Rayna Gellert is a breath of fresh air. She can't remember a time when fiddle music was not the sound track to her life. Like her dad Dan, she follows her instincts completely and has developed a style that is distinctive and beautiful. She has been busy since she released her CD Ways of the World in 1999. She has played and collaborated with old time musician Frank Lee, eclectic fiddle master Darol Anger, taught at various folk music-related camps such as The Swannanoa Gathering and the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, and accompanied folk dance/foot percussion great Ira Bernstein. Rayna's old time fiddling is bouncy and heavily syncopated. Her left hand is nimble and precise, allowing her to ornament her tunes in very interesting ways. The fiddle tunes she chooses to play have helped to define her musical personality. She is currently working on some recording projects. I talked to her at her home in Asheville, North Carolina.
Describe your first contact with the violin. What got you most interested in playing? How old were you?
My first contact with the violin was just being around it when I was a little kid. My oldest brother Joe for awhile played fiddle. He had a smaller size fiddle and I remember at a really young age being fascinated by Dan's fiddle -- the smell of the fiddle case and he had a fiddle that had a rattlesnake rattle in it and I would pick up the fiddle and shake it around.
...[This was] in Elkhart, Indiana. And there's an orchestra and a band, and in fourth grade they come and show all the kids all the instruments and you would pick which one you wanted to play. It was a given that I was going to play something. I had a cousin who was playing clarinet and I thought that I was probably going to play clarinet but then I decided that I was going to play violin because I thought I was probably going to be playing fiddle some day. So it seemed to make sense for me to start playing violin.
Did your dad ask if you were interested in learning to play fiddle?
Yeah. I remember after I'd started playing we talked a lot about it. I went through these little phases where I would ask him to show me something or I would try to learn a fiddle tune or something, but I never latched on to it until I got away from home.
What was your impression of classical music? Did you have an opinion about it or was it something you felt you needed to do to play the instrument? Did you like the pieces of music and carry them in your head?
Oh, yeah. I got really into it. I remember the first time I ever got a musical buzz. It was when I was in middle school in the little school orchestra. It was the first time I played with a full orchestra with percussion and horns. And it was like, whew, I loved it. I totally got high off of it. But, you know it was just middle school orchestra -- it wasn't any big deal.
But all those instruments together.
Yeah, the bigness of the sound was just a real rush. I definitely got a buzz off of that. That was really memorable -- the first time I realized you could get a buzz off of playing music. I really loved playing in an orchestra. And sometimes we did quartets or smaller ensembles and stuff like that for regional contests. I like that stuff, too. I like chamber music. I hated playing solo. It was absolutely a nightmare for me. I was a wreck if I ever had to play by myself in front of just about anyone. It was major trauma. Even in chamber groups it was really hard for me. Playing in orchestra was fine, though. Any kind of solo performance was really stressful, but I liked playing and I didn't like the competition at all.
So you're a teenager now and you're taking private lessons. But you're going home and you're hearing Dad play old time music with friends and stuff.
Oh, yeah, when the Dan and Brad tape came out [A Moment In Time -- Dan Gellert and Brad Leftwich], I loved that -- I love it still, but at the time it came out it was all I was listening to. My violin lessons were in Michigan. It was about a forty-five-minute drive from my house and all the way there and all the way back I would listen to the Dan and Brad tape over and over and over again.
So let's move ahead to when you decided that you were going to play old time music. Was there a defining moment when you said, "I'm doing it my own way but I can do this"?
I don't know if there was a defining moment. Just somewhere along the way I just got more and more disenchanted with the classical [stuff]. I didn't want to be a part of that scene. It wasn't an appealing scene It was competitive. It was uptight.
Did you ever think of quitting? Just blowing off the fiddle completely and just doing something else?
Yeah. But I knew I was moving here... So what happened was, I graduated, I played at my high school graduation with the orchestra. That was the last time. That was it. And I put the instrument down for the next few months until I moved here. And when I moved down, I think it was literally the first thing that I did when I got into my dorm room -- I put on a tape and started learning tunes I was like, "All right. It's time. Here we go." I was raring to go at that point.
Coming from this classical background, it seems like there are just so many things to change about your playing in order to get the sounds and the feel that you want from the music. Can you elaborate a little bit on what you felt you had to do differently?
Everything. I felt like I had to do everything differently. I mean, the last thing I wanted to do was sound like a classical musician trying to play old time music.
You knew that in your head, that you had to get rid of that sound.
Yeah, because I mean I've heard that sound so many times and I knew I had a really big leap to make. But I think that's a really lucky thing, just that I had that core understanding of how far I had to go. I just knew that and I set out knowing that. "I have a really long ways to go. Here we go." I changed my bow hold. I started choking up on the bow. I experimented with all these different bow holds because I wanted to find something that made sense for me as far as trying to reproduce the sounds I was trying to reproduce. Certain things felt more comfortable...
So let's talk about the different tuning. Is that something you got into right away? Tuning your fiddle differently?
[Laughter] Did I tell you this story before?
No. Did you try to learn tunes without tuning your fiddle?
Yes See, I made all these tapes at Clifftop that year. It was '94. Cause I knew that I was on a mission. I was going to start learning these tunes when I moved to school. So I was walking around Clifftop that year just taping all these sessions. So then I get to my dorm room and I start trying to learn tunes off these tapes. I would be playing all the right notes. I knew, because I could sing the tune in my head and I could play it on the fiddle. And it sounded so wrong. After a couple months of playing I sent Dan a coming-out letter saying [I was playing old time fiddle] So after we sort of broke the ice, then I could talk to him some about questions I had. And I can't remember whether I asked him directly, "Are there different tunings?" or what it was that I said. My memory of it is that I was just totally clueless and I was really excited about all these A tunes because it was a really cool sound. And I didn't understand that those were in a different tuning. And so he explained to me about cross A. And suddenly all the lights came on. You know, I'd been trying to play something like "Jeff Sturgeon" in standard tuning and thinking, "Why doesn't this sound right?"
[For the full text of this article, purchase the Summer 2003 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Adam Tanner lives in North Carolina, where he plays old time southern fiddle and bluegrass mandolin.]