ASU alumnus pulls some strings to tie together the worlds of the violin and the fiddle

To you and me, the violin and fiddle are basically the same thing. However in the classical music world, ASU alumnus Taylor Morris is considered a radical for combining the two worlds into his work and creative process.

An Arizona-native, Morris was raised in Mesa before going on to study classical violin at ASU. He fulfilled his boyhood dream of traveling with his childhood idols, Barrage, a renowned violin-performance troupe, to 47 states and 13 countries.

He received his master’s in education from Harvard University, and in addition to performing in genre-bending violin and fiddle duo Tricia & Taylor, he directs a summer camp called StringPlay, plays in a band called The Sound Accord and serves as co-founding director of the Gilbert Town Fiddlers. But amidst this work, Morris is determined to keep his craft enjoyable. 

“I don’t want to take gigs that aren’t enjoyable for me,” he said. “I don’t want music-making to become something I do solely for a paycheck.”

Morris said he applies this philosophy of work to his summer camp, StringPlay, where he educates middle school and high school students in string playing. However, unlike many youth orchestra camps, Morris said he emphasizes on developing internal skills rather than strictly external playing technique. He finds it important to work in groups and have fun. 

“There’s this disconnect because people think anything fun can’t be educational, and I would push back and say that, actually people tend to learn more when they are having fun, because then they are invested in the educational process,” he said. 

As a musician, Morris is an unique entity. As a violinist and a fiddler, Morris bends both genres of music to his liking, taking bits and pieces from each style to create something entirely original. He also said he is determined to break the stereotype many have about fiddlers. 

“There’s this thing, especially about being a fiddler, like the stereotypes of fiddlers that classical musicians have, is that they’re not serious, and they’re not trained, and they’re like old white men sitting on front porches missing teeth and they’re really scratchy and out-of-tune,” Morris said.

Hoping to combine his passions of educating and fiddling, Morris said he serves as the co-founding director for the Gilbert Town Fiddlers, a group of high school student-fiddlers Morris encourages to establish their own creative identity.

“(Gilbert Town Fiddlers) learn music by ear, and we break it down so they learn and understand the chord structures, and how everything works, and how to improvise different sections," he said. "It’s always different because the lineup is always changing, and it allows for a cool and creative process of figuring out the music."

Biology freshman Dani Trussell said she played with the Gilbert Town Fiddlers for three years but now she helps the group book gigs and handles emails and other tasks for the group.

“Working with Taylor was so interesting because he had a very unique way of looking at things,” Trussell said. “Gilbert Town Fiddlers is unique because it’s the only group in the country that teaches kids this way.”

She said she is used to studying classical music but that her work in the Gilbert Town Fiddlers opened her eyes to new methods of music-making. 

“We learned our music by ear, instead from sheet music, which is something you don’t really practice in classical music," Trussell said. "I think (Morris) wanted to give us kids another option, rather than just playing in youth symphonies and thinking classical music is the only way."

Although Trussell chose to study biology, she emphasized Morris’s determination to keep music integral to her life. She said that Morris told his students that they can do anything they want and music can be a full-time job or a hobby. He wanted to make sure they didn't lose sight of that.

“If you’re a music major, (Morris) is somebody who you need to meet … He has so much perception in education through classical and folk music, and he offers such different perspectives,” Trussell said.

Likewise, Annaliese Pickett, a current member of the Gilbert Town Fiddlers, said she would never have pursued music in high school if not for Morris.

“I wasn’t planning on taking orchestra in high school, but Taylor came to teach an improvisation class during lunch, and he taught us how to improvise tunes and such, and I realized I had the potential to be creative and do something that sounded really good,” Pickett said. “So Taylor is the reason I still do music, and now my social life consists of jam sessions and putting together tunes.”

In particular, Morris’ students praise his exceptional interpersonal skills and musical prowess.

“Honestly, Taylor has the best interpersonal skills of anyone I’ve ever met,” Pickett said. 

Although Morris adores the less-traditional music-making fiddling offers, he in no way wants to demean his classical training.

“Something I worry about as an educator and a performer, and as someone who still very much identifies as a classical violinist, is sounding like I don’t value the training I received," he said. "The classical rigor is very important and very valuable, and I think there’s a lot that can be learned from it."

Upon integration of his different skill sets as a classical violinist and a fiddler, Morris said he thinks both are pertinent to his identity as a musician.

“Classical music values a certain set of skills, and folk music values a certain set of skills, and jazz values a certain set of skills, and any type of music making values different things, and for me, I have found value in a lot of different genres of music making and I found it to be rewarding both in my playing and my teaching, and I found it to be rewarding for my students in their playing and their teaching,” he said. 

Related links:

Freshman violinist takes part in Red Violin's Arizona debut

Three ASU violinists to perform at Carnegie Hall


Reach the reporter at ekong2@asu.edu or follow @ErinKong1 on Twitter.

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