The first summer classical music festival I went to on my own was in Taos, NM and I remember that first morning, being awoken by the robust sounds of my next door neighbor practicing an Ysaye solo sonata that I was also working on. She sounded so good and I was immediately stressed out. I hopped out of bed, took a 5 minute shower and went straight to my case to practice, too. For the next hour, we played the same piece, side by side, in our separate rooms.
My first day of class at a non-classical music camp, the students sat around listening as one of the faculty members taught us a tune by ear. We had recording devices and notebooks but no sheet music. Some people picked up the tunes quickly, others less quickly. Over the course of the class, I looked around and saw that there was one person in the group that seemed to be picking things up the quickest and also seemed the most experienced. After class, I went up to him (the awesome Taylor Morris)and he sat with me for 20 minutes, teaching me a couple of tunes and giving me tips on bowing styles.
Fiddle learning vs. Classical violin learning
Herein lies one major difference between these two styles of learning. Because folk music is an aural tradition, the educational process is embedded in a culture of sharing. If I want to learn a tune, I need you to sit down with me and play with me. If I want to teach that same tune to someone else, I have to sit down with that person and do the same thing, and so on.
This need to share builds a sense of community and an openness that struck me as being at odds with the classical music culture. The practice rooms at Juilliard are mostly windowless, except for these skinny, rectangular windows that look out onto the hallways – hence its nickname, the Jailyard School.
A common practice room phenomenon is when you get this eerie sense that someone is watching you, as you’re wailing away on some impossible passage in Brahms or whatever. So you turn to look and you lock eyes with someone peering in through the tiny window. Then, the person outside slips away, like it never happened. If you were on the inside or the outside of that room, it was an equally discomfiting experience.
Most of the times when it was me doing the spying, it was because they were playing a piece that I was working on and sounded awesome. In a folk music setting, I’d probably knock on the door and say, ‘hey, you sound amazing. Mind if we jam?’ At Juilliard, I’d rush back to my room to practice, sweating bullets.
This is not to say that there isn’t competitive spirit in folk music; that would be naïve. There are tons of fiddle contests and jazzers are some of the most competitive people I know. And I realize that I’m romanticizing non-classical music cultures because I don’t know them as well.
Compassionate learning and competitive learning: Can they co-exist?
But I remember before I went to folk music camp, I started taking lessons with an old-time fiddler who lived in my town. He was this gentle old man who didn’t know how to read music but played in a local bluegrass band. My lessons with him were often the highlight of my week, a respite from the classical music grind. And I found that my ears always felt like they’d woken up after an hour or two of playing with him, because I wasn’t relying on sheet music.
And the nicest thing was, I never felt like I had to prove anything to him nor him to me.
We were just there to jam.