Alasdair Fraser’s Scottish fiddling camp focuses on teaching music by ear
By Stephanie Powell
“I talk about the tyranny of the written page—so many musicians come to me and to [Valley of the Moon] saying I just want to play from the heart, I just want to express myself,” says Alasdair Fraser, Scottish fiddler and founder of Valley of the Moon summer-study camp. “[They say], ‘I want to play the tunes I heard my grandmother sing,’ and they can’t because they’ve been trained to read music and they’ve developed a dependency on it. So, what happens when you take that away is that it’s scary in the beginning, and then you start to grow your wings.”
For a week in late August in the heart of central California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, fiddlers, cellists, guitarists, percussionists, pianists, dancers, and vocalists gather for Fraser’s Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School. It’s a camp open to all ages, Fraser stresses, and it fosters an inclusive environment—a departure from the customary competitive nature of classical-music camps.
“When you let people have their own space and you believe in them, amazing things happen,” Fraser says. “You get this village where people start taking care of each other. [It’s] what I call a safe zone. The camp becomes an extremely safe bubble and people can let their guard down. A lot of it is about creating an environment that is specifically nonjudgmental, noncompetitive, and inclusive. People are often in tears because they say, ‘I’ve never been allowed to do that before.’”
Up the winding, narrow streets that lead to the top of the Berkeley Hills in the San Francisco Bay Area, a cast of musicians with diverse backgrounds has gathered for the first time just six hours before they are due to hit the stage at Freight & Salvage, a Berkeley nonprofit arts venue, for the 27th annual Fiddle Summit. The fiddle fest, a concert put on by the camp instructors, kicks off Fraser’s Valley of the Moon summer camp. Arranged in a circle, tuning to key, sit cellists Natalie Haas and Rushad Eggleston, Swedish fiddlers Anders Hall and Adam Johansson, tambourinist Jens Linell, Dublin fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, and singer and composer Moira Smiley. “Can you give us the official A?” Fraser asks me. “I’m going to put you to work.”
I’ve inadvertently placed myself on the piano bench to observe, and meet his request with a blank stare—never have I been more regretful to have rejected my grandma’s offering of piano lessons in the third grade. With a warm smile, Fraser approaches the piano and hits his mark without even looking at the keys, and the musicians tune their instruments. He begins playing a melody, eyes closed and with his left foot stomping the beat. Like a game of telephone, each musician joins in and expands on the passage.
Today is the first time most of the musicians have played the song, and, for a handful of them, it’s the first time they have ever met. Yet as the tune evolves, a rich complexity emerges: the cellists enter with modest pizzicato to build upon the intricate fiddle passages; percussive dancer Nic Gareiss has moved the hallway rug to tap along with his feet, contributing a shuffling figure to the mix. Standing next to an empty wooden music stand, Fraser watches and listens to his peers and the progression. With his reddish-brown patchwork fiddle in hand, Fraser rejoins the circle, clad in hiking boots, ready to continue climbing. “Can we get festive at the end,” he asks with a sly grin, “or is that too predictable?”
From across the room cellist Natalie Haas, who has been teaching at the camp since 2002, exchanges a smile with Fraser. She knows what to expect—Haas and her sister, fiddler Brittany Haas, attended the camp for the first time when Natalie was 11 and Brittany was just nine.
“There are many of us in my age group that grew up going to the camp and are now professional musicians because of it,” Natalie says, sitting in a room adjacent to the jam session, where music is still trickling on. “It’s really influenced our views on life, and on music in general. The camp made it kind of possible to even think of music as a career. There weren’t a lot of people doing cello and Scottish music at the time.” There has been a huge growth in the cello community at the camp, Haas says, since she first attended in 1995. Teaching the cello as an accompaniment instrument is a substantial part of her curriculum.
“We’ll be learning the same tunes that the fiddlers are learning and some more cello-specific tunes, too,” she says of her teaching plans for the 2015 summer-camp attendees. “[We’ll be] talking about how to use the cello as an accompaniment instrument and accompanying fiddle tunes, but also how to develop its own voice and explore all of the possibilities of what can be done with the instrument. “For me this music is really about rhythm because it’s so closely associated with dance music. At the camp there’s a lot of dancing and singing, as well as playing instruments.” Rhythm is something Haas says is a “foreign concept” for many classically trained musicians. “That’s something we’re really going to be spending a lot of time talking about.”
Transitioning from student to teacher has been an exceptional journey for Haas. “It was a pretty special way to grow up. It’s unlike anything else,” she says, “where you have students of all age groups, levels, and ability playing together in the same place. And it’s neutral, noncompetitive, nurturing, and nonjudgmental—which is very unusual in the string world.
“There are students, the younger kids, that I’ve seen grow up there,” Haas continues. [Playing by ear] is just completely normal to them—they’ve never known anything else. It’s just amazing to witness.”
Playing by ear, Fraser says, is a skill that is fundamental to the camp experience. “When you learn by ear you become a much more useful musician. Your ear is trained and if a singer says, ‘Can you come and play on my album?’ You say yes—you don’t say, ‘Do you have the music?’
