Wisconsin instructor becomes mentor to young fiddler
PLEASANT PRAIRIE, Wis. (AP) - When Georgia Rae Mussared's violin progress began flagging four years ago, and with it her irrepressible enthusiasm, her mother, Ronilyn "Roni" Mussared, turned to Google and started searching for a private instructor.
Not just any instructor would do. Georgia Rae was particularly interested in honing her fiddling, even more specifically her "old time" fiddling.
That's how the Mussareds, of Richmond, Ill., connected with Shawn Drake and began crossing the border every week into Wisconsin, where Drake works with Georgia Rae, now 14, in his home in Pleasant Prairie.
"We had a teacher, and we got to a point where, well, that's as far as we could go. Where we live, we don't have a lot of violin teachers. She (Georgia Rae) was playing French horn," Roni said. "We looked at a lot of teachers, and we found (Drake) on the Internet. I was looking for someone that wanted her as a protege, and these two hit it off right away."
As she speaks, Roni sits on a couch, watching and listening as Drake works on a piece with Georgia Rae, getting her to count the beats and most effectively bow the notes to generate feeling and passion.
"Before (Drake), I didn't like going to lessons. Now, I can't wait," Georgia Rae, now 14, says, grinning broadly.
A big part of that was Drake inviting her to play violin not just for him as her instructor but together with him as a virtual equal. She was awed when he asked her to take the lead on pieces, on which he then joined her.
Drake, 32, describes his teaching technique as an aggregate gleaned from the best of what he experienced with his instructors over the years. "I just wish more of them played with me, like some classical duet kind of thing," he told the Kenosha News.
He began studying violin in public school as an elementary pupil in the Kenosha Unified School District, while also taking lessons from private instructors. He played in the Tremper High School orchestra and performed with The Golden Strings.
He earned a bachelor's degree in violin performance from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. There he studied with professor Klara Fenyo-Bahcall, who earned renown in Budapest as a classical violinist in Hungary before coming to the U.S. She was the first instructor who joined him while playing.
"It was like she was telling me, 'You're good enough to play with me,'" Drake said, recalling how pumped he felt when it happened. "Her teaching stuck with me," he added. "I appreciate all the people I had earlier. But she was the next level."
In October, Georgia Rae won the 2013 Illinois State Old Time Fiddle Contest held annually in Effingham, Ill. In 2012, she was the runner-up. Each time, she competed in the open division. That is, head-to-head, well, fiddle-to-fiddle, with any and all comers, including seasoned adult performers.
Now, she has her sights set on winning the 2014 National Old Time Fiddlers Contest & Festival, which will be held in June in Weiser, Idaho.
She and two of the five Mussared sisters comprise The Georgia Rae Family Band. Kelly Jo, 17, does lead vocals. Quin, 13, plays mandolin and banjo. Toss in guitar, washboard, spoons and tight vocal harmonies and you have what they call "newgrass," a combination of folk, bluegrass and contemporary songs.
Earnings from performances and recordings help fund Georgia Rae's sessions with Drake.
Without Drake's instruction - and presence -Georgia Rae says she wouldn't have gained the confidence she needed to do so well in Effingham in October or the year before.
"He made me less nervous by being there," said Georgia Rae, who apparently never stops smiling, except when really, really concentrating on getting a tune down, which she seems to do incredibly quickly.
Said Roni: "He made her unafraid to play. He gave her the courage to play."
"Especially improvising," Georgia Rae adds, eyes brightening. "I didn't know how to improvise. I was too scared. I was afraid that people would judge me and say I wasn't good."
"So, we'll learn stuff off the page. Then, we'll do some of this and some of that," Drake said. "Since she plays a lot of these tunes with her mom (accompanying her on rhythm guitar), that's a big help."
Mom's guitar is always close at hand
"I love when she is learning a new tune because then I get to play with her and learn it, too. I have a hard time sitting still," Roni says.
As a performer and instructor, Drake recognized Georgia Rae's fear of improvisation as normal, something he often encounters when technically proficient musicians are asked to set the sheet music aside and explore unmapped spaces within the melodies or beyond the written measures.
Georgia Rae and Roni were exceptions to those who typically seek him out for instruction.
"They came to me immediately wanting to learn alternative styles. I've taught some of that, but I've played a lot of it. Usually, parents bring their kids to me and just want me to prepare them for solo and ensemble competition," Drake said.
Georgia Rae's heart was set on winning state, regional and national old time fiddling contests.
Drake, who never performed in a fiddling competition, saw it as a challenge to expand his own musical repertoire. Delving into fiddle pieces with his protege, he realized how much the music had in common with show tunes and soon appreciated their complexity.
"There's a stigma to fiddle tunes because there's a lot of simple tunes played really rough," Drake said, alluding to field and soldiers' songs that originated the genre. Integrating classical technique into the music enriches the sound, sometimes subtly, other times more dramatically. "Classical teaches you that you have to 'sing' on the instrument. That produces a beautiful tone," Drake says.
To make that happen, he works with Georgia Rae to shed so-called "laziness" in some fiddling techniques. "We're going to get rid of that. Nowadays, there's less of that because there's a lot of fiddle players coming out who were trained classically," Drake said.
He cites "Whistler's Waltz" as a crossover example that merges fiddle and classical styles.
"This is a technique the fiddle world doesn't see very often, but the classical world does - and I think she plays it better than a lot of classical players," Drake says, much to Georgia Rae's surprise and genuine delight.
"There's no reason for all these boundaries," Drake adds. "If you immediately teach kids how to go from style to style, they're going to be a lot more enriched."