Interview with Duncan Gardiner of Fiddlesticks – Part 3

Today’s post is the third and final instalment of my interview with the wonderful Duncan Gardiner of Fiddlesticks.

If you missed the first two parts, check them out here:

In this final instalment Duncan provides insight into the musical development process with Fiddlesticks, and shares his top tips for budding guitars and composers.


So once you’ve been around all of the schools in Australia, and all of the kids between Kindy and Year 8 have heard everything, is there a plan to develop a new show or anything like that?

Look I’m not sure. I definitely think there could be scope for that, but if not I could see myself doing something with a guitar quartet. There could be something really rich happening there. So I have ideas of doing the complete history of Western music in 60 minutes. There’d be someone playing bass guitar, someone playing classical, some doing a steel string, or an electric, someone doing some other little plucked string like a mandolin or a requinto or a banjo or something and doing a show like that.

I’m sure things like that have been done, but kids seems to identify with a certain performer. There’s always like a typical cello girl – that sounds so terrible. But there always seems to be a certain type of young girl who always sees themselves as or just dreams of playing the cello. It seems be the same type of girl every time as well.

Certain kids just respond to different instruments. There are some kids that just want to rock out on the guitar and really associate with the electric guitar, some respond to the classical guitar. So I can see, if not a new show with Fiddlesticks, more in the future.

Have you been writing any more material for Fiddlesticks?

Yeah, so often on the tours we have an evening concert for the public to come along. So we’re constantly developing that repertoire, just to really find the best mix of music. There is not a lot of original music for our trio, so I do a lot of arrangements. We might find arrangements online, but the chords might have been simplified or the harmony simplified so I find it’s best if I just arrange it myself, that way I usually totally happy with the outcome.

I’ve been arranging a lot of pieces as well, and a lot of pieces that were originally for guitar and cello and adding a part of violin. Or pieces that were written originally for guitar and violin and adding a cello part. And I’ve been adding a lot more of my originals in there too. So I find myself pretty busy!

Do you give any top tips to any of the kids in the audience about learning the guitar or any other instrument?

We tell them that it’s important to find a good teacher and to practice regularly. Those sorts of things. They don’t generally ask for advice on how to play the instruments, some of them don’t even have music classes at school.

We tell them it’s never too late to start. We tell tem Rachel started to play the violin when she was three, and all the kids gasp. Some of them might think well why bother I’m in Year 12 now. Well we tell them they can start anytime. And we tell them we have students that are adults too.

For the benefits of the blog readers, do you have any top tips for budding guitarists?

If they’re already learning there’s that old expression practice makes perfect – I would say that’s incorrect. Practice makes permanent because how you practice all the time is how you play all the time. If your practice is full of mistakes, your playing will always have mistakes. So practice the right way, instilling good habits into your playing.

I think people tend to think that you have make your playing and your sound like someone else’s. In this day of YouTube and iTunes and Spotify and whatever it is that people are listening to music through they go to these sites, and perhaps base their interpretation on someone else’s. I think, especially if they’re doing music for fun, people should really just try to be imaginative with their interpretations. Have fun with it!

All these other guitarists already exist, who are you? There’s already a Karin Schaupp. We don’t need another Slava, because we already have him. Who are you and what is your interpretation?

And what about folks that are just making their first forays into composing for the guitar – any top tips there?

A lot of the time I have composed music, or have discovered a composition, through improvising. I think that’s such an organic way or writing. Starting improvising, just play random chords that aren’t really even chords and see if you like the sound and move from there.

Another way is to think of the tonal or timbral effects of the guitar, the wonderful percussive sounds of the guitar. Obviously the guitar is so colourful, even if you’ve already written a piece think about the extremities of super tasto and ponti and the different sounds….The guitar is just so varied.

I think it’s great if we can include more of the guitar family, like bass guitar, maybe double the bass. I’d love to see soprano guitars in every guitar ensemble. You could do something with that. You could write to explore the different registers the different guitars have. And capos make anything sound sparkly and nice!

And another one – often you come across pieces of music that were written by a non-guitarist, which feels just so awkward to play. Try you ideas on the guitar and see if they enhance the natural sound of the guitar. If it has chords that are just so difficult to play and sound tonal dead or dull then it’s not going to sound that great. You want something that will enhance the sound of the guitar, something that resonates with the guitar.


Interview with Duncan Gardiner of Fiddlesticks – Coming to a School Near You! (If you’re in Melbourne…..) – Part 2

Here’s the second part of my interview with the fabulous Duncan Gardiner of Fiddlesticks, touring Melbourne and Victoria this month.

If you missed it make sure you check out Part one. And be sure to check back in the next couple of weeks for the third and final part.

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So you wrote quite a bit of music then specifically for the shows – how was coming to writing that music, with that particular audience in mind, particularly with some of the other stuff you write?

It was tricky. Part of the process was trying to find music which was originally composed for violin, guitar and cello. There’s very little. A lot of arrangements, but not that much original music.

And then the music also had to have some kind of educational value and musical interest, so it had to be engaging for kids. That’s why we arranged pieces like the Grieg and the Khachaturian, also we do a tango La Cumparsita, the famous tango. For the rest of it we thought, well I’ve already composed this piece called Brandy Snap, for guitar and violin, I could add a cello part.

