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August 27, 2017

An account of a novel experience by Erik Johnson-Scherger, Canadian Violinist and Member of the “Musical Practice Community with Jennifer Roig-Francoli” on Facebook. Erik is a first year graduate student at the University of Ottawa.

Alexander Technique violinIn a comments thread from a few posts back, Jennifer Roig-Francoli asked me to share my experience of playing a rodeo this past weekend, so here goes! I’ve been gigging occasionally with a country band for the past year, and this weekend was our second time playing the annual Grand River Rodeo, which is a (rather small I think?) rodeo that takes place in the countryside in southern Ontario, in Canada.

The rodeo was staged in a field next to the local water tower, and there were dozens upon dozens of vehicles – both cars and horse/cattle trailers – parked around the fenced-off rodeo ground. There were many competitors and animals about, and lots of denim and cowboy hats! I had the chance to watch a bit of bull riding before our set began, which was a fascinating spectacle.

Our stage consisted of several plywood sheets laid unevenly across the damp earth, and we had a large canopy and back and side walls of canvas to protect us from the occasional drizzle. The end of the stage was just a few feet from the nearest picnic bench of the outdoor bar (which was very picturesque, featuring home-built saloon stylings and poker chips as drink tokens).

The size of the crowd in the bar area fluctuated as different events came and went in the nearby corral, but the volume of the musicians was quite loud the entire time, to help project to other areas of the rodeo where the speakers weren’t pointed, perhaps.

My band consisted of a two piece this year – myself and the singer/guitarist, Nick. Last year there had been the budget for the full four piece with bass and drums, but this year they perhaps sprang for a more expensive main act.

Nick plays mostly older, “outlaw country” songs, and for two hours I backed him up with rhythmic double stops while he sang and played call-and-response style melodic fills where there was space in his phrases. I improvised one or two choruses each song and occasionally would take the melody. Most of the material I played came from the blues and dominant pentatonic scales, but I managed to squeeze the occasional diminished and whole tone lick in!

After the performance came a few drunkenly enthusiastic congratulations from bar patrons, a handful of bills, and a burrito from a local food truck.

This gig was also my first time performing on a solid-bodied electric violin, which presented an exciting learning curve.

The solid-body prevents feedback, but the absence of an actual sound technician, the way the previous band had left the PA system set up, and my own inexperience posed some challenges in setting the right monitor mix so I could hear myself. I also found the electric violin – when amplified at concert volume, as opposed to bedroom volume – much more responsive to nuances of bowing and extraneous noise from bow retakes etc., which made me play more carefully.

Despite those challenges, there was an intoxicating feeling of power that came from hearing how loud I was during soundcheck, and I’m really looking forward to practicing more with it and getting a better idea of how to fine tune its sound in concert.

In summary, it was an experience very distant from any of the classical performing and even most of the non-classical performing I’ve done, and a really exciting opportunity to spend time immersed in a culture foreign to me. Plus, it constitutes one of the few times when I can get paid to wear denim on denim (we call it a “Canadian tuxedo” ?)!

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