“You become a relativistic string player,” he says. “You’re not thinking absolute notes—you’re thinking general intervals. The interval between the note I just played and the note I need to play next, and that becomes a moveable skeleton so you can change keys more easily when you learn by ear.” The camp is a full-immersion experience with participants and instructors living, learning, and playing together—all by ear without any written music. Part of the instruction revolves around comparing notes with other players of all skill levels. “The people here are extremely fluent in their own genre,” Fraser says. “That’s part of the education—to sit down next to someone who has fluency and compare notes, look at bow arms, ornamentation, and ways of entering and spending time on notes.”
Fraser also stresses “developing fluency in fiddle language,” or the ability to play one’s instrument in different traditions or styles. “I can play my violin in Gaelic, French, German, or in Scottish. It’s never generic,” he says. “I love to contrast styles and dialects.”
His curiosity on this matter is what originally led him to establish Valley of the Moon. “I wanted to explore that. I found a bunch of kindred spirits and we went into the woods.”
It’s a concept that Fraser has made sure to incorporate into all of his camps—Valley of the Moon isn’t Fraser’s only venture. He has also founded fiddle camps in Spain, on the Isle of Skye, in Scotland, and in the Sierra Mountains of Northern California. “I sat down in my school in Spain with a native Hungarian fiddle teacher,” he says. “I was amazed at the richness in his left hand, which is often not encouraged or available in our modern string teaching. A lot of what I call fiddle language has been removed, so we’ve ended up with a lot of cleaned up players with excellent technique, intonation, and nice tone.
“Not to be disparaging of that—I love all the classical works, but when we’re playing traditional music it has to be imbued with the river it came from to continue that great river of sound that has been for centuries. It’s a rich journey.”
For Valley of the Moon, part of that passage includes combining music with dance, Fraser says. “The idea from the beginning was to combine the music with the dance and language, so there’s a whole vision to explore the music, and to encourage and enable people to find their own voice in vernacular violin and traditional playing,” he says. “To do that you have to get fluency in different languages and dialects. I talk about speaking ‘fluent fiddle’ and how many languages you can be fluent in on your instrument. [Learning by ear] is a whole different approach from modern Western classical approach.”
Camp participants should expect an atmosphere that is conducive to learning, yet remains spirited, Fraser adds. “I believe in being playful and being a bit mad. There’s this layer of burden that falls away and the [students] say, ‘You mean I just get to be me here?’ It’s raw, emotional, and it’s creative so people often achieve their personal bests.
“I’m not leading a charge against written music—it’s a very useful thing, but at this camp we can see people as they grow their wings,” he says. “They begin to form confidence around their own bow arm—their own musical ideas. Their eyes burn brighter, and they see the effects on the dance floor—their energy changes and it’s quite cathartic. It’s beautiful and it’s great fun.”
“Once you start putting duct tape on your cello, it becomes a lot easier to put a lot more duct tape on it,” says cellist Rushad Eggleston, as we sit across from one another on the floor of the backstage hallway at Freight & Salvage.
“I have wireless transmitters so I can move about freely with no cables, so I duct tape those in the C-nooks of the cello,” he says. “That’s the only place that they’re safe because sometimes during shows I lie down, play on my back, and slither around like a snake.”
It makes sense—Eggleston, a virtuosic player who was trained in Suzuki method and received the first full-ride scholarship to the Berklee School of Music, is known for his eccentric behavior and originality. (For example, his YouTube video for “I Peed on a Bird,” an Eggleston original, has garnered 25,000 hits.) He’s clad in an elf hat adorned with purple and turquoise leopard-print duct tape. He’s taped a kazoo to the scroll of his cello. You’ll often find him updating his Facebook page or tweeting in “Sneth,” a language he’s coined and often uses to write his songs.
It’s his first time teaching cello as a camp instructor at Valley of the Moon, where his wild imagination and creativity will certainly be welcomed and appreciated. He made a surprise cameo at VOM a few years back, and he was taken with the camp’s ethos. “The kids seem relaxed and they’re not stressed out because there’s not this insane workload and task masters bearing down on them,” he says. “It seems like the music is really a part of their life; it’s not this old dusty thing that they’re trying to figure out—it’s this living, breathing thing. It’s a living tradition—that’s the way with oral traditions—they pass down the music by ear for centuries.”
Eggleston is no stranger to summer-study camps—he’s been an instructor at Mark O’ Connor’s fiddle camps, as well as Mike Block’s String Camp, and grew up attending classical-music camps. “Classical-music camps were really, really intense,” he says. “I wish I had the chance to attend fiddle camps as a kid, and had an atmosphere where it’s a lot looser and you learn to play by ear.”
For his inaugural teaching stint at VOM, Eggleston is very much interested in the unexpected. “I’m most looking forward to having an experience that I couldn’t have imagined,” he says.
“Usually if someone is hiring me, they know me well enough that they know they’re not going to just get somebody who is going to show someone how to play the cello,” he adds.
“They’re maybe hiring me because they want somebody to inspire the students in a different way ‘cuz I’m weird, quite weird. I think they understand that so it’s nice for me to feel like I’m bringing something unique to the table. I’m kind of the wild card in their deck—a joker.”