Broadening my Horizons with Fiddling

The following post was written by undergraduate violinist Katie Knudsvig.  Thanks Katie!

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I was floored and honored to have been accepted into the BM Program studying Violin Performance at Eastman. When I arrived here on the first day of new-student orientation in the fall of my freshman year, I had a lot of wild ideas of how my four years here would unfold. Was I going to love it? Would I do well in my academic classes? Would I find I have a secret passion for music theory? I did end up loving Eastman, doing well in classes, and even found a new passion for music theory. However, I would never have guessed that the real passion I would uncover was for bluegrass music.

            Fiddle music, of all things? Never would I have thought I’d end up in this genre. Growing up in Fargo, North Dakota for half my life, I was exposed to plenty of country music, but no bluegrass, old time, or Irish fiddle music. Bluegrass is an engaging conversation between musicians, it’s the trading of ideas and musical personalities that sounds different every time you do it. I would never have discovered this art form if it wasn’t for the struggles I had to face during my first year at Eastman. My freshman year here was probably my most difficult one to date, for a couple of reasons. Between an ongoing battle with playing injuries and challenges with performance anxiety, I had a difficult time finding joy in playing the violin. To warm back up to the instrument, it was suggested to me to try playing anything that comes to mind, whatever I enjoyed the sound of. I started playing some of my favorite melodies and tunes from pop and classical music alike, and for some reason I kept coming back to the song, Ashokan Farewell. There was something about the harmonies I could create with myself and drones I could play that I loved.

Flash forward a couple months to summer, when one of my best friends came to visit me for a week. She was a rising senior at Eastman who, in addition to being a ferociously talented classical violinist, is an avid reader, and very fashion-conscious.  She grew up playing fiddle music in her hometown, surrounded by the Appalachian mountains – the heart of bluegrass. She offered to teach me a couple of tunes by ear, and I gladly took her up on it. Playing these tunes with her stirred up my passion for playing which I had been missing those past months, so that fall I asked her to continue teaching me fiddle tunes.

When we returned to Eastman, we formed a band called Copper Hill, comprised of fellow Eastman students; two fiddles, a bassist, and a guitarist. We each had a different background and focus: from jazz to classical; and a range of experience with Bluegrass. In retrospect, I think it was this diverse conglomerate of personalities that made the band so successful at connecting with audiences. We started with a lot of covers and fiddle tunes, and soon added a couple of originals that my friend and I had written. When creating new music we’d write the lyrics and harmonic structure to the song on our own, and then bring it to the band to expand on and fully orchestrate our instrumentation. Often the end product of the song is a lot different than when we would first bring it to the group. I’ve never experienced such a feeling as when hearing my original music fully realized for the first time. The more and more I played with them, the more I realized I really loved this style of playing.

 My private lesson teacher noticed a difference in me too. Suddenly, I was a lot more relaxed when I played in my classical lessons and studio classes. I wasn’t deathly afraid of playing in front of others anymore, and it really gave me a huge confidence boost playing at parties with the band and hearing all of the positive reviews of my talented peers.

A few months in, our guitarist left the band and we gained a jazz trombonist who also plays banjo. This led to more members of the jazz department attending our shows to support him and us, which introduced me to a few really good friends of mine. I’ve started going to more of their concerts and have found I really like jazz as well. In addition to becoming closer with the jazz majors, I’ve also managed to grow closer with the faculty, playing on some of their recitals and events that require strings. At the end of the year, I started regularly gigging with a Rochester based bluegrass band called the Crooked North. Out of this I’ve grown a newer, deeper love of this music. I’ve also encountered some awesome musical experiences, like improvising.

I have recently finished my first semester of junior year, and have started to think about my time after Eastman. I’ve come to realize that, while I love classical music and definitely want to keep playing it, there’s a whole new side to me that I’d like to give more time to as well. Currently I’m looking at masters programs that would allow me to continue my studies in classical violin while allowing me to expand my knowledge and skills in bluegrass and jazz. I have grown a lot as a fiddler in this past year, and found this improvement has enhanced my classical playing as well. I have better time, I can play faster more accurately now, I’m much more relaxed, my intonation has improved, and I’m a much better listener and chamber musician now. I also have plans to delve into jazz a bit next semester with an independent study in Brazilian music!

My musical horizons have been significantly expanded in the past two years I’ve spent in Rochester, and I’m sure they’ll only keep expanding. Copper Hill is still very much alive and well–in fact we’ve just started the recording process for our first album of all original music, to be released next spring. (Check us out on facebook or instagram, take a listen to our demos, and keep an eye out for our album!) With a masters on the horizon and new opportunities for Copper Hill, I’m excited to see what the future holds. As long as I continue to make honest music with great people, I’m ready for anything.