Shauncey Ali admits he was a bit unsure what to do after earning a botany degree from UW-Madison. “I had no plan except to maybe work in a greenhouse,” he says.
Also a classically trained violinist — and a self-taught bluegrass fiddler — he did have a backup idea: “I had this notion to teach music to one or two students on the side.”
Over the next couple of years, he learned the teaching ropes from his mentor, longtime Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras educator Bonnie Greene. Ali began offering school-aged students violin lessons and was soon teaching more than 30 students a week in his small studio.
But he noticed something. “A lot of these kids were sort of falling through the cracks with the traditional musical offerings around town,” he says. Those offerings were all classical and many students weren’t connecting with that style of music.
He switched to a different kind of stringed instrument instruction: fiddling.
Fiddling is the lighter, brighter cousin of classical violin playing, with rhythms that tend to encourage movement and improvisation. The same standard violin is used in both styles.
“At its core, fiddling is dance music and that’s something the kids can feel immediately,” says Ali, 41, who performs in such groups as the Katie McNally Trio and has created his own line of decorative instrument case straps known as Strapsey. “And, it extends beyond the bounds of age.”
In 2012, he created MadFiddle, a youth ensemble that explores, creates and performs folk and bluegrass music. He offers fiddling lessons during the school year, with a final live performance. There are five or six cohorts each season, separated by skill level, with 10-12 students in each.
Fiddling is the lighter, brighter cousin of classical violin playing. Where symphony or orchestra violin instrumentation produces more vibrato and sustained notes, fiddling is based on snappier rhythms that encourage movement and improvisation. The same standard violin is used in both styles.
“At its core, fiddling is dance music and that’s something the kids can feel immediately,” says Ali. “And, it extends beyond the bounds of age.”
Ali teaches fiddle without sheet music and says the kids love that. Instruction is a combination of self-study and group learning. “They work with video tutorials and audio recordings and they have access to practice tracks, all at home,” says Ali. “And when we get together, we sit in a circle. And I think that’s the big thing that students latch onto — it’s very social and interactive.”
No sheet music, no music stands, either. “The first year, I used music stands and they became a barrier between the students and the music,” he continues. “Once I did away with that visual distraction, the students’ ears turned on and their ability to make music grew exponentially — I was blown away. When I saw how much faster they grow and learn by hearing and experimenting, I knew this is just the way it has to be.”
Ali has written songs specifically for MadFiddle. One such track the kids love to play is the aptly-named “MadFiddle Blues,” with humorous lyrics about the challenges of life as a famous fiddle player.
Sonny Dierks, 18, has played with MadFiddle for 10 years. He says the concert hall performances at the end of each season “give us a plan and a goal. It’s a benchmark to compare yourself to year after year — and it’s fun and gives you a sense of accomplishment.”
Dierks says Ali’s emphasis on aural learning and improvisation has also taught him life lessons, including “the ability to roll with things when they change unexpectedly. I’ve learned and now understand that things don’t always go as planned. It’s taught me how to adapt and stay calm and that’s helped me tremendously throughout my life.”
That’s exactly the kind of self-discovery that Ali hopes his students experience through MadFiddle. “I hope it becomes more than music for them,” he says. “And also how learning and playing and creating with others is about teamwork, about being valued and valuing others.”
The MadFiddle ensemble’s next show is Aug. 6 at the Sugar Maple Music Festival at William G. Lunney Lake Farm County Park. Student auditions for the next season of MadFiddle are currently underway. More information at shaunceyali.com.