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Fiddler on the Rogue: Profile of An Entrepreneur: Duane Whitcomb, Creekside Strings

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Rogue Valley Messenger: You started Creekside Strings and FiddleQuest. Are they different organizations?

Duane Whitcomb: Creekside Strings is a violin school I started about 15 years ago. We are four teachers: Jessie Monter, Rachel Buklad, Monica Smith and myself. We teach over 100 children and adults and put on dances, jams and fiddle camps throughout the year.

Over the years, I was able to refine the songs and skills and teaching tools into a curriculum that other teachers could easily use. I formed a company, FiddleQuest, with my business partner, Darren Jahn, to make the curriculum available online to other teachers and students. Now it is taught by teachers across the country.

RVM: There seems to be an emphasis on not just learning to play music, but playing in a group. Why is that?

DW: The short answer is that it is a lot more fun to play music with others than on your own.

The “pedagogical” answer is a little more complicated. The statistics for violin students are rather sobering. Over 90 percent of people that take up the violin quit before they leave high school. To improve on those results, I studied the small group of violinists who continued playing as adults. Whether they were classical or non-classical players, one important difference is that they have the skills to play music socially (off-stage) with others.

Our prevailing education model teaches students to play in performance settings with little emphasis on playing informally. Creekside Strings takes a different approach. We play mostly in informal settings (jams, dances) and have just a few formal performances.

RVM: At the same time that you emphasis playing in a group, you also have developed an online curriculum. First, explain how learning an instrument works online and, second, talk about how this differs from learning “in-person”?

DW: FiddleQuest is used by teachers who all teach “in-person.” It is similar to using a traditional book (e.g. Suzuki), but the web “book” provides a collection of tools that extend beyond what a traditional book can provide.

But to answer your question of how it works, it basically looks like this: The student and I are both sitting facing each other. We catch up on what has happened during the week, tune the instrument and then start playing. The learning process is simple: I’ll repeat a phrase of the song on my violin and the student will learn to play it with me. I don’t let them look at my fingers—they have to problem-solve it with their ears. (In the first year, it is only a 2-3 notes at a time. As their ears develop, they can learn lengthy phrases by ear very quickly.)

During the lesson, I will pull up the student’s FiddleQuest practice page on my iPad and have them play along with the slow recording of that song. During the week, they can slowly get the song to tempo. We also will work on skills like scales, improvisation and sight-reading on their practice page. They will use that same practice page at home to review what we did in lessons. For young students, their parents will help them practice using the recordings on their practice page. As a teacher, I take comfort in being able to know that they have all the tools they need to keep learning with their ears throughout the week.

RVM: The emphasis also seems to be on classical and traditional music. What do you say to the teenager who wants to learn, but also wants to play Led Zeppelin on her violin?

DW: For a number of years, the conventional wisdom of creating adaptable violin players has been that students should learn to play classical first so they will be well-prepared to play other things like folk or Led Zeppelin. What I’ve discovered is that studying classical music is an effective way to become a classical violinist. But it is not an ideal path for students who wish to participate in music beyond the orchestra or chamber music group.

My advice for a teen who wants to play other styles of music is this: develop your hand-ear coordination playing the music you love—Led Zeppelin, Tchaikovsky, Irish, etc. That is, teach your fingers to play what you hear. For students who have already learned to read, this is a difficult challenge. It is much easier to read the notes. The problem that classically-trained violinists face is that most non-classical music is not written out. Even when the music is easier than what they have played before, many violinists feel totally unprepared to play it when there is no written music available.

Developing your ear is worth the effort. When you have strong hand-ear coordination, a door opens to a world of music. You will be able to play what you hear on Spotify, play what you want with friends, sit in on any music session, travel anywhere in the world and play with musicians there. It is the single most important musical skill you can have.

RVM: Do students learn to read music?

DW: Yes, FiddleQuest teaches students to read music. I always found that the best sight-readers in the orchestra were the violists because they always played difficult harmony parts that were hard to memorize. FiddleQuest exercises use that trick to teach our students. The exercises are hard to memorize so students can’t simply use their strong ears to fool the teachers!

RVM: How do you differentiate between a violin and a fiddle?

DW: The violin and fiddle are the same instrument. I differentiate between the two by how the music is learned and played.

Sometimes I play music for an event that requires me to read the music. I feel like an actor reading from a script. I describe that as playing my violin.

Often, I’ll hear a piece of music from a friend or on Spotify and then learn it by ear. (This is not only for folk songs, but jazz, classical and other styles as well.) When I play that song for someone, I feel like I’m telling a story. I will sometimes adapt it to the setting a little. I rarely play it the same way twice! That’s what I describe as playing my fiddle.

RVM: If you could travel back to when you were first learning, is there any advice or instruction you would give yourself?

DW: All the music I did between 5 and 30 was for performance. It was always rehearsing for recitals, competitions, youth symphony, chamber concerts with my siblings, church, etc. We spent so many hours trying to perfect things and worrying how we sounded to others. If I could time travel back, I’d like to tell my brother and sister (and younger me) that we should learn songs from Elton John’s “Yellow Brick Road” album together (it was my sister’s favorite album). We could have had so much fun jamming on those songs free from the pressure we felt as performers.

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