String ensembles from novice to pro
Erika Ludwig’s Berkshire Strings covers all things fiddle: group and private lessons, summer camp for kids, adult summer workshops, and year-round jams.
Photo by Matt Petricone
Stage lights shine, music stands are arranged, a dozen violinists take the stage. At a nod from the leader, sounds from Ireland to Quebec to Dixie fill the room. Slow fiddle tunes, fast fiddle tunes, majors and minors, all seem familiar, as is this Berkshire setting: a farmers’ market featuring music from the community.
Aside from Erika Ludwig, leader of the ensemble, none of the performers have been playing for more than three years. Indeed, a few bowed their first squeaky notes a mere three months ago.
The Fiddling Femmes are part of Berkshire Strings, a North Egremont program that includes group fiddle lessons for women, a summer music camp for kids, adult summer workshops, year-round jams for all, and the occasional opportunity to perform. The program revolves around fiddle music, an idiom that Erika describes as more accessible and less intimidating than classical music. “Fiddle tunes are traditionally taught by ear,” she explains. “They are passed on, generation to generation. For people who struggle with note reading, learning by ear is an intimate, immediate process.”
It’s a far cry from Erika’s own music education: formal viola lessons and parents who were Eastman graduates. “My first musical exposure was in utero,” she says. “My mother played cello in a symphony orchestra up until a month before I was born. I got rock-and-roll from Dad, concertos and quartets from Mom.”
Erika’s mother, Sigrid Mitchell, teaches music at Great Barrington’s Rudolf Steiner School. Her father is Bob Ludwig, the Maine-based mastering engineer who has won ten Grammy Awards and has worked with everyone from Beyoncé to Paul McCartney to Madonna to Beck. Completing the family business, Erika’s sister, Alexandra Ludwig, teaches music at Springfield College and directs the Pioneer Valley’s Flux Ensemble.
Erika began her teaching career at the Steiner School. A divorce led her to reimagine her goals via what she calls the “Berkshire Quilt”—the patchwork of part-time jobs, teaching, and gigging that is familiar to so many creatives in the Berkshires. In 2012, she placed a classified ad: “Gentlemen: give the lady in your life the unique gift of music lessons.” Twelve responses later, Fiddling Femmes was born.
Why a women’s group? “All along my desire has been to create a musical community,” Erika says. “My experience has been that having women at the heart of a community will make it a strong one. Learning something new is always intimidating in a group, and people can be especially self-conscious in a coed environment. For adults to learn something this complex, you need few distractions.” As it turned out, inquiries from prospective students have been mostly from women.
The class dynamics support what would otherwise be a lonely endeavor, which may be why so many of Erika’s students have stuck with an instrument that has a notorious reputation for a high pain-to-progress ratio.
“Students have to be willing to be very poor players for a considerable length of time,” Erika says. “Even those who take to it quickly or have other musical experience, the coordination of left and right, visual and audio, takes longer than most expect. So you have to be encouraging while setting realistic expectations.”
The group itself provides some of that encouragement. Beginners help create more satisfying music than what they can play on their own. At one particular jam, Erika assigned parts to various players. New fiddlers got a few “play along” notes that they could safely manage; advanced players were given the trickier parts.
Erika’s commitment to the group process stems from her own experience attending the Maine Fiddle Camp. “It was very powerful to see whole families and players of all sorts of diverse ages and instruments all playing together,” she says. “I wanted to create that kind of community.”
So she did. Berkshire Summer Strings combines a children’s multi-instrument day camp with evening adult workshops and community jams. Sometimes everyone plays together. “We don’t have to separate musicians into ‘adult’ musicians or ‘kid’ musicians,” Erika says. “They are all musicians, and any musician can teach any other—which is a very powerful experience for kids.”
Erika didn’t stop with the summer community jams. “I’d had so much fun, I wanted to continue it and support the interest, among both kids and adults, throughout the year.” So she started monthly community jams. Most of the players come from Erika’s orbit of Fiddling Femmes, Summer Strings participants, and private students, but she welcomes anyone with an acoustic instrument and knowledge of a few standard fiddle tunes.
At a recent session, students took turns choosing songs. For each, Erika gave a few words of direction, then raised her bow to signal the start. A bystander, this writer, put down her notebook and did what seemed natural: There was a piano in the room, and she slid onto the bench to play along.
››Berkshire Strings Programs
For Berkshire Summer Strings, children must have at least one year of instrumental study. Violin, viola, cello, mandolin, guitar. Community jams are open to acoustic-string players. $10 suggested donation. Contact Erika Ludwig for evaluation to sit in.
››Berkshire Community College
BCC has a variety of classes—songwriting, guitar, and ukulele—for adult musicians at its Pittsfield and South County locations. Check out the mixed-instrument jam class at South County.
››Berkshire Ukulele Band
Free weekly introductory ukulele classes and ensemble playing at Berkshire South Regional Community Center in Great Barrington. Class ensembles have performed at various community events.
››Berkshire Music School’s long-running Adult Cabaret Class in Pittsfield helps you bring out your inner nightclub singer. The school also offers several adult-ensemble opportunities.