By Stephanie Powell
“I like to say we started the band because no one wanted to play as much fiddle music as we did,” five-string fiddler Rachel Baiman of 10 String Symphony says with a laugh over the phone from Nashville.
Suitably named for the number of strings animated by the duo’s playing—Baiman, who also occasionally adds flair with her five-string banjo, and bandmate Christian Sedelmyer both play a five-string fiddles—the ensemble released its second album Weight of the World in October and landed at No. 3 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Album chart for the week of November 28. Quite an exceptional feat for a semi-newfangled band and an album funded by an Indiegogo campaign.
“It’s cool to see that kind of support,” Baiman says of being pinned on the Billboard chart between Rhonda Vincent and the SteelDrivers, “and to be on that chart with the Punch Brothers—it’s a big deal. We’re a pretty new band so to sell that many albums is exciting.”
Baiman and Sedelmyer found one another during a jam session at The 5 Spot, a Nashville hotbed for old-time bluegrass fiddle music. While their musical upbringing differs—Baiman was an Illinois state old-time fiddle champion and Sedelmyer was trained in classical violin and Suzuki method—both were well-attuned and trained to play by ear.
The duo started out by busking on Broadway Street and playing at weddings. “It was pretty organic, a gradual process,” Baiman says of forming the band. “Both of us played four-string fiddles or violins growing up and we came to the five strings around the same time.”
What started as a pastime led to recording when the pair started to arrange original songs. Weight of the World is more polished, Baiman says, and infused with a songwriting process that taps into personal anecdotes. “We’ve really grown a lot as a band—the album is a lot more personal,” she says. “There’s a lot of original material and I think it’s reaching a lot of people because of that.”
Baiman describes the new album as stripped down and representative of a live show. “There’s a lot of strange chords in folk music and we try to really fill out the sound and be expressive in the choice of voicing and how we play the strings part,” she says. “We utilize percussive techniques with the fiddles that are starting to become more common in fiddle music, but they are still rare. It’s really crafting those songs in a way that they sound full and interesting.”
The concept behind the band, Baiman says, was to create full-sounding arrangements using fiddles and vocals. “We like to use a really wide harmonic palette,” she adds. “Sometimes it’s a bit stranger than what you would normally hear.” The arranging process for the string section is one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of the band, she adds.
“We do all of the arranging together and we do it all by ear. We don’t write anything out, we sit down with the basic song idea and try playing through it and we record everything. We improvise around ideas about what we can do with the song until we find something we like and then we say, ‘Oh my gosh what was that?! Stop!’
“It’s sort of like composing, but all by ear, so we have to go back and say, ‘OK what did I do there?’”
The five-string fiddles offer a vast range, which is ideal for the duo since it doesn’t have a bass, cello, or viola player. “[We] have great low-end support, but you can also take a solo on the high end, which is great for bluegrass and old time,” she says. “It really allows us to have that low-end range to support our vocals.”
What They Play
Rachel Baiman playsa five-string John Silakowski fiddle.
Christian Sedelmyer plays aBarry Dudley five-string fiddle.