And then I had already just composed a simple little round, which uses sol-far, do-re-mi, and I thought that would actually really, really work. So I just adapted it for our project. It kind of fell together.

And then there’s a piece by Paganini, which is the only classical work composed specifically for our trio. And it just sort of seems to come together and you make it work. It’s a minuet and trio so we talk about the costumes they would have worn, and the dance steps they might have done.

What have been some of the highlights been in the shows you’ve done already?

Oh gosh, I think there have been so many moments you know. Just the sheer joy of watching the kids enjoying the music. I mean I’ve had so many kids run up to me after concert and just say “classical guitar is so cool”. You would never hear there – half of my students want to learn electric guitar, because the classical guitar isn’t cool enough. But to have kids in remote communities, in remote mining towns where there’s basically no live music to listen to and we rock up in our van in the dust and the heat, to have the kids say classical guitar is so cool is like a big achievement.

But we’ve also had some schools where they haven’t really had instrumental music and they’ve been really, really excited to learn the new instruments. We told Musica Viva and they actually sent those schools maybe 10 violins.

So now this remote school, in a little mining town, 10 kids have got the opportunity to learn the violin themselves.

One time we were in Broome in this remote school, called La Grange, one of the first remote schools in WA, all Indigenous kids, they actually came, they drove an hour and a half to perform a piece at our concert. But there’s so much shame apparently in performing – it’s just part of their culture where they feel somehow a great deal of shame in being onstage. It’s a lot of pressure to perform perfectly, otherwise they get laughed at.

So at the last minute they decided they didn’t want to perform, it was just too much pressure. So we said what if Fiddlesticks were to perform with you, and so we ad a little practice, we had to learn the song having never heard it before in about five minutes. We tuned up their guitars, which were about a tone flat, up to concert pitch. And we actually managed to do it.

I was so proud of these kids. They were all teenagers, so kind of had their own unique problems, as well as their own stigma and shame for some reason from performing in front of a crowd. And we did this performance, and it was just so special. And then Musica Viva gave them a handcrafted guitar. Moments like that are just so special, you just don’t get to do that in normal concert making.

And you forget how many kids get to see you. Hopefully the legacy remains with the kids and they know that music making can be wonderful and enjoyable and fulfilling. That’s our aim – it’s not to make virtuosos, it’s really just to share our love of music, and show other people that music is to be enjoyed.

So how long have you guys been performing together as Fiddlesticks?

This is our 5th year. We had a year of the process of leading up with auditions, and having to develop up the show. We had workshops with the likes of Richard Gill, and all of the people from the Musica Viva offices came to WA to help us develop the show. We had to record the pieces that we perform, both audio and video, and it goes onto this thumb drive which is kit we developed with all of these activities that teachers can use. It’s basically a semester’s worth of classroom materials that they get when they book the group. So it’s not just these guys rock up and give a concert, they have an opportunity to actually use these resources on this thumb drive.

So that took about a year, and we’ve now covered a lot of miles and been really interesting.

The two others who are coming over to Melbourne are actually our deputy fill ins. They’ve actually been filling in for two years now! The original Fiddlesticks members had babies and they can’t tour, so they do the Perth concerts, but they just can’t be away from the kids.

And you see the trio continuing on?

Yeah! There’s so much for us to do, we’ve been getting more enquiries, and we do some public concerts as well, not just schools. I’m interested actually to consider branching into also taking music into hospitals and to kids hospitals.

Seeing as our show is already purposefully designed around children I thought why not. It’s all about taking music to the places where people can’t normally access music. Just redesign the show a little bit. I think it would also be very rewarding for us and vital thing for kids.

And also perhaps aged care – again so different, and also so rewarding, knowing that it’s having some effect on the audience. For me, the music can be a form of therapy. For me to be able to share my joy of the music too.

How did you guys come up with the name Fiddlesticks?

Well, I think it’s just a fun word. And because we perform for schools we wanted something fun. Obviously a violin can be called a fiddle if it’s playing folk music and as do play some folk music. And a lot of the kids call the bow a stick – so Fiddlesticks just seemed to have a good ring to it.

When we do some public concerts I sometimes feel a bit silly calling it Fiddlesticks, but I think it has a nice, fun sound to it.

Doing the show, having done it countless times, how do you keep things fresh?

Well, normally after each show we find ourselves debriefing a little bit and we’re always updating. We wrote a script that we wanted to learn like it was almost a theatre show, and then we discovered that the questions we were asking weren’t getting the responses we wanted. So we wanted to then shape the questions that we’d get the right answer.

Every year we redo the script, and for Hong Kong we had it then translated, and we had to make the script so to the point that the translator didn’t get stuck. And so we rejgg the script all the time. Sometimes we change the order of the pieces in the show, so we’re not just going through the motions.

Because we all know the music from memory by name, if I’m not speaking or doing anything you can just look out into the audience and really listen to the responses from the kids, and really enjoy it so much.

I also remember that each of the kids is hearing the music for the first time so it has to be fresh for them. It doesn’t matter if we’re onto our 100th show, or whatever, it has to be fresh, vibrant and alive. So I just always remember that.