My first lesson about playing with a fiddler came from Dwight Diller. Probably about 20 years ago he came to what was then my home in northern Virginia to teach a workshop at my place. He got to us early, a day before the workshop, and we had some “quality time” together. At one point Dwight arranged two chairs so that we’d be facing each other. He put his banjo down, and took up his fiddle. He had me sit down armed with my banjo, and then pulled in tight so that our knees were just touching. Dwight locked eyes with me, told me to keep facing him, made sure I didn’t drift off to look at my right or left hand, and told me to follow him in some tunes. He started off with Cluck Old Hen, and played that until I could do so without gazing away from his eyes. He told me that the hardest thing about playing with a fiddler is listening to the fiddler without listening to one’s own banjo. The next hardest thing is to figure out what to play on the banjo so that one isn’t getting ahead of the fiddler, which to him meant – as he put it – playing so that the banjo music is putting its hand at the small of the fiddler’s back and gently nudging things forward. He called it “playing under the fiddler,” and of course his percussive playing serves precisely that purpose. I’ve tried to approach playing with a fiddler with all that in mind. I still find it hard to stop listening to what I’m playing and focus on the fiddler. And, of course, most fiddlers don’t want the banjo guy’s knees crowding them so I’ve had to regroup on that.
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