Slowest Student in The Fiddle Class by Murphy Henry

Seven people standing on stage playing fiddles, and one person playing guitar

Murphy (in the pink plaid shirt) playing fiddle with the Advanced Fiddle Class

Well, it’s been years since I blogged [Editor's note: it has actually been one year, four months, and ten days.] but since I just spend 5 days being a fiddle student at the Augusta Heritage October Old-Time Retreat in Elkins, W.Va., I thought I’d relive the experience by telling you about it. It was such a reversal, me being a student instead of a teacher. And on an instrument with which I have had such a tempestuous on-off relationship for decades.

Three of my banjo students were also going to go, but two of them couldn’t make it, so it was just me and Dano, who was going to take the vocal class.

I signed up for the Advanced Fiddle Class, not because I feel like I’m an advanced fiddler (I still call myself a hacker) but because I figured that, as a professional musician, at least I’d be able to keep up. However, I found myself hanging on by my fingernails! It was an odd feeling to be the slowest student in the group. (Although I’ll confess, I had already had that humbling experience when I started doing yoga 5 years ago.)

It was a small class, just 6 students, most of us over 60. On the first day, our teacher, the twenty-something Tessa Dillion (who is a fabulous fiddler), played 4 tunes for us (all very fast!) and said this is what we’d be learning during the 4-day camp. Yikes! Three of them I’d never heard, and the fourth, “Salt River” (known in bluegrass as “Salt Creek,”) didn’t sound anything like the version I teach. In fact, having the banjo version in my head actually made it harder to learn.

Luckily, Tessa was teaching by ear (yay!) and she broke down the tunes into small phrases and she played them slow and she even told us where to put our fingers. But, dang, even the names for the fingers were confusing! I use the words index, middle, and ring and she used the words first, second, third. So, when she said “third finger,” I had trouble making my ring finger move. By the time I figured out what my third finger was and got it in place, she had already moved on to another note!

Of course, if I really got lost, I had no trouble asking her to go over the phrase again, because that’s what I want my students to do. Tessa always did it willingly and graciously and slowly. I was, however, the only student who ever asked her to explain something again. After class she told me she was glad I spoke up. She said there were probably other students who needed to go over it again, too. That made me feel good.

So, in two hours of instruction I learned the whole of “Wilson’s Hornpipe.” I use the term “learned” loosely. Fortunately, at the end of class, Tessa played the whole tune slowly for us to record on our phones. And it was a good thing she did because, when I got up the next morning to review the tune before class, I had completely forgotten it! So there I am, standing in my room in my pajamas, ear buds in, listening to the tune and trying to pluck out the notes on the fiddle without using the bow because it’s 6:30 am and I don’t want to disturb anyone. It was slow going. I did have some muscle memory from all the reps in class, but there were many notes that I was still having to guess at. And that drove me crazy!

By 9:30, we were back in class, playing the tune together slowly. That helped. I was beginning to get a tiny feel for it. But now, it was time to learn another one! “Salt River”! The next day, we learned yet another whose name escapes me right now. And each day my brain was tireder and foggier because Dano and I had found a little spot where we could play some bluegrass (him on banjo and me on guitar) and we stayed up till about 11 every night jamming. A few students and even a couple of instructors slithered over to the dark side and joined us, and several folks stopped by to listen. The camp coordinator actually gave us a plug one morning and referred to that spot as the “Bluegrass Alcove”!

I kept practicing the fiddle tunes in my room, even using the bow after I figured everyone was awake. And it would be a great end to this story to have me say that I finally learned the tunes and could play them well. But the truth is, by Sunday morning, when each class went on stage to showcase a tune that they’d learned, I was still struggling to remember all the notes in the first tune, which is the one we were going to play. Sometimes I had them, and sometimes I didn’t. And I absolutely could not play it fast.

Still, I got on stage with my classmates, and with Tessa on guitar, I gave it my best shot. The thing that saved me was my joy of being on stage and my ability to keep going when I made a mistake. The strongest fiddlers pulled us through and we sounded fine.

It’s going to take a lot more woodshedding for me to be able to play those tunes! We’ll see if I make the time to practice them. If I don’t, well, I did play a lot of fiddle in the class and think I’m a better fiddler for that. And for now, that’s enough.

