By Megan Lynch Chowning
I have been teaching the fiddle for 30 years, and since the very beginning, I’ve focused the majority of my educational energy on danceability and groove and everything rhythmic. Traditional American fiddle music—whether it’s bluegrass, old-time, Texas style, or any other regional genre—is all about rhythm, and if you’re spying on any of my lessons, you will see me searching for every possible way to convey the importance of that rhythm to my students. Most of the time, at least one of my methods will unlock my student’s inner groove.
But then I met Jim Dunham.
Jim Dunham is, of course, not his real name, but this is his real story. He came to me because he loved to attend all the jams and festivals in his area and was ready to take his fiddling to the next level. During our first lesson I noticed that Jim had difficulty counting the proper number of beats in a measure. We would play simple tunes like “Soldier’s Joy” and he would shorten the longer notes. Sometimes he would just miss a beat here or there, but often he would turn a half note or even a whole note into an eighth note.
Rests were even more problematic. He mostly ignored them altogether.
I wasn’t the only person who noticed this rhythmic deficiency. I heard reports from other musicians that he couldn’t stay in time at jams and that people were starting to avoid him at gatherings. This made me sad. So we jumped right in and got to work.
We counted. We clapped. We hummed. We danced. And still, no improvement. We switched from instrumental tunes to singing songs, because I figured that if he had words and phrases to sing, it would help him hear and execute the timing properly. Nope. He just started singing the next phrase immediately after finishing the previous one, with no regard for the proper amount of space between the two.
We switched to playing and singing classic rock and pop songs—my theory being that he couldn’t possibly ignore the timing of songs he’d been listening to all of his life. Still no improvement. I learned to play the mandolin and guitar so I could play chords with him while singing the melodies loudly. He continued playing right along at his own pace—no rests, no half notes. It was astonishing, really. I was ready to give up and just ask people to be kind to him at jams, hoping that time would solve it, eventually.
A few months later, Jim started hosting a bluegrass jam class near his hometown. He asked if I would come lead a vocal harmony class, and I accepted. As I moved around the room, I spotted people ducking Jim and not including him in their singing groups. I debated whether to ignore it or call it out and try to get everyone on Team Jim Rhythm. I stood quietly and watched him try to sing. All of a sudden, something caught my eye. Jim was constantly looking around the room, his eyes darting from here to there and back again.
I finally knew what was wrong.
I gathered everyone together in a circle around Jim. I stood in front of him and grabbed his hands. I asked the guitar player to play the chords for the song we’d been singing and told Jim to close his eyes and sing with me. I guided him to sway back and forth as we sang the chorus in harmony—and in perfect rhythm. As the last note died out, the entire class erupted in cheers. People were crying and hugging Jim like crazy. He had finally found his key to unlocking the rhythm.
Jim is particularly susceptible to visual distractions; I’m sure there’s a medical term for it, but it is now one of the first things I look for with my students who are struggling with rhythm. I instinctively close my eyes when I’m playing to help me avoid visual distractions, but before Jim, I hadn’t ever thought to teach it specifically.
I’m sure it’s easier for fiddle players to adopt the closed-eyes solution, since we don’t use sheet music or rely on a conductor. But I think it is useful for anyone facing timing challenges to consider the impact of visual input. This teaching challenge resolved over ten years ago, and I’m pleased to report that Jim is still happily jamming, and even has a little band that plays at local wineries during the summer.
People often comment on how “into it” he looks when he’s playing.