Swing Week at Augusta and More

by Marty Laster



In July 2004, I had the privilege of teaching swing fiddle at the Augusta Heritage music camp (in Elkins, W. Virginia) for the first time. I had six students, all but one of whom had minimal or no experience with improvising. The week taught me much as a teacher. I had doubts about the musical compatibility of a classical virtuoso, an old timey fiddler a talented teen-age lad, in addition to a fine improviser (the ringer in the class). I also questioned what we could accomplish in six days time.

By the end of the week, I saw exciting signs that most of the students were incorporating the ideas we worked on in the different bands they were assigned to after our morning class. I wanted to think that my teaching expertise brought them to this point. After all, I came over-prepared with an arsenal of pentatonic and blues scales, bowing techniques and ways of incorporating modes and chromatic ideas. Then some personal thoughts and memories began to burst my own bubble.

You see, when I started improvising some 30 years ago, there were no instruction books or, to my knowledge, classes. I jammed and picked more experienced player's brains. My skills developed slowly but not necessarily steadily.

In retrospect, I would say that there are three basic principles to learning to improvise or for that matter, playing any kind of fiddle. If you are lucky enough to have found the right teacher, these principles go hand in hand with your instruction.

1) Play a lot! -There is no replacement for playing and rehearsing with a band at least 10 hours a week. Play tunes with totally different keys, timing and feel.

2) Exploring - The idea of exploring new ideas and falling flat on your face is important. No baby learns to walk without falling dozens of times What you do at a concert (gig) can be seen as work in progress-not the final product. I was lucky to have played with Bela Fleck in our first Bluegrass band in the 70's (Wicker's Creek). Bela, who was 16 at the time, was always experimenting and, I may add, not always tastefully. That came later, but without exploring the instrument and musical ideas totally, he would not have achieved his present greatness.

3) Listen - Developing listening skills is a hard road but is essential. Learning to blend into a group takes years and developing a good sense of timing takes hard work (and sometimes a metronome).

And remember, sometimes less is more. Let the music breathe. I've yet to do a gig where I'm paid by the note.

If you can do the above, then a good teacher becomes a coach-instead of a guru or someone you report to with homework assignments.

How does this relate to my Augusta experience? I realized that, of course, those who applied the classroom ideas moved along quickly. But those who picked up the ideas in bits and pieces, but stayed up all night jamming, and learnt to rely on their instincts, often played more interesting ideas, clinkers and all. At first, when students showed up late for class, or were obviously sleep deprived, I was a little upset. Over time I saw that the social aspects in a place like Augusta is where the magic lies. When someone was nodding off in class, I knew if I could bring them to back to life, they probably would play creative stuff.

Principle # 4 People learn best when they are having fun.
When, as a class we finally performed "I'm an Old Cowhand" and every one spontaneously started making barnyard sounds with their voices, I knew the week was a success.

           Marty Laster





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