18 thoughts on “Slowest Student in The Fiddle Class by Murphy Henry

  1. Anne Reynolds

    What a joy to see your post this morning! And I can’t think of a better exercise for a teacher than to take a turn being a student. Glad you are well and out there learning new things – a real inspiration, Murphy!

  2. Murphy Henry

    Post author

    Thanks! Being in that class has already made me a better teacher. I realized, again, how hard it is to retain totally new material.

  3. Sam Bartlett

    Thank you. As a long time teacher and shameless learner of over-my-head material, I appreciated your account!

  4. John Drew

    Glad you got some of what you give to we struggling banjoists.
    I particularly enjoyed the finger struggle.
    Thanks for a very enjoyable post that everyone connects with.

  5. John Drew

    Excellent piece! We struggling banjoists have experienced the same while learning “Banjo in the Hollow” from you.

  6. Bill Givens

    Thanks Murphy. It’s good to know I am not the only one struggling to play the fiddle. But I am 68 years young with some artheritis in both hands. Playing stringed instruments I think helps me fend off my joint problems and learning a new instrument is great for a person’s mental health. You’ve inspired me to continue working on my fiddle playing!

  7. Dennis DeVendra

    Thanks for this article. We have all gone through learning new things in our life. No matter how good we are at one thing, it takes an experience like this to humble us and help us grow. I heard of an exec at a company that started a band. The only requirement was that you play an instrument that you had never played before. I think these kinds of experiences keep our minds sharp and young. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Marianne W

    THANK YOU !!! What an encouragement to me – a fiddler somewhere between beginner and intermediate stage. Love your attitude that it’s the joy of being on the stage and keeping on through the mistakes that really matters !

  9. David Nelson (aka AP)

    This is really a great lesson for us “long timers” trying to memorize lyrics, chords and breaks to songs we have never heard before. Memorization isn’t what it used to be.

  10. Art King

    Thanks Murphy! I’ve missed your writing! And your unvarnished honesty makes me far more comfortable with my challenges!

  11. Mike Larsen

    Reminds me of a recent Rick Beato post. He’s a big youtuber with over 2.5 million followers as a guitar and music theory teacher. Knows everything about guitar, piano, theory, jazz, rock, blues, great musician has a 700 page book on theory, etc. His kid plays lefty and handed him one of his guitars and said play it.

    He said “I know all the chords, I know all the notes, I’ve played these songs a million times without thinking about them and I can’t pick 2 notes out on this thing left handed.” It was interesting to watch him struggle and it really made him reflect on how much he takes for granted when teaching and skimming over nobrainer and coordination stuff that beginners struggle with. Stuff he hasn’t even thought about in years or decades. It was a very humbling experience and changed his mindset a bit about teaching.

    Disclaimer, I’ve gone through all your VHS tapes at one point or another and your teaching never made me feel lost (which is why I’ve gone through all your VHS tapes at one point or another), but I bet this experience will stick in your mind as well when it comes to your own classes moving forward. Plus, there are a lot of great musicians who are afraid to look “not great” in front of people so congrats to you on taking your swings!

    Also, I bet it had to be fresh and exhilarating to soak up all this new information and new sounds and techniques. I’ve started playing blues on electric guitar over covid after 20 years of banjo and it’s such a change, really shakes out the cobwebs between the ears. Good on ya!

  12. Chris Nichols

    Great story!

    I attended Augusta’s Oct Old Time Week years ago as a beginner fiddle player. It was a great experience and I loved the WV focus they placed on the whole week. I’ve returned to Augusta several times through the years for various banjo and fiddle classes. I’m just soo thankful the world sees fit to find a place like the Augusta Heritage Center!

  13. Marianne Lampert

    Loved your account of fiddle camp. If I’d known you were going, I might have joined you. Might see you this summer at Women’s Banjo Camp, with every instrument EXCEPT a banjo.

  14. Murphy Henry

    Thanks for all the comments, y’all! I appreciate the feedback. Being the slowest student in the class and struggling to keep up certainly did make me even more aware of what my students are going through. Especially those who are grey-hairs like me! Tackling something new after 50 or even 60 and up, is way different from learning things as a young person!!!

  15. Rich Nesin

    Hi Murphy, just saw this blog about Augusta Old Time. Playing with you and Dan in the Bluegrass Alcove at Augusta was a treat and unexpected pleasure. I think “slithered over” is a bit much though. “Stealthily crept” is closer.

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