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Making music What it's like to play fiddle with a bluegrass band

Nearly every musician has probably, at one time or another, harbored secret fantasies of being in a band. Those who are actually lucky enough to be in one know what an incredible experience making and sharing your music with others can be. As a violinist who had only ever played classical music until I was 13 years old, I can't say that I ever imagined that one day I would be in a band. For the past three years, however, I have had the privilege of playing in Sunset Bluegrass Band with the three most talented men I know: Pete Mirando (banjo and vocals), Bill Hedderich (guitar and vocals), and John MacPherson (bass and vocals).

What is bluegrass? It can best be described as the louder, faster, distant cousin of old-time country music. I say, "can best be described" because bluegrass is really more of an experience than just a genre of music. You really have to be in the middle of it to understand, preferably with an instrument in hand.

Before I met the band, I had played classical music for six years. I had always liked the sound of fiddles and finally expressed an interest in learning how to play that way. In the course of my family's search for someone who might help me learn how to fiddle, we heard about Pete and his band and went to see them perform at a Heritage Fiddlers Association meeting, a club devoted to the playing and preservation of bluegrass, folk, and old-time country music, where Sunset is the house band.

Although they were a group before I had ever even considered playing bluegrass and even though when we met I was 13 years old and really had no idea what I was doing, Pete, Bill, and John took me under their wings and shared their music with me. Playing with the band occasionally, evolved into playing with them whenever my schedule permits.

One of the most interesting aspects of bluegrass is that the majority of musicians do not use written music but instead play "by ear" and improvise. Also integral to the bluegrass experience is the jam session. Jamming involves a group of musicians on all acoustic instruments getting together and playing while rotating small solos or "breaks" as we call them. This is one of the most special parts of bluegrass and has given me the opportunity to play with so many wonderful people.

The bluegrass community is a small one and some people may take this as proof that folk music is dying out. When one looks closely, however, they will see that bluegrass is alive and well in Western New York.

The band will play at the Collins Library from 7 to 9 p.m. Jan 19. For more information on Sunset Bluegrass Band, visit /SunsetBand.

Rachel Dobiesz is a junior at Hamburg High School.


Here are a few good CDs for those who are interested in finding out more about bluegrass.

* Tennessee River Authority, "Bluegrass: American Classics": If you want pure, unadulterated bluegrass instrumentals, this is the album to buy. About half of the 17 tracks are bluegrass standards and the rest, while being more obscure, fit in perfectly. Every musician on this CD is fantastic and it only gets better with every listening, as my family found out this summer when it became the soundtrack to our Virginia vacation. Best Tracks: "Man of Constant Sorrow," "Sweet Home Alabama", "Rocky Top", "Orange Blossom Special", "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."

* Nickel Creek, "Reasons Why": This "newgrass" band recently announced that they will be going on hiatus at the end of 2007, hence the release of this album, which includes the very best tracks from their three previous releases, two live performances, and seven music videos. Be forewarned, however, that this is not an album for the bluegrass purist. While Nickel Creek's traditional roots are evident on every song, particularly the two live tracks, they mix in a blend of pop and folk music that will appeal to those with more eclectic tastes. Best Tracks: "When in Rome", "Smoothie Song", "Can't Complain", "I Should've Known," "Better, You Don't Have to Move that Mountain."

* Vassar Clements, "Full Circle": This is a great album for two reasons. Number one, Vassar Clements was one of the greatest fiddlers of all time, if not the greatest. Number two, incredible guest players grace every track. Another interesting thing about the CD is that some of the songs are not bluegrass at all, but are still made to sound very much traditional, such as "White Room", which was originally recorded by the band Cream, and "Yesterday", which is a Beatles song. Best Tracks: "White Room", "I've Just Seen a Face", "Makin' Music Macon Georgia Style."

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