When Grassapelli first came to my attention, I thought of him as an embodiment of The Music Spirit. That overarching Music Spirit is very big. I’m just fiddling. I need to take it down a notch or two.
Grassapelli was, for me, the energy of bluegrass, the melodic beauty of Stephane Grappelli, and the ancient mystery of Kokopelli.
Back at that time when I first started regarding this iconic characterization of the Music Spirit in fiddling, Kokopelli was coming into the broad mainstream pop culture as an emblematic spirit of the ancient South West native culture. He may have been more than just an archaic native American with a flute. His place in our culture had a displacement factor. His story varied, and none of it was ordinary.
I felt that Grassapelli was the spirit of performance that impelled me to take chances in my improv efforts. He was the wind at my back playing bluegrass.
One of my bluegrass partners, Pete Gallagher wrote:
Late at night we sit around the campfire. Dancing in the flames, weaving in the smoke, the Grassapelli spirit lurks. When the time is right, the ancient musician leaps into the mind of Elan Chalford and his fiddle becomes one with the smoke and fire.
Pete Gallagher joins in with raw, driving guitar, while Jack Piccalo’s banjo rings with melody and dance. The thumping of Raiford Starke’s bass lays a rhythmic bottom that pleases Grassapelli so much, he drives Elan deep into that nether word where wild tradition and breathless improvisation meet.
Improv and Discipline
Several years later, an idea entered my mind that I felt was downloaded from Grassapelli. He said I should play 100 tunes, each tune 100 times. This was the first manifestation of the discipline aspect of what he had to inspire in me.
I did follow up with that. It took almost year, taking two or three days each week to put aside for the project. It raised my level of playing. It reminded me of what Erik Hokkanen said, that fiddle tunes are to the bluegrass fiddler what etudes are to the violinist.
There is a discipline side to music improv that you may not catch at first attempt to do it. There are definite building blocks. There are steps you must take, that cannot be skipped. Fiddle tunes were a building block. Copying hot licks from hot fiddle players was another. Knowing music theory for your instrument is one.
The 100 tunes 100 times was not the last discipline hit from Grassapelli. These days, when I teach, an idea for helping a student will suddenly pop into my mind. I try it out and, typically, it works better than I expected. Then, I go and share it with other students. Presto, I have a new teaching tactic.
Grassapelli is a friend for fun as well as a teacher. He said that as an affiliate of the Hohokum tribe he called his unique bowing Hohokum bow. Later, that was shortened to hokum bow. It’s fun to do and, when used at the right moment in a tune, very energizing.
This is the Grassapelli story, in part, so far. His story is still being written in my fiddle playing, learning, and teaching experience.
These pages are for sharing what he has brought to me. Enjoy. Take away what you can use. Subscribe to the newsletter for updates.