Interview: Lauren Rioux explains how classical and bluegrass compliment each other

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Lauren Rioux is a fiddler and educator. The annual recital she puts on for her students took place this past weekend and due to the damned weather and several other factors, I regret having been unable to get this interview out in time to promote it.

The event seems like a lot of fun. As a kid, Rioux was terrified of performing. She started playing the violin at 6 and even though she loved it, she long felt inadequate and nervous. Recitals can also be tedious and boring. Now that she is a teacher of music, she tries to construct a unique event that is as exciting as any other concert.

I talked with the fiddler and educator about undoing the damage of recital trauma, her background as a classical musician, and what the musical traditions in which she is steeped can learn from each other.

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Recitals can be kind of punishing, right?

[Laughs] They really can be and for everyone involved! And if you go to see live music in a professional setting, that’s really not what it is about. A student performance is usually so far removed from what our goal is, which is to put on a moving event that makes the audience and performers actually experience music and emotions—where you feel like there is collaboration between the performers and the audience. I try to emulate all of my favorite things about being in an audience and being a performer. I started asking really inspiring, fantastic musicians to come perform with my students, and so it became something more exciting and to look forward to. Students will have the opportunity to play with Eve Sawyer, Natalie Haas, David Surette—some of the most cutting edge musicians in the string band scene. I try to get them to look forward to performing with some of these people and to rehearsing and working with them, so it is something for everyone to look forward to. People who are not related to the kids come to the event and return again for following performances. That’s what the tradition has become in our studio.

Can you talk a bit about yourself? What is your background?

I grew up playing classical music. My mom really wanted me to play fiddle and I didn’t get into it. I went to college at USM and studied classical violin performance and music education. When I graduated, I started realizing that as much as I really appreciated everything that I was learning and receiving from classical music, I did not see myself performing either as a virtuosic concerto performer—a solo performer—or with a symphony. While classical music has so much to offer, you can get pigeonholed where you have to pick an angle where you’re going to go as a musician. I didn’t really want to do those things. I knew that I wanted to be an educator and string teacher, but I no longer had my heart in classic performance.

I had discovered old time music, which is the precursor to bluegrass, and when I heard it the first time around my heart was ripped open. I couldn’t believe that I was 19 or 20 years old and I had never heard that kind of music before. I was in school as a music history major and I had never come across Appalachian music! It was speaking to me. This is what I needed to play. Because I was still in college and practicing Mendelssohn concertos, it was something I had to reward myself with by playing it in my spare time at fiddle camps. After I got out, I decided that was the music was going to play. I crossed over the line and decided this was what I was going to do—I was going to be a folk musician.

Is that like coming out? Is there controversy about that transition?

[Laughs] When I told my classical violin teacher, he told me he thought I was coming out to him. He said that! It was like coming out in that way. He said that he’d known I wanted to be a fiddler for a year.

People often ask the question “What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin?” And there really is no difference outside of how it’s played. Even though I had been playing violin since I was 6 through when I started to play this music at 21 or 22, crossing over into the folk world required a totally different skill set. I really dedicated quite a few years to learning all of these vernacular techniques to sound authentic and not sound like a classical musician trying to play folk music. I really think it was my music education that helped me to do that, to create a process and musical curriculum. That’s something that is kind of missing it the folk world. There aren’t hundreds and hundreds of years of pedagogical training that the classical world has. You play this piece and then that one and then another. In the folk world, your teacher shows you one fiddle tune and then another, and that one might be completely different from and unrelated to the one before.

I have students who are playing both classical and fiddle tunes. I’m able to build a curriculum for them and that part of my background has guided me as an educator. The skill set of this new wave of sting players is so virtuosic compared to even 10 and 15 years ago. The modern string musician is able to accompany Bach, or improvise a Jazz tune or play a pop song. The flexibility of these musicians is so far greater than someone who might have had to pigeonhole themselves. I try to give my students as much freedom as they need.

I met you at a bluegrass festival last year. Something that strikes me about that community is how warm and communal it is. It is also a little hippy-ish, and improvisational. It strikes that it might be a more welcoming environment for younger performers. Is that the case?

I think in a lot of ways it is an accurate assumption. Off the bat, I noticed going from the classical world into the folk world that there is a sharing culture. You learn a tune from somebody else and then you pass it on. People want to share what they know and make the community bigger and healthier. It doesn’t have to be this way but in the classical world it can be very competitive. That is largely driven by auditions. Kids are trained to go in and audition for an orchestra seat. I am not saying it’s a bad or negative thing to have that culture, but you are constantly comparing yourself to your peers. It can become a little more cutthroat and less supportive.

In folk, there is competition in that there are competitions, but you don’t have to compete to be able to participate. If you want to sit in an orchestra, you have to audition to get a seat. That doesn’t exist in a jam circle. It is very inclusive. I have tried to bring that inclusiveness to my studio and I have heard from many of my students how different they find things when they leave and go out into the classical world. They realize that it can be not as supportive. I try to remind them that they can be vessels of change as long as they’re being supportive in the face of competition. You can still support each other. I think the folk scene really offers a lot in that sense.

I also think the folk scene could learn a bit from the demands of the classical world. Instead of always having the I’m okay, you’re okay mentality… As I said earlier, the pedagogy of the classical world definitely allows people to advance in their technique in a way that can be lacking in the folk world. That guidance isn’t necessarily there. As with humans, our best characteristic can also be our worst characteristic. Both of those cultures can definitely help each other out.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.