The Dwight Diller Enculturation Process

I don´t know why a person born in Brooklyn of Italian descent and raised listening to Italian music, opera and orchestral music would have an irrepressible attraction to music of the Southern Mountains. Although I was coerced into taking classical violin lessons for 7 years as a child, I never wanted to play the violin: I wanted to fiddle! I slowly learned that the deepest core of me was attracted to a relatively specific “old-timey” music; the music of “the old people” of the mountains of West Virginia. How does one learn to release that energy and fire which the music stirs in the soul, forces the foot to tap and makes the heart ache and breathe life into an instrument?

Dwight Diller.

Dwight teaches much, much more valuable lessons than merely how to finger notes or strum a string. He imbues his students with the life of the music. The music is fragile, as are so many other ecosystems. It is an expression of feelings and life in the mountains, it must be learned in the context of the sights, sounds and lives of the people that played it. And can only be understood and played once one has absorbed its cultural environment and learned its dialect. Dwight Diller is the only teacher I know that emphasizes this most important aspect of freeing the music from within to express what are ultimately, universal human emotions.

Dwight also teaches that the musical key to the music is rhythm: not playing fast or playing fancy, but a rock solid rhythm around which the notes dance. It is derived from the body, and not the head.

Understanding the lessons of Dwight Diller takes time and patience. It took me quite a while to realize that scales, bowing and intonation exercises were great for the violin, but killing my fiddle. The music cannot be learned from the printed page. Written notes sterilize it; I´m still trying to breathe life into tunes I have learned from the printed page.

Dwight is an innovative and imaginative teacher, always exploring new ways to communicate what he learned directly from living in the mountain culture and learning his lessons directly from the last generation to grow up and live with the music as an essential part of living. Professional and familial commitments keep me from his instructional camps, I have learned from his instructional tapes, emails and conversations. After a number of misfires with respect to approach, Dwight´s tapes conveyed to me what was really important about learning to play the music and not notes. Although I have all of his instructional tapes and have eagerly viewed them all, after two years, I am only working on my fourth banjo tune. Dwight emphasizes that this slow process is not necessarily a bad thing, but an indication that I am on the right path; many old timers felt that it could take a lifetime to really get it right. A teaching innovation which has given me much energy to continue with the banjo is Dwight playing newly taught tunes on the fiddle so that the video student could play along on the banjo. After much work, I am now starting to FEEL the fire of the music in my hands. Perhaps more revealing is the fact that the banjo lessons which have taken several years to absorb, have become generalized within me, and for the first time, I feel the fiddle music that I play; I can feel the energy in my body shooting down and moving my bowing arm. Do I need to play faster? Do I wish I knew more tunes? Yes, but that comes with practice. The key is that there is feeling in my bowing arm.

The process is a slow and easy one of the heart, body and soul, not the mind. One has to listen and feel, and then feel and listen to the music while understanding the culture which nurtured it. This is what distinguishes “the music” from a series of musical bars played quickly to wow an audience, and why so much traditional music played today is flat; the notes are divorced from their native language. Dwight teaches this language and offers continuous support to even plodding musical learners such as myself. There is now a little of the West Virginia mountains in my NYC home. Thank you Dwight.


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