Thursday, June 1, 2017

Bill Thurman - brilliant musician, instructor and cancer survivor

Every once in a while, in the process of researching a particular era for your next historical novel, you stumble across a literary or musical gem that introduces you to a new realm of beauty. Sometimes it's a familiar tune with a new twist. This is how I came across Bill Thurman's music. Bill is multi instrument musician. His repertoire spans broad classical and folk selection. He was kind enough to open up about his career as performer and teacher, his inspiration and collaboration with other artists. Bill is also a sarcoma survivor. He is very candid about overcoming this challenge. The title of his last album is "Nothin' but Fiddle and a Sarcoma Survivor."  Please, check out his music. His CDs make a great gift for those who like early and folk music.

MJN: You were born in Nashville and later moved to Memphis. It is a well known fact that folk and country music are very prominent in the South. Do you feel that your renditions of European classics have been influenced by the Southern flavor?

BT: To me, regional differences in musical dialectics are really similar to the differences in language dialects. I grew up with the blues, jazz, Elvis and old "country" as well as classical music like Bach, Mozart, etc. In my teens I continued to hear more music from around the world like Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky as well as Jewish and Arabic music. Much of that was because I played violin and viola in orchestras. I was also a member of the Memphis Symphony for years. In my heart I have always been a musical internationalist, even though I have loved all kinds of stuff called "American music." Like one of my old teachers stated, "If it's good music, I want to play it no matter where it comes from."

My voice and my playing and phrasing definitely has a "southern accent" about it. It's the culture that I grew up in. I would say that is probably true for most people, wherever they have come from. I am pretty good though about imitating other dialects and accents from different cultures or countries. It's my musical "ear." In some of the songs and instrumentals I have played, I have done several different accents within the same piece of music.

MJN: You teach fiddle and violin. What are some of the most popular requests from your students? Are there any skills and/or "touches" they are trying to cultivate?

BT: Most of the students I have received simply wanted to learn to be a "fiddler" or possibly a "violinist." The sad truth is that most of them did not have the time or the patience or the basic "drive" to listen, learn and WORK/play at it. Being a good or great musician takes a combination of things, not just one or two. A lot of them wanted to sound like one of their musical Heroes. But I often said, "you've got to make Mary Had A Little Lamb or Twinkle Little Star sound GOOD before you can hope to sound like one of your heroes.

If they wanted to hear some good country fiddlin' I would play them some of it. If they wanted to hear some good jazz or blues I would play them some. But still they MUST practice and take the time and trouble. If they don't do that, they can't get better. I also tried to teach them all how to read musical notation as well as possible, and to appreciate the difference between "reading" the music and "hearing" the music. My students who had already had some training and discipline seemed to do a good bit better when trying to learn new things.

MJN: You have performed some of the most iconic pieces like La Rotta and The Foggy Dew, pieces that will be recognized even by those who are not passionate fans of Renaissance or traditional folk music. So many people don't know what they are missing. What do you think is the most effective way to popularize some of the forgotten masterpieces? How do you take your music and put it in front of the people who did not know it existed?

BT: For music like La Rotta and The Foggy Dew as well as other old seldom heard music, I often will record another new album. My latest one is called, "Nothin But Fiddle And A Sarcoma Survivor." It has a combination of musical styles on it, and some that are rarely heard. Like "Sugar in the Gourd", an old Appalachian fiddle tune. Like Black and White, and old jazz violin tune from Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Also "Glory Be To God", a southern Black Gospel song that I learned at an African American church long ago. When I speak and play in public places I will often play these tunes and songs to people who have never heard them before. Most of the people like it when I do that.

MJN: It is no secret that Renaissance Fairs are filled with anachronisms and people seeking escape from daily routines, not necessarily seeking a better understanding of a particular era. At the same time, for many people, it's the only gateway into another century. Have you made any valuable professional / artistic connections at such events with people who truly understood and appreciated early music?

BT: Yes, I have met some wonderful people because of Renaissance Fairs, Celtic Music fests and others. I love Greek music. I have gone to quite a few of the Greek food fests just to hear the great music AND sample the delicious food. Yes, I have made valuable connections with people from ancient music fan clubs as well as modern music circles. I have met good people from all over the world because of my lifetime involvement with music.

MJN: One of my favorite videos on your site is that of you playing La Rotta and Kristy Barrington performing the interpretive dance. La Rotta, an Italian piece, is said to be written by a Hungarian composer. So many Medieval and Renaissance pieces are marked as "Anonymous". Did composers strive or anonymity, or were those folk tunes truly a product of collective creative process?

BT: I believe that most of these ancient folk music tunes whether they come from Russia, Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, Italy or England and Germany were born from one group or one individual at a CERTAIN point and then just played and spread around to different parts of the original areas and some even farther to other countries. Most of these people could not read, but often had a keen ear for music - true folk musicians in any country. Some would travel and teach their music to others BY EAR. Almost always the music will have all these regional variations, but a good chunk of the Old flavor will often remain. Some are better at that than others. :)

In Spain, North Africa, Central Africa and the Middle East, you know that much of this same idea has to be true. Most musicians for a long time have learned by what they heard, not by what they read on a piece of paper. However I am a firm believer in learning to read!

The "collective creative process" is like The Great Ocean of Life where the little streams and creeks flow into the larger rivers and the rivers flow into the seas and largest lakes and then the oceans of the world. Some in this process have become truly universal. Every country has contributed. To me this is one of the great beauties of music and art. 

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