tunebook 1 tune.
I’ve sung and played musical instruments (starting with piano) throughout my 67+ years and have danced squares and contras since I was around 8.
I grew up in an extended family and social circle of excellent harmony signers who gathered for singing parties many weekends throughout the year. In grammar school, I was sometimes scolded for harmonizing (fairly well, I was later told) when the music teachers sought unison melody singing.
I played trumpet from 4th to 10th grade. I still have this largely-ignored instrument and sometimes imagine playing it again. Sometime around 8th or 9th grade, a neighbor gave me a bedraggled Fairbanks Vega banjo-mandolin with a Tu-Ba-Phone rim. I plunked around on this quite a lot before, in 1966 (much to the relief of everyone within earshot), falling in love with the guitar. After (barely) managing to graduate from Springfield College in 1970, I played guitar and banjo-mandolin in folk ensembles and bar bands in Maine and Vermont. With these instruments, I began sitting in at contras around 1973. In 1974, my classical violinist housemate in Burlington gave me her spare fiddle as a birthday present.
I was fortunate to be part of a circle of Burlingtonian friends who hosted and attended music parties on multiple evenings of any given week. I’ll forever grateful to Pete Sutherland, Joel Eckhaus, Sid Blum, Hilary Woodruff, Jerry Falkenburg, and others who encouraged me to play along on these occasions. I’m sorry to report that my old violinist housemate no longer plays, but I’ll always be grateful to her for the path in life which her generosity allowed me to follow.
I began calling contras in 1980 at the Guiding Star Grange Hall in Greenfield, Massachusetts, USA. Until 2014, I organized, called, and played at this now renowned dance venue every other Friday and often danced there on other nights. Why that changed is complicated.
In the summer of 1978, I played fiddle with the Green Mountain Volunteers, a Vermont-based music and dance performance group which took part the International Festival of Folklore and Folkdance in Burgas, Bulgaria. Groups from 21 other countries were involved. We spent a lot of high quality time performing and socializing with the nice folks in Västerdala Folkdanslag from western Dalarna in Sweden.
I had heard and rather platonically admired Swedish fiddle music, but during that festival, it became a vital part of my life. I’ve visited, hosted, and played a lot with musicians from (mostly) the towns of Malung, Äppelbo, Vansbro, and Dala-Järna along the Västerdalälven river. I occasionally share some of the tunes and turning dances I learned there.
Since 1995, when home in Montague Center, I’ve hosted a Monday night session on 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th Mondays in my residence’s common space. Although the repertoire is probably well over 50% Irish, this is not an Irish Session. We play tunes from many sources including our own local tunes. We tend to play many repetitions of most tunes, often starting at very relaxed tempos, exploring harmonies and chordal story-lines interactively, striving for (and often achieving) whole-group musicality. Medleys are rare. Tune presentations and suggestions materialize spontaneously whenever anyone’s so inclined, and we try to make sure that even the shyest and least skilled players have opportunities to present or request tunes.
Ideally, I’d play in several friendly sessions every week week and go to at least two dances, there to play half the night, dance half the night, and have as much money in my pocket when I return home as I had when I departed.
In 2013, I followed in the footsteps of Sarah Hotchkiss, who retired after 10 years, into the directorship of the Vermont Fiddle Orchestra. Sarah’s are big shoes to fill; she’s the full monte of music leadership, a rich source of tunes, tone, taste, knowledge, kindness, thoroughness, inventiveness, persistence, patience, and gentle leadership style. The VFO consists of fiddlers, flute and whistle players, mandolinists, guitarists, a cellist, a bassist, occasionally a keyboard player; it welcomes all. There are no chair tests or auditions. Rank beginners sit next to seasoned veterans. Everyone is in it for fun, learning, and shared beauty. I’m lucky to work with and for these great people.
I think of myself as a competent, growing musician, a composer of modest output, a good teacher, and a deep lover of music.