November 26, 2013 | Michael Haley
I recently got chance to talk with DC area fiddler, and teacher, Paul Carlson. Paul is a little different than the other DC area fiddlers I’ve interviewed in that he doesn’t just play Celtic, or bluegrass, he also plays Nordic style fiddle. In addition, his teaching method is also a bit unusual. He has his own brand of teaching that he calls “classical fiddle” where he splices together classical technique with the passionate story telling associated with traditional folk music.
“Yeah, it's really a shame that folks automatically equate ‘fiddling’ with ‘lousy technique.’ Not true!” He says. So get ready to learn about Nordic dance music, classical fiddle, and how Paul met speech writer, game show host, Clear Eyes (brand of eye drops) spokesman, and television personality Ben Stein.
Fiddle Examiner: When, and why, did you start playing fiddle?
Paul: It was almost a given in my house that you'd play music. My dad is quite a good pianist and flute player. He got his start with classical double bass when he was young. My sister is also a skilled pianist and flute player herself.
My dad's mom was a successful Swedish musician in Chicago. She sang and played accordion and fiddle for the group "De Tre Gnistorna" or "The Three Sparks." If you were a Swede and throwing a party in Chicago from the 1920s through the 1960s, The Three Sparks were at the top of your list to hire.
I started with Suzuki method violin lessons back when I was 4 years old. My parents asked me, "Do you want to learn how to play the violin?" and I said, "Yeah, sure." I had no idea what I was getting into.
I took Suzuki lessons and was in orchestras and whatnot up until my junior year of high school. We went away to Paris for my dad's sabbatical year and I left my fiddle behind.
I picked it up again after college when I moved down to North Carolina. I was bored and didn't know anyone so I figured I'd join a country-western band…why the hell not? I soon discovered that country-western was not really my thing.
While fumbling around with country-western, I found out that the big fiddlers in Nashville, the ones on all the country-western albums, played bluegrass when they weren't trying to pay the bills. I drifted into playing bluegrass but again, it wasn't my thing.
One day I was listening to the radio and heard a beautiful Canadian tune come on The Thistle & Shamrock, a Celtic music show on National Public Radio. Growing up in New England, I had heard a lot of contra dance and Celtic music but it never moved me like this.
I messed around a little on my own with Irish fiddling then ran into Jason Cade. Jason was the fiddler for the popular Irish group Cucanandy and placed in the top 5 in the all-Ireland fiddling championships. His group, Gangstagrass, was recently nominated for an Emmy for their theme song for the television series, Justified.
I studied under Jason for about three years and learned a lot of and about Irish music and tradition. Jason hewed to an older style of fiddling and his philosophy of what makes, and keeps, a tradition alive yet true to its roots, really helped form my own ideas on folk music.
I fell in love with Irish fiddling and would listen to it for hours a day. I would even wake up an hour and a half early for work just to listen to Irish fiddle CDs before I got up.
I started playing Swedish, then later Nordic, music almost by accident. I heard an announcement on the local NPR station that the Swedish group, Groupa, was coming to play in the area. I had actually heard of this group so I figured I'd go see what was what.
The opening act was a Norwegian Hardanger fiddle player named Ånon Egeland. He came out on stage, talked a little about his fiddle, then said "and now I'm going to play a waltz." He started playing and I was absolutely transfixed. I knew then that this was my music and I needed to learn it.
I went home, Googled "Hardanger fiddle", and found out that there was a weekly jam session within walking distance of my house. Led by the world class Swedish fiddler and nyckleharpa player, Bart Brashers, I played in the jam session and at concerts for several more years. Talk about luck!
I moved to Arlington from North Carolina in 2004 and the fiddle was my constant companion. This time I played mostly by myself, whiling away evenings and weekends with the beautiful melodies and rhythms of the Celtic and Nordic countries. My performances at that time consisted mostly of occasional afternoons busking in Georgetown.
I met my first Nordic music friend here in the DC area when a former student and his wife were attending a dance workshop in Maryland. They stayed with Chris Kalke, Director of the Nordic Dancers of Washington, DC.
My friends told Chris they knew a Nordic fiddle player living in Arlington. They suggested I should bring myself and my fiddle over to play a few tunes with Chris--also a fine Nordic fiddler herself.
I came over and played a few waltzes to start out. After the set, the first words out of Chris's mouth were, "Who are you and why don't I know you?" I soon started playing with her music group, Skandal, and spent several years performing with Skandal at various embassies, parties, museums, etc.
Through the help of Chris, several other dancers and musicians, and generous grants from the Finlandia Foundation, and the American Scandinavian Association, I was able to attend the Nordlek and Kaustinen music and dance festivals in Finland during the summer of 2009.
I stayed in Helsinki with a good friend from high school and the legendary Järvelä family up north in Kaustinen. While in Finland I rubbed elbows (and strings) with some of the best Nordic musicians in the world.
I was really struck with just how skilled the fiddlers in Finland were. Their technical expertise on their instruments was really high. All these great players played for their local dance company. You can actually go to the Royal Music Academy in Stockholm or the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and get a degree in folk music. So I said to myself, "If I want to be like the best, I should do like the best."
