Crossing the Gap from Classical Music to Bluegrass

Editor’s note: Bette Roth, Principal Harpist, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Emeritus, attended her first Wernick Method camp in 2022 when she attended Pete Wernick’s MerleFest Bluegrass camp in Boomer, NC. Bette participated in the camp’s Open Mic night by reading the following story.

Bette Roth

This morning when Pete included Storytelling for the Open Mic, I felt the urge to share some thoughts. All my life I was trained and then had a career as a classical musician. This involved many hours of scales and etudes, repetitions, and drills, first on piano, then 4 years of violin until I was introduced to the harp. This seemed to be a combination of both instruments – the harp music like piano, the strings like violin. So at age 13, I began studying the harp. Graduated from Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Then spent a year in Europe for further study on a Fulbright Grant. I married a violinist and together we played in the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. We both retired in 2011 after playing 40 years there. My husband died in 2019 of ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

Bette Roth and Betsey Sesler

I had lived for 50 years with the sound of the violin throughout our home. 14 months ago, I decided to take his violin and turn it into a fiddle. I was influenced and encouraged by my harpist turned banjo friend, Betsey Sesler. She is the reason I am here tonight.

Her [Betsey’s] husband, Dick Sesler, founded 14 years ago a camp called Camp Blue Skies. This was a very special camp for adults with developmental disabilities. It is held here at Camp Harrison every fall for two weeks. 10 years ago my husband and I were asked to come and give a performance of violin and harp music. We ended our performance playing “Turkey in the Straw” with the enthusiastic campers clapping and stomping their feet. It is a memory I will always cherish.

Here are a few things that most surprised [me] by this new world of bluegrass. My past experience in the classical world was filled with tremendous pressure. We would practice our music for hours, go to a rehearsal and were expected to play our parts perfectly. We were told every musical decision by our conductor. We often double-checked to be sure we had all our music, because we were useless without it. I once drove an hour round trip to go home and [retrieve] the music I had forgotten at home. 

Bette Roth (center, with fiddle) and her jam group for the day at Pete Wernick’s MerleFest Bluegrass Camp in 2023

We were never told that the object of our music-making was to have fun with it. As a result, when I was introduced to bluegrass, the first thing I noticed was that no one even had music. In fact, it was frowned upon! Imagine my surprise. I had never played without either memorizing exactly what was on the page or reading the music in front of me. For the first time, I had to only use my ears instead of my eyes. 

The next thing I noticed was that you didn’t have to play your part with exactly the same notes at exactly the same place. You could even make up something as you played as long as it resembled the melody and matched the chords. Then I saw that there was a structure where everyone in the group had an equal part of the music and that you sang. I had never sung music in a group before. 

Bette Roth in front of Cabin Stage at MerleFest 2024 while Wernick Method teachers perform for the crowd. Bette and other students took the stage afterward.

The last observation was that these bluegrass people were all very supportive and encouraging, not critical or competing as I was more accustomed to. The environment was relaxed, supportive, and very friendly. You wore regular, comfortable clothes instead of formal wear of all black. The mood was never stressful and I felt a freedom in making music that I had never felt before. I started listening to bluegrass music and realized that the level of playing was just as high as in the classical world. I was amazed at the amount of talent I heard. 

The biggest thing I have learned is that playing bluegrass music is carrying on the history and traditions of the past and at the same time it is meant to be shared, listened to, and played for the sheer enjoyment of just jamming music. It has taught me that playing music can be really Fun!

Editor’s closing remarks: Bette continues to participate in music camps on fiddle. In 2024, she played a solo at MerleFest as part of the Jam Camp’s performance on the Cabin Stage.

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