. Finally, once the students had learned the song’s lyrics in all of their triple harmonic glory, I picked up my fiddle to teach Bobby Hicks’ classic fiddle intro to the song.
Once all of the components were assembled, the Strawberries played “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight” in its entirety, almost as if they had known it their whole lives—what a sight! There’s nothing quite like watching a group of talented young musicians, most of whom grew up learning music exclusively from the page, learn a tune in a matter of minutes and then be able to perform it with such confidence and finesse. The Blue Mask Boys were thoroughly impressed with the show from the Strawberries. We then proceeded to play two bluegrass tunes that the Strawberries had learned—John Hartford’s “Squirrel Hunters” and Bill Monroe’s “Road to Columbus”—in classic bluegrass jam format, allowing some of the Fiddlers to show off their budding improvisation chops, before we concluded.
The experience of returning to the Strawberry Hill Fiddlers left me with a lot of thoughts to chew on. The first is that exposure to the genre is extraordinarily important for these young musicians—bluegrass definitely isn’t for everyone, but I could definitely see and feel the spark of enthusiasm in many of the Fiddlers as we sang and fiddled our way through a classic bluegrass number. It reminded me of how I felt when I learned what a G-run was and when I learned “Uncle Pen” as a Strawberry over a decade ago.
The second is that, with the right combination of exposure and talent, the future of bluegrass is incredibly bright. The Strawberry Hill Fiddlers’ students were all inquisitive, curious, and eager to learn about not only bluegrass fiddling but the supporting instruments as well. If we encourage these students to continue to explore the big wide world of bluegrass, they will undoubtedly become not only its next generation of participants and jammers, but also its next generation of stewards and leaders.
The last thought I had was that I owe a whole lot to the Strawberry Hill Fiddlers. Although I never felt fully at home in the world of classical music, I always felt that there was a musical home for me in the multifaceted, complex, invigorating, hypersocial, and constructive world of fiddling. I hope many of the Strawberry Hill Fiddlers’ current crop of fiddlers feel the same, and that their visit with the bluegrass-pickin’ Blue Mask Boys helped make their home in the world of fiddling feel just a little bit bigger.