Oft overlooked music store finds the heart of musical education
From the street, Fiddlers Anonymous has the look of another music store, but within those doors is something much more special and unique than that. There are indeed instruments for sale, and strings and all the fiddly bits and pieces musicians invariably need, but all of that seems more like an afterthought, a matter of convenience to the folks who come there to play. At the end of the day, it’s playing that is the heart and soul of the place, and the passionate desire to share the gift of playing with anyone looking to learn.
The shop/school and all it represents to the community is the fruit of August and Eric Bruce’s labor, and it all started in a basement. Starting at the tender age of fifteen, August has spent over half her life teaching people to play the fiddle, but in all that time she was again and again dismayed at the number of people who had the desire, but not the means. Lessons cost money. Instruments cost money. Repairs cost money. That meant that for many people, music was simply beyond their grasp. This did not sit well with August, or her husband Eric, a firefighter who also happens to be a pretty fine bass player.
As August puts it, “You look around and see so many things wrong in the world, so many things that need fixing, and there’s so much you just can’t do anything about. One day I realized, this is what I can do.”
She and Eric started hosting “free fiddle lessons” and jam sessions in their basement garage, a tiny one-car affair that at one time managed to hold thirty-five people with pickers and grinners lining the stairs and every other available surface. They also set up at the Lookout Farmers market in Redbank, playing music and bringing along a table of “loaner” fiddles for other people to try, offering on-the-spot basic instruction.
“It was an open invitation, a musical outreach program and Dale and Laurie (of the Farmers Market) were very supportive,” says August, who is always quick to credit the people who helped along the way.
It was clear they were going to need more room to take the project further so they started looking for a storefront, a place with more room for students and teachers, a place with greater accessibility. Limited funds made it a daunting and frustrating task until the grandparents of one of her regular students announced they were retiring and offered their space (the Scooter Shop on Dayton Blvd.) They had a place, now they just needed everything else.
“At first, we didn’t even have enough chairs and little capital, so I spent a lot of time being a magpie, collecting little bits here and there.”
As awareness of August and Eric’s efforts grew, so did the response from the community. Friends, relatives and strangers began donating old, unused instruments. Where repairs were necessary, August had the tools and skill to make them, and soon the couple had an impressive collection of instruments which are always available for anyone to come in to the shop and play or practice for no charge.
In fact, most of what goes on at Fiddlers Anonymous is free of charge. There are fees for private lessons, of course, and small fees for repairs as well as the assortment of instruments and accessories that are for sale, but the idea at the heart of the unique business model is that anyone can come in and learn to play with free lessons from a host of instructors, on instruments the shop provides.
The shop is open seven days a week for private lessons. Free instruments and practice space are available throughout the week as well. Sunday is the day for free fiddle classes starting at 2 p.m., with the “newbie” class, when folks who have no experience can learn the basics including how not to make a fiddle sound like an angry cat.
The beginner’s class starts at 3 p.m., where students get down to the nuts and bolts of playing songs, followed a half hour later by the “Kid’s Music Showcase.” The rules are simple. Children can line up behind the microphone at the front of the room and play one song (or even a few good notes depending on where that particular child is at in the learning process.) Every child who does so is entitled to select one item from the “treasure chest,” a huge steamer trunk packed with toys, trinkets and assorted goodies August has collected.
Feeling hungry? The potluck supper starts at 4 p.m. The Bruces generally provide the main course, whether it be soup, chili, pizzas or even tacos from their friend AJ at Amigos Mexican restaurant down the road, but parents often bring sandwiches, cakes, pies, casseroles, etc. The potluck is an important feature to August who, in keeping with the community building nature of the shop, says, “Everything we do here is about bringing people together, but there is something very powerful and old about breaking bread together.”
After dinner, the intermediate class kicks off at 4:30 p.m., and then at 5 p.m. is the Beginner’s Bluegrass Etiquette class, a bit of instruction about the dos and don’ts of a bluegrass jam session. This may seem puzzling to the uninitiated, but any veteran of more than a few jam sessions of any genre will know all too well the perils of the “jam hog,” the guy who insists on playing longer or louder or any number of other faux pas that spoil the jam for everyone. In a room full of picking musicians there is a thin line between order and chaos and the class helps ensure the former rather than the latter.
Then from 6 to 8 p.m. is the open Bluegrass jam.
August observes that, for a newbie, the afternoon “is a fair picture of the lifecycle of the musician. We start out with folks who’ve never played, progress from beginners to more and more advanced players all way to the open jam at the end of the night. It illustrates in one afternoon where you start, where you finish, and how you get there.”
Monday night is Showcase Night from 7 to 10 p.m. which is essentially an open jam for any and all musicians, but more than that, the music is often accompanied by simultaneous live performances from other artists including potter Loren Howard, water color artist Holly, glass blowers, sketch artists and (once) a welder. A needle felting artist has participated and people crochet and knit. While music may be the focus of the shop, the evening is about creating art of all kinds and artists of all stripes (as well as spectators) are welcome.
Many of Chattanooga’s favorite musicians have stepped up to teach both free and private lessons. Matt Downer instructs old time banjo and fiddle. Owen Saunders teaches advanced bluegrass fiddle (and paints.) William Edmonson, who is a master of several genres, teaches guitar, cello and viola. Jimmy Redden teaches Scruggs style banjo. Joe Kilgore teaches guitar and offers free guitar workshops on Sunday, while Michael Oliver is the resident piano instructor. Jonathan McWilliams of the Chattanooga Symphony and Megan Saunders Band teaches cello and bass and is known during jam sessions to put instruments in the hands of onlookers preoccupied with digital media, bringing them in to the circle.
August shared a quote from Jonathan McWilliams that is actually a spot-on description of what she and her husband have done.
“When you take instrument lessons from an instructor, the instructor needs to be absolutely in love with the instrument and that love becomes contagious.”
The love the Bruce family has for sharing music is real, palpable and contagious and the proof is in the outpouring of support from the individuals and other business owners in the neighborhood. Amigos, the Insyde Outsyde Shop, the Meeting Place, Dub’s Place, White Oak Barbershop and Consistent C have all contributed time, effort, services and support to Fiddlers Anonymous for no other reason than the good it brings to the community.
August and Eric have a policy at the store wherein any local artist or musician can sell their art through the store, whether they attend classes there or not. The walls are adorned with paintings and photos, sculptures and blown glass pieces cover every surface, and there are handmade sweaters and crafts of all kinds so that it looks as much like an art gallery as a music center. The highlight of the small retail section is the broadest selection of CDs by local musicians I’ve ever seen in one place and there’s always room for more.
For all the blood, sweat and tears (and love) invested in the place, it seems the Bruces aren’t terribly concerned about making a huge profit, just so long as the doors stay open. And as long as the doors stay open, there will be a local place where people can go and learn to play music regardless of their economic status, and that makes Fiddlers Anonymous one of Chattanooga’s hidden treasures.