The Jana Jae Fiddle Camp at the Civic Center in Grove, Oklahoma, is a long weekend focusing on helping participants improve their musical skills, stage presence and performances.
MY GRANDFATHER ALWAYS SAID THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FIDDLE AND A VIOLIN IS THAT NOBODY CARES IF YOU SPILL BEER ON A FIDDLE. Though, technically, the instruments are one in the same. Some say the difference depends upon whether you sit or stand to play, the length of the bow used or, my personal favorite, whether it has strings or “strangs.”
Country-and-Western legend Bob Wills, with whom my grandfather occasionally played in Quitaque, Texas, circa 1937, said, “The difference is that one is carried in a flour sack, the other in a case.”
When you’re buying, it’s a fiddle, but when you’re selling, it’s a violin. A violin sings, a fiddle dances. The list goes on, but what sets the two instruments apart is largely attitude. If the violin is plaintive and elegant, the sound of a fiddle is synonymous with free-spiritedness and celebration, not only in West Texas, but in folk cultures the world over, from the Scotland to Peru. Another thing my grandfather said: “Sheet music instructs you to perform violin music as the composer intended. Your ear teaches you to fiddle a tune the way your heart wants to hear it.”
Jana Jae, a.k.a. “The First Lady of Country Fiddle,” knows how to play the violin, too. Born to parents who were classically trained at Julliard, she began her musical studies at the age of two with a miniature 1/8-size violin.
“Thanks to the guidance and inspiration of my grandfather, an accomplished fiddle champion in his own right, at the same time I learned to love playing by ear,” Jae said.
An old joke says the way to stop a fiddler from fiddling is to put sheet music in front of him. On the contrary, by the time Jae was a teenager, she had mastered a variety of musical genres including bluegrass, western swing, pop and jazz. She attended college on a music scholarship and studied abroad at the Vienna Academy of Music. In 1975, she became the first female member of Buck Owens’ “Buckaroos” band and she went on to become a regular performer on the TV show Hee Haw, playing with musical guests such as The Oakridge Boys and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
“There was literally not one area of my life that wasn’t positively affected by music,” Jae said.
Your Brain on Music
In 2006, researchers at McMaster University in Canada determined that young children who take music lessons show improved memory over the course of a year compared to children who do not receive musical training. Educators had long suspected improved mathematical reasoning, advanced social connection and even better posture, but the study’s results were even greater than expected.
“The fact that the children studying music for a year improved in musical listening skills more than children not studying music is perhaps not very surprising,” said Dr. Laurel Trainor, professor of psychology, neuroscience and behavior at McMaster. “On the other hand, it is very interesting that the children taking music lessons improved more over the year on general memory skills that are correlated with non-musical abilities such as literacy, verbal memory, visuospatial processing, mathematics and IQ than did the children not taking lessons. The finding[s]…suggests that musical training is having an effect on how the brain gets wired for general cognitive functioning related to memory and attention.”
Despite these and other benefits of studying music at an early age, like other fine arts, music education is in a precarious position in U.S. public schools. Funding for orchestra, band and choir is no longer a given in school budgets, and young musicians are turning to extracurricular activities to get their music fix. This is where Jana Jae’s Fiddle Camp comes in.
Orchestrating Fiddle Camp
Each Labor Day weekend, Jae—in conjunction with Grand Lakes Festivals Inc. and the Oklahoma Arts Council—plays host to the Jana Jae Fiddle Camp at the Civic Center in Grove, Oklahoma. This long weekend is focused on helping participants of all ages and abilities improve their musical skills, stage presence and performances.
“It’s not just for fiddlers—violin, viola, cello, mandolin, guitar, bass and other string and rhythm instruments are included, and the workshop is open to participants regardless of age or prior experience,” said Kathleen Pixley, executive director of the festival.
Jae has been running Fiddle Camp for 15 years. It is her hope that programs such as this one will influence new musicians and help to fill in the gaps for those who have not been able to participate in music programs in their schools.
The camp is only a few days long, however Jae hopes that musicians can make connections with others and start their own extracurricular groups after the festivities end.
“Jana Jae and approximately 20 master teachers help participants improve their musical skills, teach the importance of music in our society today and focus on specific musical goals,” Pixley said. “Workshop classes include demonstrations and instruction in many styles, including Celtic, Bluegrass, Old-Time, Contest Fiddling and Cajun.”
There are also seminars in a variety of folk arts and instrumentation including square dance, flatfoot and clogging, guitar, banjo, mandolin and spoons. Novices benefit from being exposed to more experienced musicians, and veterans review the basics by showing newbies the ropes. Camaraderie is the point, but so is confidence building.
“Musicians from all backgrounds, cultures and age groups have the opportunity to learn new tunes, different styles, interpretation, phrasing, arranging and improvisation,” Pixley said. “Each participant has the opportunity to enjoy playing on stage before an audience, as a soloist or in a group, using helpful instructions and tips on how to play with groups, how best to perform in contests and how to engage an audience.”
In It to Win It
Fiddlers aren’t typically known for their modesty—the students at Jae’s camp are encouraged to showboat a bit. Contests are the culminating event, and cash prizes are coveted. Last year’s US$1,000 top winner was Doug Fleener, age 21, from Leitchfield, Kentucky. Repeat customers are common; Fleener got hooked on contest fiddling at the age of 12 after winning his first Grand Lake National Contest. Over the years, he has placed in the Open Division multiple times and has won several awards. The contests are community events open to the public at the Grove Civic Center. Besides fiddling, there are contests in Dobro, banjo, mandolin and flatpicking.
On a Thankful Note
Attracting visitors from 30-plus states to a small Oklahoma town takes more than just star power. Pixley and Jae say without support from the city of Grove as well as many loyal and dedicated sponsors, Fiddle Camp could not continue as it has.
“We are all so very pleased with the ongoing success of these events,” Pixley said. “We have great entertainment and the best talent on both the fiddle and the clogging stages. Our wonderful staff and hard working, faithful volunteers deserve big thanks—we could not begin to do all the festival tasks without their untiring service.”
No matter what you choose to call it, the four-stringed instrument continues to bring people out in droves. Perhaps one of the youngsters at camp this year will be the next Bob Wills, Antonio Vivaldi or Jana Jae. One+
One+ September 2012