I think it's a growing trend. There are a lot of classically trained students who don't get a lot of satisfaction out of classical music. Fun isn't always sitting on a stage wearing a suit and tie or a frilly dress playing music that the audience is supposed to be quiet for. Sometimes, ripping into an Irish set at million miles an hour while people are whooping and hollering is! (Personally, I find both to be tons of fun in their own way.)
BUT, you have to remember that it requires that high level of playing in order to be able to play at a million miles an hour. That's the kind of ability I want my students to have. I want them to do what they want with the violin, not just what they can.
When I returned to the US, I asked Chris if I could join Nordic Dancers as their regular fiddler.
The Nordic Dancers welcomed me with open arms and we are currently in our fourth wonderful season together. We have played at all the Nordic embassies, for cultural events, and at private parties. I feel a special pride playing under the lights, watching the dancers twirl around to my music.
Unlike some other traditions, Nordic music is still primarily meant to be able to dance to. Spending almost 3 hours a week playing for dancers really completes the music for me. It really ties the tradition together and provides to me a reference point. As the great Antti Järvelä said, "You must learn how to play this music for dancers to truly know how to play it."
Fiddle Examiner: How did you get into teaching?
Paul: Just prior to leaving for Finland I spent some time observing and learning from the world famous Suzuki teacher, Ronda Cole. I observed her weekend group and private lessons for two months before an intensive two-week course of Suzuki Method training.
I was impressed by the very high level of technical and musical expertise shown by Ronda's students and vowed that my own students would perform at an equally high level. I teach classical and folk music but both with the technique of a western classical violinist. My students learn from both the Suzuki Violin School books as well as the new Mark O'Connor American Violin School books.
I give lessons here in a beautiful studio in my house in Arlington, Virginia. You can visit my website or send me an email at Paul@ClassicalFiddle.com.
Fiddle Examiner: Tell me a little about the instruments you use. Who made your violin?
Paul: I have four violins: Rusty, Freddie, Alice, and Axel.
Alice is my first full-sized violin and was my grandmother's. I named it after her. She was the daughter of Swedish immigrants in Chicago and someone told her uncle, Axel, that she needed a violin. Axel was a merchant marine and went off on a working cruise in the late 1920s. He returned with this violin as a gift to her. It has been in the family for almost 90 years and is my most prized possession. It is an early 20th century or late 19th century German fiddle, probably made in Mittenwald.
My next violin is Rusty, a 1920s Schönbach (modern day Germany/Austria/Czech Republic), "dutzenarbeit" (made by the dozen) violin. One of millions produced for export to the US. I named it Rusty because it's been really trusty and is kind of a rust color. My parents bought it for me (when I was) in eighth grade so I didn't have to lug Alice to and from school for orchestra practice. Reliable as Swiss watch, I use trusty Rusty as my "backpack fiddle," for outdoor parties, cold weather gigs, crowded venues, that kind of thing.
Axel is my solid-bodied electric violin. An American built, Wood Violins Stingray that I have had highly modified. I use Axel when rocking out with my friends and playing particularly loud gigs. I named Axel after my great-uncle. I like this violin to practice on since, unplugged, it is almost silent and doesn't wake up the neighbors!
Freddie is my newest fiddle, made in Cremona, Italy in 2010. I named it after its maker, Federico Fiora. Cremona is the birthplace of the violin and was the hometown to such notable violin making families as Stradivari, Guarneri, and Amati. It is truly a wonderful violin that I use as my main teaching, performing, and recording violin.
I also have an Arcus P7 bow and a JonPaul Vetta bow. Two of the finest carbon-fiber bows out there. Several top soloists and dozens of professional orchestra players perform on these bows.
I got Axel, Freddie, and my bows from Dave Belazis at Foxes Music in Falls Church, Virginia.
Fiddle Examiner: Do you use pickups and amps when playing with the dance groups?
Paul: When playing along with the dance group and for quieter venues, I mike my fiddle up and play through a PA system. The sound quality of a pickup is not quite the same as a miked up fiddle.
When I'm playing more of a pub gig, or rocking out with my friends, the solid body gets played. The feedback issues with an acoustic violin when playing with drums, bass, keyboards, guitars, etc. reduces a fiddle to uncontrollable howling. Axel has no such problems. Also the tone quality of a pickup blends better in an electric environment.
I play through a modified Fender Hot Rod Deluxe amp.
You can often find me playing Axel on the weekends in the summertime at the Westover Beer Garden here in Arlington, Virginia.
Fiddle Examiner: So did you actually meet Ben Stein or should I tell the readers that they must take a lesson from you in order to find out about the quote on your web site?
Paul: The Ben Stein story is funny. I was busking on M Street at the crosswalk of M and Thomas Jefferson (Washington, DC). I looked across the street and saw this guy waiting to cross. I thought to myself, "That guy looks a lot like Ben Stein." He crossed the street and I said, "Holy smokes, that is Ben Stein!"
I saw that he was listening intently to me so I caught his eye and smiled. He paused, pulled a dollar out of his wallet and dropped it in my case saying, "Excellent playing, really excellent playing." So I kind of took Ben Stein's money, no?
Fiddle Examiner: Did he offer you some eye drops too?
Paul: (laughing) Nope…no eye drops! Just the dollar bill that I've saved.