Fiddle Camp with Brittany Haas & Friends

28 August 2013

As I write this, the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School is in full swing. Yep, the moon is full, and if you aren’t sure if Scottish fiddlers can swing, you need only look at this video featuring a bunch of VOM graduates and instructors:

This clip is from the raucous finale that closed a house concert in Watertown, Massachusetts last winter featuring Brittany Haas with a whole bunch of friends and relations. The two-tune medley ties together a traditional Irish tune, “Bill Malley’s Barndance,” with a contemporary composition, “E-B-E Reel” by Liz Carroll a prominent performer, composer and instructor of Celtic music.

As you can see, the cozy living room “stage” was packed with musicians, including no less than four fiddlers: Haas, Lily Henley, Kellen Zakula and Duncan Wickel. I knew that this concert was more or less an ad hoc event, pulling together a group of friends for a night of music. I therefore asked Haas how it was that all of the performers could so quickly master a tune like “E-B-E Reel,” which has yet to enter the traditional canon.  Haas responded that they had all “learned it from Liz directly at a fiddle camp in California—Valley of the Moon.”

It’s hard to overstate the influence fiddle camps have had on traditional string music. More often than not, when I hear some tune cropping up at concerts and jams, its popularity can be traced back to its having been in the repertoire of a popular fiddle camp. It’s also common for a fiddle camp’s special recipe for some old-time tune to take hold as the music gets recycled once again. And then there are the original compositions inspired by fiddle camps. No fiddle camp, no “Ashokan Farewell.”

Fiddle camps have also had an enormous impact on playing technique. Watching this video, you don’t just hear that these folks share a common background; you can see it. There is little trace of the cramped style of traditional Appalachian fiddling. This is especially noticeable in the right hand: the players really move the bow across the string with ramrod-straight articulation.

That’s true even of Duncan Wickel, who was performing that night with an interesting handicap. If you aren’t familiar with Wickel, you will be soon. Once you start looking for him, he’s a bit like Waldo, showing up everywhere. Most recently I caught him over the summer playing with otherworldly cello phenom Rushad Eggleston. Wickel was in the audience for the Watertown house concert and was called up to join his friends for the encore. There was a spare fiddle on hand for him to use, but when it came to a bow, all that could be found was a cello bow.  Using the shorter and stouter weapon didn’t seem to slow Wickel down at all.

Fiddle camps often bear the imprimatur of a particular master or group of artists. The Ashokan to which fiddlers are bidding farewell is Ashokan Music & Dance Camp, which is associated with Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. In the case of Valley of the Moon, the guiding force is Alasdair Fraser, the renowned Scottish fiddler who has played with Haas’ sister Natalie since she was in her teens. That’s Natalie on cello in the house concert video. As you can hear, her driving rhythms provide both a pulse and an anchor to a jam that could have easily spun out of control.

Indeed, when I congratulated Haas (younger sister Britanny, that is) at the conclusion of the concert, I could tell she was concerned that the finale had too many rough edges. This is a difficulty I often encounter: the musician and the audience view a performance through opposite ends of the telescope and come away with very different impressions. The performer understandably examines every nuance, whereas the audience concerns itself only with the overall effect. I assured Haas that the concert had ended on a very high note. Looking back at it through the lens of my camera, I still feel that way. All-star jams disappoint more often than not, but in this case, the joy of friends reconnecting is palpable. Watching them all rocking out on their former teacher’s tune, it’s not hard to imagine their younger selves practicing together— or just having boisterous, loud fun— in a camp cabin years ago.

Thanks to notloB Parlour Concerts for the invitation to this intimate soirée and to the hosts for opening their home to us. Thanks as well to Paul Villanova for his help with the shoot and Ehsan Moghaddasi for his patience and ingenuity in editing the footage.

Yer Pal— Curly


  1. HAHA! I loved your article, and the video is outstanding. Vive house concerts (and promoters like notloB)!

    You are so right about wonderful fiddle camps like Alasdair’s…. this is VOM’s 30th year!). Amazing what a bunch of talented free thinkers can do when they band together to share the joys of music, dance, learning and community. Alasdair started Valley of the Moon with a bunch of friends who shared a love of their Scottish heritage and music. It is incredible what they have done and how Alasdair expanded it way beyond Scottish fiddling (over some grumbling at first) to all of its roots and cousins… even Brazilians (cousinage?)! Alasdair and Natalie have brought Scotland’s 18thC dance band of choice (fiddle and cello) back to life, and cellos are definitely well represented and always on the rise in all his camps (Isle of Skye and Sierra too).

    Alasdair is a champion of people whose language, music and culture was banned or shunned by the dominant culture. Thanks to his Spanish collaborators, Galician music is resufacing in a big way and allowing a vibrant cultural exchange with musicians from America and Europe.

    I love your point about tracing tunes back to a particular camp. The tunes and songs now come from all over the world! and these young fiddlers are taking the tunes and swapping them with other musicians in America, Australia, Europe and Canada. Brittany flew directly to VOM (Quebecois presence this year!) from teaching advanced fiddle in Gooik, Belgium.

    Good on Duncan for taking part with a borrow fiddle and cello bow over not joining in on the fun. That’s the spirit also taught at fiddle camp! They encourage inclusion and improvisation: sing, share, dance, try different instruments and genres, HAVE FUN!

    Alasdair’s camp has beginning fiddle for those who never touched a violin. He always says… it’s never too late!!!…. Come join us!

    Thanks for everything, Curly.

  2. Somehow I left out Crisol de Cuerda (Alasdair’s exciting camp in Spain… I think it means, very appropriately, crucible of strings). You can see some of the joy here:
    It is in its 5th year, with a grass roots start and a great story behind its inception too.

    • Chère Madame– Thanks so much for the effusive and informative responses. Please spread the word: we have more of Brittany & Co. coming, and if you root around on my site, you’ll find plenty more fine fiddling in a variety of styles. Yers– Curly

  3. […] notes on these musicians and tunes, video-poster secondcousincurly writes a fascinating piece here on the importance of fiddle camps to American traditional […]

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