By Karen Peterson | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
From childhood, there was no doubt that Deborah Greenblatt would become a classical violinist, and she did. With a Bachelor of Music degree from the Boston University College of Fine Arts, Greenblatt joined orchestras in Maine, North Carolina, Florida, and, finally, Nebraska in 1976, where she was second violinist with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra. It was her last classical gig. By the late 1970s, she was fully a fiddler.
There were hints from the beginning that the classics might not stick. Notably as a teenager, when the Massachusetts native bought a fiddle lesson book following her family’s annual trek to the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. Book in hand, her violin teacher at the time was less than thrilled when she asked if he could explain some of the techniques. “It was my first introduction to pedagogy,” deadpans Greenblatt, whose humor and ready laugh are as lively as her music.
After two years with the Omaha orchestra, Greenblatt quit. Considering her alternatives, she noticed a want ad for a fiddler in a local bluegrass band. She answered the ad and four months later Greenblatt was in the band and married to the harmonica player, David Seay.
Greenblatt and Seay (as Greenblatt & Seay) are mainstays in the robust folk and bluegrass community across Nebraska, teaching (today on Zoom), performing (together and separately), composing more than 100 original tunes, running fiddle workshops and competitions, and entertaining school children and teens, to date counting more than 1,500 school appearances. The first woman to win the Nebraska State Fiddling Championship, Greenblatt has also won the Mid-America Fiddle Championship, and is inducted into the Mid-America Old-Time Fiddler’s Hall of Fame.
In other words, Greenblatt is no stranger to the world of competitions and performance—and neither is her former student, MaryPat Kleven. Today, as president of the Minnesota State Fiddlers Association, which sponsors numerous competitions and fiddler events, Kleven assures me that if anyone understands the art of performance, it’s Greenblatt. With her classical training and fiddling experience, “Debby is able to give excellent instruction in the actual technique of playing as well as in the style and history of the tunes being taught.” Here, Greenblatt is happy to share some tips about how to prepare for a fiddle contest.
First Ask Yourself “Why?” You Want to Join a Fiddle Competition
The first thing Greenblatt advises is to consider the why: “Why are you putting yourself through this?” Is entering a competition about “the glory, the fame, the trophy, the money,” if by chance a cash prize is offered? It’s a trick question, of course, because Greenblatt is underlining, first, that “you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously,” and second, that the real value, as she has experienced over and over, is that competitions allow players to make contact with other fiddle players. If, after asking yourself this question, you feel that you’ve come to a satisfactory answer, here are seven things you should do to make the most of the experience.
1. Know the Music
Competitions generally consist of three categories of tunes, including hoedown and waltz, plus, in many cases, a “category of choice,” which could range from blues and ragtime to jigs and schottisches. While it may seem like a no-brainer, Greenblatt underscores that studying the rules and what to expect on performance day “allows you to be prepared for whatever comes your way—and to be prepared accurately.”
2. Have a Plan B
Always have a Plan B for the tunes you’re planning to play. Perhaps you’ll find yourself following a player who did a terrible version of “Boil Them Cabbage Down,” which you were also planning to perform. “You don’t want to step up and play a terrific version, do you, and make the guy feel bad?” questions Greenblatt. Go for an alternate, your Plan B tune.
It works the other way too, she adds. Maybe you’re following someone who does a spot-on version of “Cotton Patch Rag.” Maybe it’s not worth the performance pressure for you to dive into your own version. Change it up. A Plan B tune can save the day.
In the meantime, adds Greenblatt, and as a matter of course, “constantly review the tunes you think you know. Make them more difficult, “like doubling down on the slurs.” If you truly want to test your ad hoc performance mettle—as Greenblatt often does with her students—change the key and keep on practicing. “Oh, they hate that,” says Greenblatt of her students, adding with a chuckle, “It’s fun to watch.”
3. Plan for Mistakes
It’s one thing to practice and miss a beat—and another to know that something is going terribly wrong with the song when you’re onstage. You can’t stop playing to fix it. “You have to keep playing,” says Greenblatt. The trick is to acknowledge ahead of time that things happen “and have an escape route.” Like jumping right in with “a ton of double-stops. You have to play through your mistakes and then forget about it.”
4. Make the Smart Decision
Competitions tend to ban tuning instruments onstage prior to the performance. That can lead to disaster. As Greenblatt notes, “The place where you’re waiting before the performance can have a different temperature and humidity level than where you’ll be playing.”
So, what’s to be done?
It’s certainly up to the player, but Greenblatt suggests that “if you don’t care about the rules and know your instrument is terribly out of tune, then tune it there and then,” adding, “The judges may not like it [and judge you harshly], but the audience will be very grateful that you did.”
5. Play to the Crowd
The above advice on going rogue with the rules brings up another dilemma. As Greenblatt lays it out, “Are you playing for the judges or the audience?” Of course, in a competition you are playing for the judges, yet it’s also true that a musician’s first loyalty is to the audience. It’s important, says Greenblatt, to always “acknowledge the audience and somehow bring them into your performance. That is a very good thing to do.”
That’s why Greenblatt and Seay dress up for the part when they play. “Lots of guys are in Western wear and women in prairie dresses,” she says. “It helps with the mood—and it doesn’t hurt your chances.” Players often get points for presentation. Another upside: “If you played really badly but had fun onstage, told stories about the tunes, and got some laughs, you will get good points”—and enjoy yourself, to boot.
6. Ditch the Sheet Music
As for sheet music versus memorizing your tunes, most competitions nix sheet music for the latter, so be prepared to, yes, practice, practice, practice. The more you practice, says Greenblatt, the better your memory becomes. One advantage of playing by memory, she adds, “You can watch the audience and their reactions. You can see if you are reaching them.” Also remember that whether it’s a contest or busking on the street, “you might be the first live musician a baby has ever seen or heard.” Make it memorable!
7. Take Nothing for Granted
Lastly, even if you play impeccably and your stage presence is as perfect as can be, try not to rest on your laurels. Greenblatt admits to being skeptical about the results of every one of her many performances. “Skepticism drives us to practice more. Skepticism pushes us to continue preparing for our next performance.”